By Sebastien Elkouby
Ever since I began publicly speaking out against the mainstream music industry, its corrupt practices and deliberate dumbing down of rap music, I’ve been told by many, including industry insiders, that my claims are unfounded, unverifiable and the stuff of paranoid conspiracy theorists. But what is a conspiracy? Does it always have to be hatched in secret by groups of shadowy men who promote their twisted agenda through seemingly harmless avenues? Or is it sometimes so overt that it simply becomes “business as usual” while an unsuspecting public eats it up without a second thought?
The word “conspiracy” as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary means:
a: to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of the secret agreement.
b: to act in harmony toward a common end.
In other words, a conspiracy is nothing more than a group of individuals, conspiring, or discreetly working together towards a wrongful aim . This practice is common and historically documented in all areas of politics and business, music industry included. Usually, the end goal is money and power. But what would the music industry have to gain from deliberately dumbing down rap? And aren’t many popular rappers already dumbing themselves down without the industry’s help?
While concrete answers elude me, the following examples point to a conspiracy, or a concerted effort if you prefer, by industry execs to continue promoting rap music with dangerous messages, even when it may be against the law.
According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, the broadcast of obscene, indecent and profane material may be unlawful. Broadcasters, including radio stations and TV networks, may actually be violating their public interest obligation by playing music which promotes explicit sex acts, drug use, rape, and other criminal behavior
Here’s a section from FCC guidelines regarding obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts.
Obscene Broadcasts Are Prohibited at All Times
Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and cannot be broadcast at any time. The Supreme Court has established that, to be obscene, material must meet a three-pronged test:
- An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
- The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
- The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Indecent Broadcast Restrictions
The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity.
The courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. It may, however, be restricted in order to avoid its broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.
Consistent with a federal indecency statute and federal court decisions interpreting the statute, the Commission adopted a rule that broadcasts — both on television and radio — that fit within the indecency definition and that are aired between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. are prohibited and subject to indecency enforcement action.
If the FCC finds a broadcaster in violation of the aforementioned rules, the broadcaster may have to pay a fine or revoke the station’s license. Imagine how many broadcaster would be out of business if this had been truly enforced.
You can find this at http://www.fcc.gov/guides/obscenity-indecency-and-profanity.
Broadcasters seem to have been openly violating these rules for years. In the 70’s and 80’s, Heavy Metal music was attacked for its content and negative influence on youth. While the concern was valid, technology didn’t allow for music and videos to be widely promoted like they are today. Further, Heavy Metal fans were not up against the same widely accepted stereotypes that today’s rap fans are burdened by.
The film and video game industries have also been heavily scrutinized for violent and obscene content. Yet, films and games are recognized as being purely fictional. In contrast, rap music generally prides itself on being “real” which ultimately sends a very different message to impressionable fans.
If radio stations and TV networks risk paying a hefty fine or even jeopardizing their broadcasting license by promoting indecent material, why do all broadcasters appear to be in agreement when it comes to disregarding FCC rules? Is this a conspiracy? And let’s be honest. While the radio-edited version of a song does indeed censor explicit language, it doesn’t change the nature of a song whose overall message glorifies criminal behavior, violence and in Rick Ross’ case, rape. After all, the word “molly” is never edited since it isn’t explicit language but clearly constitutes inappropriate content when spoken by artists who celebrate the drug.
Strangely, the music industry seems to enforce censorship when it’s in their interest.
- In the 1994 song “Juicy”, Biggie says, “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade”. Of course, he was referring to the first 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center which took place 8 years before the 9/11 disaster. After 9/11, and 4 years after Biggie’s death, the words “World Trade” were edited from all versions out of respect for those who lost their lives in the tragedy.
- Although not rap, but in the 1996 song “They Don’t Care About Us”, Micheal Jackson sings about the pain that racism and discrimination causes and uses various racial epithet to illustrate the point. Along many ethnic slurs listed in the song, one of them is considered anti-semitic and offensive to the Jewish community. Michael apologized and explained that the song was against discrimination but was eventually forced to re-record the song without the offensive terms.
- In the 1997 song “It’s All About the Benjamins”, Jadakiss says, “You should do what we do, stack chips like Hebrews”. The word “Hebrews” was deemed insensitive and edited from all versions. Later, in 2004, Jadakiss was again the subject of censorship when his song “Why” accused President Bush of being responsible for 9/11. The word “Bush” was eventually edited out of the song.
- In the 2003 song “Rooster” by Outkast, Big Boi says, “Like a candle in the wind, she was my friend, like Princess Di before she died”. This line was edited out even on the explicit version of the album.
- In the 2004 song “All Falls Down”, Kanye West says, “Drug dealers buy Jordans, crack heads buy crack and the white man gets paid off of all that.” The label censored the words “white man” from the song and video because it was deemed offensive.
There are too many other similar examples to list here.
I clearly understand why these lines are considered offensive and the reasons for censoring them. However, why don’t rap music fans deserve the same consideration when it comes to the constant promotion of sex, violence, drugs and crime? Isn’t that equally offensive and more damaging to young listeners than the content censored in the previous examples or is the wellbeing of teenage rap fans not important?
I’ve been told time and time again that the music industry is a business whose only responsibility is to make money, not raise our children or solve social problems. While I understand that a corporation’s bottom line is profit and that parents are in charge of raising their own kids, if the music industry isn’t expected to uphold certain morals and values, why does the FCC have rules regarding obscene and indecent content? Why do CD’s still have parental warning stickers? Why does the film industry rate movies based on content and age appropriateness? And who are these rules meant to protect?
Now, I’m not suggesting that an artist’s freedom of speech be banned. Some of my favorite artists who create meaningful albeit controversial content would be affected as a result. As a writer, my own freedom of expression would be impacted. And that’s the last thing I want. What I am pointing out is that the music industry as a whole seems to have a double standard when it comes to young rap fans. Such overt disregard for FCC rules and blatant bias in censorship gives me the uneasy feeling that a conspiracy, or an unspoken agreement amongst industry execs “to act in harmony toward a common end” is indeed taking place. Why? And could any of this really just come down to good old fashioned racism and utter lack of concern for how Black youth are depicted? Sounds like I just opened up another can of worms!
Sebastien Elkouby is a Hip Hop Culture historian and award-winning educator. He is part of a national collective set up to hold the music industry accountable for promoting negative content. Check out his educational program, Global Awareness Through Hip Hop Culture and his blog, SebIsHipHop.wordpress.com. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SebIsHipHop.