There are one or two disturbing aspects to the controversy surrounding the ICE-T police boycott of Time Warner that have not been discussed, and I would like to address them here. Although I share the sense of incredulousness that a song such as "Cop Killer" exists, I feel the decision by police departments, usually with the dissent of the minority organizations within their own ranks, is misguided at best, racist at worst.
When one scans the social landscape nowadays, there is no shortage of violence or perverse sexuality. The newspapers, TV, and radio bring us daily, detailed updates of the decay. Music, however, has gotten an unfair stigma as being an "advocate." In many other mediums, a subject can be presented and looked at as just a story, just a sculpture, etc. In music we see a disturbing trend to pigeonhole artists as pushing a way of life, urging others to do as they have done. A heavy metal song about suicide becomes, in the hands of the censorship folks, a call for every teenager to join them in the act. A song with a vivid description of domestic violence becomes a users manual on how to abuse your loved ones.
I will not try to say art does not reverberate through the community, but to single out one piece is deceptively easy and misleading. To go one step further, and elevate a single work to the status of "advocate" is a confusing and dangerous precedent. Why is one work an advocate and the other not? Arnold Schwarzenegger, who parades across the country as our President's Ambassador for Physical Fitness, appears in two "Terminator" movies, each of which portrays dozens of police deaths. Is he then advocating more to do the same? Why is Arnold not pegged as an agitator? How many cops have seen those two movies with their families? Is it different when it comes from a black performer?
To stigmatize artists, particularly recording artists, with these labels is dangerous and wrong. When a rapper writes about violence, sexual perversion, and urban unrest, rarely are they saying, "Come on in, the water's great!" Many of these people have seen violence since they were big enough to look out the window, and some did not need to look outside at all. They are chronicling their life and times just as anyone else does, just in a harsher and, for middle-America, harder to swallow form. One wonders when this energy and sentiment could manifest, if not on vinyl. If these people really believe in doing these things, would they not be out doing them? If this standard of advocacy were applied across the board, would we not all be pursuing unrequited, painful love, since the opera "Carman" instructs us all to do so? Heaven help our parents when we read the Greek tragedies.
Part of the stigma comes from a frustration in the censorship community because music is more accessible than other forms of art. It is easier to write a few songs and play them in public than it is to produce a film. Thus, there will be a broader spectrum of opinions expressed in music. A larger part of this, undeniably, is racist. I never heard any problems about Eric Clapton's version of "I Shot the Sheriff," a song which, not only admits to having committed a crime, it boasts about it. Where was the outcry?
Socially, it seems we expect black America to absorb. Stop and search problems, mortgage scams, Rodney King, glass ceilings, and urban infant mortality rates that match Peru, are all supposed to be washed down with a promotion here, an episode of "Cosby" there. When a raw, violent message slips out of the unrest, and the message makes it to middle America, is the proper response suppression? When people, especially in a young aggressive fashion, talk of the day to day problems we have yet to face, should the reaction be putting a lid on it? Isn't talking about something, or rapping about something, often an attempt to illuminate a situation, before it becomes a crisis? Finally, I would dare say the lives of cops will become easier and safer when it becomes known that they are actively trying to suppress one of the few means of expression open to inner city youth. Music is one of the last vestiges of individuality for alot of kids, one of the few things that is "theirs." Having police connected with music suppression will not cool down any long, hot summer. Also, what values are we teaching our kids when men in suits can steal billions from every taxpayer through the S & L crisis, and we get really tough when someone sings about something that is not to our liking.
The violence of music is alarming. As is the violence of TV, and the violence I see in the city I live. But we should not try to turn down the volume on this expression, just as we should not treat it as a source. That is simply us looking for an easy battle to win, since we do not seem able to conjure the fortitude necessary to address the real sources. The frustration expressed should, if anything, be closely listened to. It is reaching out to us, providing us with glimpses of the under-belly of our nation. Not only is it telling the story of a part of America we have chosen not to face, it is a painful barometer for how quickly we are losing all the talents, potential and resources of a whole generation of inner-city youth. It took the Rodney King tape to teach people what rap has been saying for years. The video, and the extreme pain in some rap, are much the same thing: a snapshot of inequality, lost hope, and bitter national realities. Rap has been talking about Rodney King for a decade, with a different version in every city. It wasn't until it was captured on a living room-friendly tape that the truth finally slipped through. As a society that wishes to properly govern itself, we cannot close our ears, or tell ourselves that suppressing a song is the answer. Sure the music may be less than pleasant, but this is not meant to help us look the other way. "Don't Worry, Be Happy," does not cut it here. Not only do we not want to face the massive social challenges we have in front of us, we do not want to hear of our failure to do so.
Roger A. Fisk is from Boston, where he is active in FREEDOM FESTIVAL, which celebrates the First Amendment and raises money for library defense funds, as well as inner-city scholarship funds. Roger also plays in the band, Duck and Cover which is constantly involved in the community, be it playing in correctional facilities or playing for the Walk for AIDS or the Walk for Hunger. He has also worked as a Senatorial aide for three years and was the coordinator of MTV's "Choose or Lose" campaign in Massachusetts.