Freedom of Speech is protected by the First Amendment in the Constitution of the United States of America, but how much freedom of speech will be tolerated from the rap and hip-hop community? With Odd Future at the forefront of music news today, it seems that Americans have lowered their standards for appropriate song lyrics. Though Odd Future is highly criticized for crude yet brilliant obscenities, there was once a time when rappers would be sued for using gender or politically related slurs in their music. The same goes for Lupe Fiasco, who was recently invited to appear on The O’Reilly Factor to discuss calling Obama a terrorist on the CBS News online segment, “What’s Trending.” Are sedition and defamation no longer punishble?
On May 3, 2007, MTV News released an article titled, “Hip-Hop Under Fire: A Video Timeline of Controversies Over Rappers and Their Rhymes,” which stated, “Still, major dust-ups over hip-hop lyrics seem to occur every four years or so.” Well, it’s 2011, so it looks like it’s just about that time again. However, after reading the cases that went to court in the sixteen years prior, the lyrics that caused these controversies seem tame in comparison to what Odd Future and Lupe Fiasco have to say—it’s actually humorous.
In 1990, a lawyer connected to the American Family Association sued 2 Live Crew for their infamous track, “Me So Horny.” The track was considered “obscene” and “raunchy” at the time, and any sale of his LP, “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” was considered a crime. The offending lyrics were, “I'm like a dog in heat, a freak without warning/ I have an appetite for sex, 'cause me so horny.” I certainly wouldn’t consider “Me So Horny,” a song for the whole family to enjoy, but it is definitely more radio appropriate than any song produced by Tyler, the Creator. I can only wonder how a track like “BSD,” on Tyler’s album Goblin, which has the word “b***h” in it 21 times accompanied by references to violent ways of taking advantage of women, would have been received in 1990.
In 2000, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Organization for Women protested against Eminem’s harsh lyrics in his song, “Criminal.” The line was, “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That'll stab you in the head whether you're a f– or lez.” In context with the rest of the stanza that these lyrics come from, Eminem seems to be mocking homophobia. In my opinion his lyrics are much less criminalizing than throwing the word “f****t” around, which is in competition with the word “b***h” for the number one spot in Odd Future’s vocabulary. Especially considering the constant progression of gay rights, why should America allow a contradictory message to circulate through popular culture?
In terms of sedition, there have been no recorded cases that are comparable to Lupe Fiasco labeling President Obama a terrorist. His slur was provoked by an explanation of his song, “Words I Never Said,” which is about the War on Terror. In the song, he calls talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck racist, but “Obama didn’t say s**t.” Yet, Lupe doesn’t mention George W. Bush once in the song. I would think he would be an important person to mention in regard to the War on Terror, but there are only so many fingers a person could point at people.
Billy O’Reilly invited Lupe Fiasco onto The O’Reilly Factor, to discuss calling Obama a terrorist. He introduced Lupe saying, “Now, we’re used to irresponsible statements from rappers, but that’s really over the top.” In 2011, when a rapper makes an extreme statement about the President of the United States, it’s not punishable, but rather up for further negotiation…for now at least.
The fact that rappers like Odd Future and Lupe Fiasco can get away with more extreme lyrics and statements than rappers in the past says a lot about our present. First, in the past, rappers who were tried for their lyrics were considered dangerous. Despite, Lupe Fiasco calling Obama a terrorist, the media doesn’t view him as a threat, whereas in the past, rappers who denounced the police were more of a target for a lawsuit. Second, the music industry is looking for innovation, and Odd Future represents that breakthrough, which means sacrificing lyrical censorship for the sake of creativity. Finally, if danger and hate are no longer the two problematic topics in freedom of speech, the world must be more comfortable with the rap music than they were in the past. Now who’s to thank for that shift?
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