Back when the Rev. Al Sharpton (pictured) agitated for Don Imus to be punished for a long history of racist, misogynist language (of which “nappy-headed hos” was only the most recent), a lot of pundits (and PW commenters) scolded Sharpton for supposedly not applying the same criticism to hip-hop lyrics and the companies that profit from rap. Those scoldings were unjustified; Rev. Al has long been a critic of exactly that facet of the hip-hop industry. Today, that criticism continued with 20 rallies across the country, organized by Sharpton, in which he called for states to divest their pension funds from media conglomerates that release records on which rappers to use words like “n—-r,” “b—h,” “ho,” and now, “nappy.”
Now, I think it’s fair play to use the market against itself to influence media content — remember, what cost Imus his job was not Sharpton’s complaints but massive advertiser pullouts — but I think Rev. Al is going too far in urging state legislatures to get involved. When the government starts playing favorites with content, it starts trampling on the First Amendment.
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Two other cavils: First, Sharpton says, “Every record company haswhat they call a lyrics committee, where they screen lyrics to makesure they’re not against police, or gays, or Jews. Well, how comethey’re clearing lyrics against blacks and women?” Call me naive, but Iwonder: Is this true, that labels have lyrics committees whose task it is to excise slurs against cops, gays, and Jews? Second, Sharpton citesViacom, Vivendi, and (EW parent company) Time Warner as the topcorporate offenders. Um, Al, Time Warner doesn’t own a major label,much less one that releases hip-hop records. Neither does Viacom,though that company’s BET and MTV networks air rap videos. If you’regoing to single out the offenders, make sure you’re picking the rightcompanies.
It’s unfortunate that this sort of factual carelessness, coupledwith his own history of racially inflammatory statements, makes Rev. Ala less than credible spokesperson. Because who else is out there takingconcrete action on this issue? Who has come up with any better ideas onhow hip-hop (and popular music in general) can police itself? And ifso, what are those better ideas?