The state of obscenity in rap
In an unprecedented legal decision, a federal judge in Florida ruled on June 6 that As Nasty as They Wanna Be, the controversial, sexually explicit rap album by the Miami-based 2 Live Crew, violated community obscenity laws. Within days, three members of the band and a local record-store owner had been arrested for their involvement in the performance and sale of the record, which has been bought by nearly 2 million people nationwide — and has jumped 29 places on the Billboard chart since the ruling.
The decision and its effects provoked a new wave of headlines, TV talk shows, and debates about music censorship. Within the past year more than a dozen states introduced record-labeling bills requiring large stickers on any albums containing questionable lyrics, listing such possible offenses as (in the language of a Missouri bill) ”sodomy, incest, bestiality, sadomasochism, adultery” and references to violence, drugs, alcohol, nudity, and Satanism. Then in May the Recording Industry Association of America announced that, starting next month, stickers printed with the words ”Parental Advisory- Explicit Lyrics” would begin appearing nationwide on select albums. Record companies will decide which albums receive a label, and no legal violations will be involved in their sale.
With that announcement, the music censorship movement appeared to lose steam — everywhere but in Florida. There, the 2 Live Crew has been at the center of an antiporn campaign by Gov. Bob Martinez (who called Nasty ”audio pornography”) and Miami attorney Jack Thompson since the release of the album last year. In March, a record-store clerk in Sarasota, Fla., was arrested for selling Nasty to an 11-year-old girl; charges were dropped, but the message to the record business was clear. In response to that incident and other attempts by local police to quell album sales, Luther Campbell (leader of the 2 Live Crew and owner of Luke’s Records, which released Nasty) brought a civil suit against Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro for prohibiting sales of the album by threatening arrest. But on June 6, in a 62-page decision (which began ”This is a case between two ancient enemies: Anything Goes and Enough Already”), U.S. District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez ruled that the album’s lyrics were legally obscene under the 1973 Miller v. California Supreme Court decision.
Gonzalez’s finding of obscenity left the sheriff’s offices in three southeast Florida counties (Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach) free to prosecute in county court. The decision marked the first time a piece of music had been branded obscene by a federal court, and repercussions were immediate. Two days after the decision, Charles Freeman, owner of E.C. Records in Fort Lauderdale, was arrested for selling the album to an undercover cop. On June 10, the 2 Live Crew played at a 300-seat club in Hollywood, Fla. (in Broward County). After songs from Nasty were performed, police arrested Campbell and co-rapper Chris Wongwon; a third Crew member, Mark Ross, voluntarily turned himself in on June 13.
Freeman and the band members were charged with a first-degree misdemeanor for violating state obscenity laws and were freed without bond. If convicted, each faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The 2 Live Crew’s attorney promptly filed an appeal. Adding to the Crew’s problems, Nasty was declared obscene in two South Carolina counties on June 18.
The prosecution of the 2 Live Crew at a time when profanity-laden albums by Guns N’ Roses and Andrew Dice Clay are easily available led to charges of racism. Sheriff Navarro has repeatedly denied the accusations, saying he’s simply carrying out the law, but Campbell isn’t convinced. ”They just singled out my record, produced by a black group with their own independent black company,” Campbell told The New York Times. ”Now if that’s not racism, what is?” Says Robyn Blumner, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which will aid the legal counsel representing the 2 Live Crew and Freeman: ”This is a relatively powerless group. They don’t have the resources and power that CBS might. So they’re an easy target.”
Campbell’s solo album, Banned in the U.S.A., is scheduled to be released July 4, but whether people will be able to buy it is another matter. In the national Tower Records chain, As Nasty as They Wanna Be (which is also available in a PG-rated version, As Clean as They Wanna Be) can be sold only to customers who can prove they are 18 or older. The Musicland chain (which includes Sam Goody outlets) and the HMV Canada stores stopped carrying the album altogether.
Earlier this month in San Antonio, Tex., vice-squad officers visited local record stores to inform managers of the ”content and character” of the album and to advise them that it ”may be in violation of Texas penal codes,” according to Lt. Jerry Pittman, commander of the city’s vice squad. ”With all the publicity, more and more people are coming in to purchase it,” says Dave Risher of Hogwild Tapes and Records, who still sells the album. ”Everybody and their mom wants a copy. And I’ll sell it to their moms.”
In a related development, police attended a Madonna concert in Toronto on May 29 after complaints of ”lewdness” during her Blond Ambition tour, including simulations of masturbation and other sexual acts. No legal action followed. For the moment Madonna is safe, as are most rap albums in local record stores. But developments in the censorship battle have proven that the law can be as nasty as it wants to be, too.