Monday, May 16, 2005

Threatening Freedom

Freedom of Speech is Under Attack, and Battles Have Already Been Won and Lost

“Some people ask if I feel like rappers have a responsibility to their listeners, and I have to say… no. Your only responsible is to make it as hot as it can be,” says Kanye West in the documentary Russel Simmons Presents: Hip Hop Justice.

Responsibility has been a very touchy subject in regards to music for decades. Perhaps the most high-profile argument in history regarding this subject has to be the Judas Priest subliminal suicide trial of 1985. In this case, it was argued that Judas Priest was legally responsible for the suicides of Raymond Belknap and James Vance (who, it should be mentioned would not die for an additional two years – but from the affects of the attempt).

It was argued that the song “Stained Glass” featured subliminal messages that urged the listener to “do it” without actually suggesting what. Regardless, it was determined that the sound was the result of two coincidentally occurring noises on the record – charges were dismissed against the band.

Ever since, however, this has been the battle over musical lyrics: those who claim that musicians have a responsibility to their listeners, and are to blame for the actions of those who imitate them, and those that claim the responsibility belongs not to the musicians, but to the listeners.

The debate certainly hasn’t ended with Judas Priest. If anything, it has expanded into additional forums. Violence has been joined by sexuality and family values as part of this debate. Some of the most inflammatory artists of the past ten years include Marilyn Manson, Eminem and Christina Aguilera. Historically, they join artists such as Judas Priest, the Dead Kennedys, Public Enemy and Body Count. Even country music trio the Dixie Chicks have felt the repercussions of their statements of political dissent – more notably, those not made through music.

The public has developed two main strategies for acting on their outrage regarding music: protest and legal action.

Eminem is no stranger to protest. Following the release of his 1999 album “The Marshall Mathers LP”, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) launched an ambitious campaign of protest against the rapper. “ The Marshal Mathers LP contains the most blatantly offensive, homophobic lyrics GLAAD has ever seen," said GLAAD Executive Director Joan M. Garry. GLAAD would follow Eminem from the MTV Music Video Awards to the Grammys, where Eminem would refute his critics by performing his hit song “Stan” with homosexual music legend Elton John.

Often, these protests are accompanied by well-orchestrated boycotts, as was also the case with Eminem. Perhaps the most famous boycott of all time was that of the Beatles after John Lennon’s assertation that the Beatles had become “bigger than Jesus”.

While there is something fundamentally democratic about protest campaigns, sometimes, the law steps into the fray and attempts to hold musicians responsible for their lyrics. Perhaps the most glaring example is the tale of Corey Miller, aka C-Murder.

The tale of C-Murder ultimately begins on January, 12, 2002, a night that will forever live in infamy within hip hop circles. On this evening, Miller attended a Louisiana Nightclub. Perhaps coincidentally, it was this same night that Steve Thomas, a 16 year-old who had snuck into the club, was shot dead.

Unfortunately for Miller, when a rapper goes out in public, they go out as their stage persona – whether they want to or not. Doubly unfortunate was the fact that this means they stand out.

With this (and, perhaps, his stage name) in mind, it may not be surprising that police would charge Miller with the murder, alleging that it stemmed from an argument that he allegedly had with the deceased. Miller was arrested, and held on $1 million bail. Perhaps even more damning for Miller was that he was at the time free on a $250,000 bond issued for an attempted murder charge. Miller also had a weapons-related offense on his record.

Upon going to trial, however, the persona of Miller virtually disappeared in the prosecution’s eyes, as they focused their efforts around Miller’s C-Murder persona. C-Murder would even appear on court documentation as an alias, and many of his violent lyrics would be entered in court as evidence.

While this practice alone is legally questionable, concerns would repeatedly be raised about the treatment of Miller’s rights – first and foremost his right to be considered guilty until proven innocent. In the years subsequent to his conviction, many dirty details about the case would be revealed, including police rejection of contradictory evidence: a witness that not only claimed that Miller had not been seen with a gun, but that another individual had been – and individual the witness was even able to identify.

In March, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Miller’s constitutional rights had not been violated, and upheld his conviction.
Among the more bizarre recent developments in Miller’s case is that his lawyer, Ron Rakosky, has been restricted from bringing pens to his meetings with his client – prison officials note that hollow pens could be used to smuggle song lyrics, which in this case are obviously being declared to be contraband.

Whatever the truth behind Miller’s case may ultimately be, the stance of law enforcement toward violence within the hip hop community is a little more ambiguous. In the case of the November 26, 2003 murder of New Orleans-based rapper Soulja Slim, for example, charges against prime suspect Garelle Smith (who, it is suspected accepted a $10,000 fee for Slim’s assassination) were suddenly dropped, citing insufficient evidence.

Third District Detective James Scott, however, had one further comment: “live hard, die hard, I guess.”

Ironically, Soulja Slim had collaborated with C-Murder, but this aside, one also remembers two other higher-profile cases with no arrests – the cases of 2Pac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. This may be a statement on the complicated nature of hip hop violence, or it may also be a statement on the treatment of these incidents by police officials. Either way, the argument is wrought with rhetoric and hearsay. Little solid evidence exists.

Regardless, an issue regarding freedom and responsibility continues to pervade the music industry.

Perhaps it is important to remember that speech is a powerful thing. Furthermore, as the great Stan Lee asserts, with great power comes great responsibility. There is no question that musicians have tremendous power. Many of our society’s greatest political minds have, indeed, been musicians, and some (such as the incomparable Bob Marley) have become so powerful that governments have taken the matters into their own hands.

It could be considered that Kanye West is wrong. With the power of speech (and the ideas that an individual can convey through them) must come great responsibility. It is only the nature of that responsibility that is up for debate.

Are musicians responsible for the actions of those who act on their ideas? Ultimately, the answer must be no. But it could be argued that musicians should accept responsibility for the ideas themselves. Regardless, when song lyrics can actually be considered evidence in a court of law, the United States has taken yet another step toward becoming a Police state – it is a direct assault upon freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech in its various forms must be defended. The very principles of democracy cannot exist without it.

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