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Time Warner feels pressure to censor lyrics

Time Warner feels pressure to censor lyrics — The music giant struggles to find harmony with an anti-gangsta rap coalition

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Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin must have felt a strange sense of deja vu at the company’s May 18 shareholders meeting in New York. Three years after enduring a five-hour free-for-all in which various stock owners assailed the chairman for distributing rapper Ice-T’s notorious ”Cop Killer,” Levin faced another protest about rap albums produced by the company’s Warner Music.

The activists have changed, but the narrow focus of the protest (the Warner Music Group, including Interscope Records and the rap label it distributes, Death Row Records, accounts for 8 percent of the rap market) had not. Inside the gathering at Manhattan’s City Center, Dr. C. DeLores Tucker, president of the National Political Congress of Black Women, a former Pennsylvania secretary of state, and a Time Warner stockholder, read a statement that asked, ”How long will Time Warner continue to be the silent conspirators in the social genocide of an entire generation?” Outside, approximately 20 members of the NPCBW and the Parents Music Resource Center — the organization cofounded by Tipper Gore in 1985 that was responsible for forcing warning labels on albums — distributed obscenity-laced lyrics from artists such as Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur. Meanwhile, former secretary of education William Bennett announced plans to launch a commercial, funded by his family-values advocacy group, Empower America, in which he and Tucker ask parents to ”make [Time Warner] feel the heat.”

The demonstration earned several headlines but sounded familiar to free-speech supporters. ”It’s nothing new,” says Marjorie Heins, director of the ACLU Arts Censorship Project. ”It’s another campaign by a private pressure group trying to silence a form of artistic expression they disagree with.”

Others saw the coordinated effort launched by the NPCBW (which has railed against gangsta rap since 1993), the PMRC, and Empower America as an overdue challenge to the violent and profane lyrics of gangsta rap. The offended triumvirate was brought together by a March column in U.S. News & World Report, in which columnist John Leo quoted Tucker blasting Time Warner (which owns ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) as ”’one of the greatest perpetrators of this cultural garbage.”’ (Leo left TIME magazine in the late 1980s and has been critical of the company ever since.) That prompted a call from noted conservative Bennett, says Leo, who sought to get ”DeLores Tucker, a black woman,” behind his efforts to restore ”virtue” to America.

Fortunately for him, Bennett’s wife sits on the PMRC board. PMRC president Barbara Wyatt knew of Tucker from the 1994 congressional hearings on gangsta rap, during which the NPCBW — a Washington-based group cofounded by Tucker with some 3,000 members nationwide, including former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm — asked for government intervention; Wyatt brought the two parties together.

During the Time Warner corporate meeting, Levin directed Warner Music’s new chairman Michael Fuchs and Warner Music U.S. chairman Doug Morris to lead an industry-wide effort aimed at addressing Tucker’s concerns. Following the public session, Fuchs, Morris, and Time Warner president Richard Parsons met for two hours with Tucker, Bennett, and Wyatt. The confab was hardly congenial. Tucker says she stormed out after 15 minutes because Fuchs and Morris refused to read the ostensibly obscene lyrics she had brought, returning only after Levin, who arrived late, joined the session and placated her.