Responsible censorship strikes a wrong chord


Councilman Carl Stokes was cruising along in his car and channel surfing on the radio when he heard the words of a song by the group Jodeci.

"I had her legs in the air," went the lyrics. The lead singer then described the impact the woman had on a certain part of his anatomy. The phrase can't be repeated here because of that "family newspaper" thing.

Stokes said he was so aghast he thought the music was being transmitted from one of the two newly discovered planets. He heard the raunchy lyrics about 4 p.m. The next day he continued to monitor the station and heard the same song shortly after 2 p.m.

Monday, Stokes introduced a bill in the City Council that would establish a "task force on the cultural endangerment of youth." Stokes, Gawd love him, also put his goals in simpler English.

"My bottom line is to get station owners to sign an agreement to get trashy lyrics off the air," he said. He was joined by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and at least nine other legislators who offered to co-sponsor the bill and expressed their support.

Councilman Lawrence Bell of the 4th District -- soon to be council president -- said he had frequent debates with his younger brother on the negative effects of rap music. He supported Stokes' bill, calling it an "excellent idea."

"(The music) affects the consciousness of young people," Bell claimed. "These kinds of lyrics have a real impact on the people that listen to them. I don't believe in censorship, but I do believe in responsibility."

Ah, but censorship is what we're talking about here, isn't it? And censorship and responsibility are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There can be responsible censorship. My problem with censorship -- responsible or otherwise -- is that once you start it, where do you stop?

There was talk on the council Monday of boycotting sponsors if songs with sexually explicit or violent lyrics continue to be played. My fear is that sponsors -- who probably have no clue as to the differences between Tupac Shakur's "So Many Tears" and the Notorious Big's "Give Me One More Chance" -- would demand that stations pull them both.

In my Oct. 7 column I explained my opposition to banning gangsta rap. My belief is that folks who want to ban gangsta rap probably have never even heard "So Many Tears" or "Give Me One More Chance." They would just as soon ban one as the other, although the songs are light years apart lyrically and philosophically.

"So Many Tears" is Tupac's lament about living the gangsta lifestyle. He delivers a long, plaintive wail about its dangers and evils. He can't escape it. He watches helplessly as it cuts down his homeys and realizes that his time, too, soon will be at hand. It is a superb artistic triumph, gangsta rap at its very best.

"Give Me One More Chance" is the ego trip by a fat, ugly buffoon bragging about his sexual prowess. The world is not improved by its existence. Council members would do well to listen to them both -- as well as other gangsta rap tunes -- before deciding what gets yanked from the airwaves and what does not.

Russ Allen and Roy Sampson -- program directors for 92Q and V-103, Baltimore's two leading hip-hop stations -- could not be reached for comment. But I'll play devil's advocate for a second and explain what my reaction would be, if I were in their shoes, to claims by some council members that the lyrics of contemporary music cause youth to fling young girls' legs in the air or stick up gas stations.

It's hogwash. When I was a lad of 16, the Temptations "Cloud Nine" hit the music charts, soaring to the top. Using the logic of those who want to ban gangsta rap, I should have gone out and shot up on heroin the very second I heard the song. I didn't, of course. I had better sense. I'll give the same benefit of the doubt to today's youngsters -- the failure of the young men to pull their damn pants up notwithstanding.

If gangsta rap were driving youth to licentiousness and crime, we should expect to see such in the overwhelming majority of white suburban teens who are the bulk of the listeners. But we don't, and the reason is gangsta rap doesn't make anyone commit any act he or she wasn't silly enough to commit without listening to it.

On this issue, our City Council means well. President Clarke urged members to support the bill, claiming that by doing so they would be sending a message against gangsta rap's misogynistic lyrics. Again, I urge her and other council members to listen to a more representative sample of gangsta rap. They will hear lyrics against women, but they will hear mainly a theme of fatalism that pervades the music. These young men don't expect to live very long. The tragedy is that many of them won't.

That's why 2nd District councilman Tony Ambridge reminded his colleagues that, in forging ahead with their crusade, they should remember that the music is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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