Watching the Detectives
On April 19, rapper Wise Intelligent sent out an email which included the following:
"It has always been my position that the black rapper is NOT allowed to address or lend his voice to any issue that confronts the community from which he comes, knowing that if he did, like Don Imus, he would lose his major corporation sponsorship, i.e. his contract!"
The immediate provocation for Wise Intelligent’s statement was a mid-April interview of Young Buck by Angie Martinez on New York’s Hot 97. Buck told Martinez that Interscope had refused to allow him to include the track "Fuck tha Police" on his new Buck the World album. Buck said "they blamed it on the lyric committee, so I researched to see if it was a real lyric committeethe lyric committee is in Interscope’s building."
Although this important story was ignored by the media, it was still the first time in nearly fifteen years that lyric committees had been publicly mentioned by anyone.
By the end of the 1980s, under pressure from Al and Tipper Gore’s PMRC, the police, and the FBI all major labels had set up in-house lyric committees to censor music. "For every song that’s recorded we ask for copies of the lyrics from the artist," Paul Atkinson, former Zombies guitarist and then head of A&R at MCA told the New York Times in 1990. "The recording then gets listened to not only by the A&R department buy by someone in business affairs." At the time, that someone at MCA was lawyer Lawrence Kwensil, who claimed that artists were glad to be censored.
Within just two years, the lyric committees played a direct role in getting the likes of Ice T, Kool G Rap, Body Count, Paris, and Almighty RSO dumped by major labels for criticizing the police in song. Several other rap artists were forced to alter or delete songs about the cops.
As night follows day, hip hop inexorably turned away from socially conscious themes toward bling bling, a process initiated by the major labels and their lyric committees. This trend was reinforced by threats, picket lines, and violence by police at rap shows and against individual rappers.
Now Young Buck has proven what we have always suspected-that the lyric committees have not gone away and that they continue to do their dirty work in secret. Young Buck has also shown the world that the uproar over hip hop lyrics has nothing to do with alleged concerns about women or violence, it’s about the fact "that the black rapper is NOT allowed to address or lend his voice to any issue that confronts the community from which he comes."
Since the music industry has pressured our political representatives in Congress to not only give them unprecedented legal power to target file sharers but also to receive massive tax breaks, don’t we as citizens and taxpayers have the right to know who is on these lyric committees, when they meet, and what actions they take?
In the wake of the May 1 police riot at a Los Angeles immigration march, which is just the most notorious recent example of rampant police abuse, we should all insist that our artists be allowed to tell the truth about violence and who perpetrates it. We should also be prepared to support those artists when the backlash from the police and their friends in the music industry hits the fan.
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