Despite some confrontational exchanges, the first congressional hearing into the business of “degrading” and “stereotyping” images in hip-hop lyrics and videos sounded more like an impassioned debate about societal ills in America than a demand for answers.
Members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce and Trade initially zeroed in on the graphic nature of hip-hop content. In her opening remarks, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) posed a rhetorical question to all hip-hop artists: “Where and how did society fail you that you would choose to write such filth?”
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) went after Viacom-owned BET, which has been a big target of hip-hop critics. Markey said the cable net appealed to “the lowest common denominator” via “cheap, tawdry” videos and other “questionable programming.”
Other members talked of links between hip-hop and misogyny, homophobia and domestic violence. But as more than a dozen witnesses testified, the focus broadened to the role of the artist and to what extent art is a reflection of or an influence on reality.
Music label CEOs talked of a complex process that balances an artist’s right to free expression against the company’s responsibility to community. Rappers maintained that explicit lyrics and images are simply mirrors of their world. Academics disputed whether hip-hop lyrics and images are causes or symptoms of deeper problems. Representatives from women’s groups claimed that hip-hop’s portrayal of women are dangerously one-sided.
Toppers Philippe Dauman of Viacom, Edgar Bronfman Jr. of Warner Music and Doug Morris of Universal Music cited their companies’ practices of editing explicit lyrics from tracks destined for airplay or applying parental warning stickers on discs shipped for sale.
Asked if they would support banning certain words from CDs they manufacture, each said, “no,” and emphasized that even editing had to be done on a case-by-case basis, taking context into consideration.
Asked by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) if explicit lyrics by rapper 50 Cent constituted free speech, Morris shot back, “Yes. It is not my place in life to tell him what to say.”
Levell Crump, who raps as David Banner, described a poverty-stricken childhood pervaded with hopelessness, racism and violence. “This is horror music,” Crump said. “There’s nothing in my music that you don’t see in my community.”
But he questioned why black artists are expected to be held responsible for their art in a way white artists are not.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger killed lots of people in his movies. He even went to Mars and blew it up. But he can be governor of California,” Crump said.
He defended the use of the epithet “nigger” in rap lyrics by noting that slavemasters used the word commonly.
Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown U. said, “America is built upon degrading images of black men and women. So any discussion of misogyny or homophobia or sexism has got to dig deep into America, including Congress and corporate and religious institutions.”
Subcommittee chairman Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) said he understood rage against an unjust society.
“But there’s a difference between exploiting a problem for personal gain and doing something to improve the situation,” Rush said. “I still have rage, but how do I channel it? Am I going to spew out counterproductively? Or do I accept a higher responsibility to take my rage and do something to improve the community?”
“And you can’t justify use of ‘nigger’ by saying my slavemaster used it,” Rush continued. “I will not adopt the ways or mores of my slavemasters. I want to affirm my dignity, not my death.”
Percy Miller — who made millions as gangsta rapper Master P — apologized for his old ways and urged others to put “positive” images and words into music.