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Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To Jude Wanniski Re: Privatizing Censorship

Your suggestion that spiritual leaders take the lead in screening the products of the entertainment industry is a brilliant one and really the best approach to removing much of the filth that permeates the entertainment industry today. But did you realize that your idea would have its best application in the Hip-Hop industry and Black community?

Jude, for years when I was in the music industry I wrestled with the fact that I earned a living in an industry that simultaneously promoted some of the most noble and uplifting principles and ideas to be found in humanity, right along with some of the most nasty and degrading. It was rare for me to not find this duality in existence on virtually every Hip-Hop album I purchased.

I would talk to the artists that I worked with or were friends with about this paradox or contradiction in their creative works and would hear a variety of responses. The most common of which was "My lyrics only reflect reality- the negative and the positive". For some artists, this response was genuine but for many others it was a cop-out, designed to shrug-off any responsibility that they may have to their listening audience, consumers and to the communities from which they claimed.

I would often buy my artists different books, audio tapes and videos on subjects of religion, theology and self-improvement and the response from the artists was always good. They would read the material and we would discuss it and on a few occasions some artists would even weave what they read, heard, and saw into their material.

I can remember one particularly touching example of this in December of 1995, when the multi-platinum artist Nas, who I had been friends with, invited me to one of his recording sessions in New York City and in the middle of a recording session told me that he put something in a song for me based upon a series of conversations that we had in 1994 in his home. I can't tell you how rewarding it is to know that your interaction with an artist has inspired them to promote something positive in their creative work.

We were friends and kept in touch for a couple of years in between the release of his first album and the recording of his second. I even remember he and I on the telephone watching the O.J. Simpson car chase, live, in June of 1994. We both sat on the phone in amazement - there was only so much that we could say as we watched what we did as friends and brothers, not as rap star and businessman.

My friendship with Nas during those years allowed me to see the human side of an artist nearing the top of his game. I met him four days after his daughter was born and saw the pride and love in his heart for his daughter, Destiny - a true "daddy's girl". While the world saw him as the hottest young rapper in the world, who could paint a picture of inner-city street life better than any novelist, I was blessed to see him as a loving father and young Black man who was trying to figure out the world just like I was.

He would invite me to his apartment and we would watch recent videotapes of Minister Farrakhan and old, more rare videotapes of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and talk about Islam, Gandhi, the business of Hip-Hop, the latest movies and the way in which Hip-Hop was actually educating a whole generation of youth - Black and otherwise, all over the world. He talked about his dreams and I would talk about mine and the impact that we both hoped to make one day on the condition and upliftment of our people.

I remember one particularly deep conversation where we talked about how emotional it was for us to go see Minister Farrakhan speak to his first all-male audience - over 10,000 men in Harlem, in January of 1994, at the armory. Men stood on line for hours waiting to get into the building as the line stretched from Harlem all the way over the bridge into the Bronx. We both talked about how deep that was and the positive effect that Minister Farrakhan was having on Black men all over the country. In our talks I would stretch his mind in our conversations and he would stretch mine. Men sharpening men, like steel sharpens steel.

What I learned by my friendship with Nas was that artists are not fossils and that they care about the same things that any other person cares about. They also will admit that they don't have all of the answers and that they are looking for guidance, mentors and good friendships in their personal lives just like they are looking for the hottest music producers. And if a person shows that they sincerely care about them, they will admit to them that some of their lyrics need to be cleaned up and that positive lyrics can play a role in the improvement of individuals and in the development of a community.

But the response that Nas and other artists had toward me was far different from the reaction they had to State-led attempts to censor or "clean" up their lyrics. Most artists felt that the government was in no position to chaperone Hip-Hop lyrics and the vast majority of artists that I knew felt that the statist approach to regulating lyrical content was a conspiracy to silence the Hip-Hop community in general and dull the impact and growing influence that some artists were having in the Black community and youth culture across the country. And because of the government's well-publicized efforts to silence Black leaders in the past, many Hip-Hop artists feel that there is no way that the same government could be trusted to regulate rap music.

And that is why I believe your recommendation will have its best application in the world of Hip-Hop, which is creatively- dominated by Black recording artists.

Your recommendation would work mainly for two reasons. First, Hip-Hop artists -- many of whom hold great animosity toward the police, FBI and Justice Department - would ignore and not cooperate with federal regulators and they would fight tooth-and-nail any efforts from their record labels to censor their lyrics. The second reason why I think your idea has its best application in the rap music industry is because Black Hip-Hop artists, more than any other group of entertainers, stay closely connected to the communities in which they grew up and often interact with the same Pastors, Imams and community leaders that knew and taught them when they were young.

Many Hip-Hop artists today have spiritual advisers in their lives as well as childhood friends who have sincerely accepted Christianity, Islam and Israelite teachings and whom they call upon when they have personal problems and need someone to talk to whom they can trust..

While several Black pastors led highly publicized efforts in the early 90s to censor rap music, they were not successful because artists saw the efforts as "fronts" for a larger political and state-led effort to shut down Hip-Hop music. They also rejected the effort because it was done in public instead of privately. In addition, few of the pastors who were complaining about raunchy lyrics had any relationships to the artists that they were criticizing. The artists knew that the pastors had a point but they did not "trust" them because they did not "know" them.

However, I do know of several instances where artists were approached in private by spiritual leaders who knew them personally. In these cases several artists made sincere efforts to clean up their lyrics.

The most successful effort that I have ever seen in this regard was in April of 1997 when several Hip-Hop artists flew and drove to Chicago, at the invitation of Minister Farrakhan in order to discuss the direction of the Hip-Hop industry and the recent murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. A great many of the artists who attended were multi-platinum artists at the top of their profession. They had great material wealth, prestige and popularity yet responded to the call of a spiritual leader.

While they were there the Minister asked them to take a pledge to clean up their lyrics - particularly those that disrespected women and promoted violence among youth. The artists agreed to do so and verbally repeated a pledge promising to do so. It was an emotional meeting with many Hip-Hop artists openly weeping and peacefully settling their differences with one another.

Many admitted that they were scared to take the pledge regarding their lyrical content because they felt that it would affect their persona and record sales, but because they trusted the Minister so much and were shook up by the murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., they sincerely supported his efforts to improve the lyrical content of the industry.

The effort worked well for about a year. I tried to keep track of the rappers who were there and the albums that they released after taking the pledge and noticed a remarkable change in some of the material. However, within a year, virtually all of those who had previously produced music with filth of various sorts had returned to their ways of old.

The reason why the artists backslid, in my opinion, was because, on a local level, the Minister's efforts weren't duplicated. The local ministers, Imams and Pastors where the artists lived and grew up did not apply "tough love" or pressure on artists to keep their pledge. And in all fairness, many of them were unaware of what went down in Chicago and therefore couldn't perform the proper follow-up and offer the support, friendship and guidance that the artists needed. One of the reasons for this was that the media did not spread the word of the monumental event that took place - even the top Hip-Hop magazines did not cover the event or decided not to dedicate space to the event in their publications.

But your suggestion would help to remedy this problem in that it recommends the unity of a legion of spiritual leaders -local and national that would cajole, encourage and put pressure on artists to clean up their products. The idea of having community leaders and religious leaders screening Hip-hop records is one that can easily be accomplished. And what I like most about it is that it protects the artists' right to freedom of speech. If the spiritual and community leaders and representatives screen the music and find that the music promotes abuse of women, drug abuse, violence and other forms of self-destructive behavior, it won't mean that the material won't be available in record stores or that someone will have to appear before Congress and be fined.

It only means that the products won't be endorsed by respected leaders and organizations and that the Black community and Hip-Hop consumers will be encouraged not to purchase the material. It is as simple as that.

The marketplace of Hip-Hop consumers will ultimately determine whether a record goes platinum or not but record labels and more importantly, the artists who create the music will know that interested parties, from within their communities, will be watching their work and expecting and encouraging that such work reflect the best in creativity and have the most positive effect on the minds of society in general, and youth in particular.

And this "legion of decency" that you propose, if instituted properly, wouldn't be a voice of complainers. If a creative work was positive and uplifting or simply avoided promoting self-destructive behaviors it would receive a thumbs-up from the "legion" and a "buy" recommendation that would be enthusiastically spread throughout the Hip-Hop and Black community. The goal should not be to humiliate artists - only to encourage them to clean up some of their work and to reward those who do so with financial support, and withhold the same from artists who continue with business as usual.

To your idea I would only recommend that the legion be stacked with younger Pastors, Imams and Ministers who are closer to the age of the artists whose materials they would be screening. I also recommend that the legion not just sit back and give music reviews and endorsements but that it also partner with artists in their business and charitable efforts. Lastly, I would encourage the "legion of decency' to limit its interaction with media outlets that do not cover or respect Hip-Hop music. The goal, of course, is not to sensationalize the effort.

So Jude, kudos on a great idea and let us encourage spiritual and community leaders to unite and promote a cultural revolution, not out of self-righteousness but out of love and respect for artists, the art form they represent, and the communities that helped to produce them both - the artists and the art form.

If we let the government do this work for us we will all regret it, not just the artists and corporations that distribute their work.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, September 15, 2000

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