As the debate over the social impact of gangsta rap spills over to Capitol Hill hearings, the controversial musical genre has picked up a powerful new ally: U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters.
"It would be a foolhardy mistake to single out poets as the cause of America's problems," the veteran Los Angeles legislator and one of the nation's most influential elected African American women said on Monday.
"These are our children and they've invented a new art form to describe their pains, fears and frustrations with us as adults. Just because we don't like the symbols they use or the way they look, we should not allow that to cause us to embark on a course of censorship."
Waters, a Democrat whose district includes much of South-Central Los Angeles, faced off Friday against gangsta rap critics in Washington at a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing called to explore the alleged link between hard-core hip-hop and crime. A similar Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing will be held Feb. 23.
Disagreeing with a growing number of black church leaders, feminists and politicians who believe gangsta rap glorifies violence and promotes misogyny, Waters has been meeting with key African American executives in the music industry to discuss their concerns over the threat of government intervention.
Rap impresario Russell Simmons applauds Waters' efforts to counter the anti-gangsta rap views espoused in recent months by other prominent African American figures including C. DeLores Tucker, chair of the Washington-based Political Congress of Black Women, and the Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.
"Some people would like to build a wall around the ghetto to keep the rappers quiet," said Simmons, the CEO of Rush Communications, whose Def Jam Records has released controversial albums. "But Maxine understands the conditions that trigger the rage in the music. I've got news for the people who want to shut rap down: It ain't going to happen. Because whether they like it or not, this is art and it's protected by the First Amendment."
The debate over gangsta rap's social impact intensified last year following the arrests of some of the genre's biggest stars on charges ranging from murder to assault. (Tupac Amaru Shakur was convicted Thursday in Los Angeles for battery in one of four cases pending against him in three states. Snoop Doggy Dogg is expected to face trial for murder in Los Angeles in March.)
As sensitivity to the issue heightened, several radio stations across the nation--including Inglewood's black-owned KACE-FM--pulled the plug on potentially offensive songs. Eyebrows in the multimillion-dollar industry were raised last month when the owner of one such station was congratulated for banning rap in a private letter from Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The National Political Congress of Black Women applauds such moves and endorses government restrictions on gangsta rap. Tucker's organization was instrumental in encouraging Illinois Democrats Rep. Cardiss Collins and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun to convene this month's anti-rap hearings on Capitol Hill.
Tucker and Butts are not only calling for rappers to quit creating violent, misogynistic songs but also for the major record conglomerates to stop making their music available at mainstream record outlets in shopping malls and discount centers across the nation.
"We have declared war against gangsta rap," said Tucker, who spoke at Friday's hearing. "If the record industry doesn't want to clean itself up, then we'll get the government to step in and help them out. We aim to put a stop to the distribution of these derogatory negative stereotypical images by any means necessary."
Waters, who has sponsored many bills promoting women's rights and worked for decades with gang members and church groups to reduce crime in urban areas, defended the right of rappers to express their rage.
"While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn't first hear the words whore and bitch from Snoop," Waters said. "It's part of the culture. These songs merely mimic and exaggerate what the artists have learned about who we are (as a society). And while it is unacceptable to refer to any person in derogatory terms, I believe rappers are being used as scapegoats here."
The federal government has paid little attention to popular lyrics since 1985 when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Sen. Al Gore and founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, pushed for Senate hearings that pressured the music industry five years later to reluctantly introduce a voluntary labeling system to identify "explicit" albums.
The uproar surrounding Miami rap group 2 Live Crew's 1990 obscenity trial prompted dozens of state legislatures to attempt to enact restrictions on controversial music, but all failed in part due to lobbying by the music industry's Washington lobby group, the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
The association's CEO, Jay Berman, said his group is closely monitoring the current anti-rap backlash and is prepared to finance the battle against potential censorship threats looming on the horizon.
"The way I see it, this isn't just a constitutional issue this time around," Berman said. "Rap music has empowered an entire new generation of successful young black entrepreneurs. I think some people are more afraid of that than the music."
"It scares the hell out of people when young black males get aggressive," she said. "Before rap, there was no other platform for talented people like Snoop or Ice Cube or Latifah to speak their minds. These are artists with a message and they're forcing America to listen. It isn't just free speech that we're talking about defending here, it's a social movement. And that's what people can't stand to confront."