First Amendment activists and a member of Congress said this week that the FBI may have stepped out of line with a letter accusing a Compton rap group of encouraging “violence against and disrespect” for law enforcement officers.
“The FBI should stay out of the business of censorship,” said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, when informed of an Aug. 1 letter sent by Milt Ahlerich, assistant director of the FBI office of public affairs, to Los Angeles-based Priority records, which distributes records by rappers N.W.A.
Edwards, whose subcomittee is charged with monitoring FBI actions regarding U.S. citizens, stopped short of saying a full investigation of the matter would be launched, but pledged: “We’re going to try to find out more about this letter.”
In the one-page letter, which surfaced last week after New York-based rock journalist Dave Marsh spoke of it during an anti-censorship rally in Washington, Ahlerich wrote: “Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action.”
The FBI representative then recounted that 78 law enforcement officers were “feloniously slain in the line of duty during 1988 . . . and recordings such as the one from N.W.A are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.”
Though he did not mention any song by name in the letter, Ahlerich told The Times that he was refering to "---- Tha Police,” N.W.A’s brutal account of tension associated with the police gang sweeps that have become common in the Los Angeles area. The song--set in a mock courtroom where members of the group act as judge and prosecutors--is peppered with lewd and vulgar language punctuating a string of grievances about police misconduct in Compton. Members of the group also relate a series of threats and violent fantasies about retaliating against the police.
The song was written by group member Ice Cube and is on N.W.A’s 1-million-selling debut album “Straight Outta Compton.” It includes lyrics such as:
... So police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Ice Cube will swarm
on any ... in a blue uniform
and when I finish, there’s gonna be a bloodbath, of cops in L.A.
Ahlerich said he had not heard the whole song, but had read lyrics which had been sent to him by concerned law enforcement officials.
The letter concluded: “I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.”
Danny Goldberg, chairman of the Southern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and a recording industry executive, said the FBI letter overstepped the bounds between government and the arts.
“It is completely inappropriate for any government agency to try to influence what artists do,” said Goldberg, who is also president of Gold Mountain Entertainment. “It is completely against the American tradition of free speech and government non-interference for government agencies to criticize art, because such criticism carries with it an implied threat.”
But Ahlerich maintained that no threat, implied of otherwise, was intended. “My intent was that those representatives for the licensing, distribution and publishing of the record should have the benefit of knowing the facts of police violence,” he said. “After that it becomes their business what to do. But to communicate that was appropriate.”
Ahlerich said the FBI often takes positions on issues of concern to the law enforcement community--"certainly on the concern for terrorism, drug abuse and violence against police officers"--but he knew of no previous FBI public stand regarding a pop music recording.
FBI spokesman Greg Jones said the letter was not intended to put pressure on N.W.A, Priority or others to stop the distribution of the record. “If you look at the language in the letter, you’d agree there was nothing in it where the FBI was trying to chill anyone’s right to express themselves,” he said. “It expressed Mr. Ahlerich’s and the FBI’s concern over violence and individuals who advocate violence against police officers.”
N.W.A itself has been silent about the matter. Members of the group, representatives of Priority and group manager Jerry Heller all declined to comment. But N.W.A publicist Pat Charbonnet, said the letter “makes valid everything (the rap group) said on the record. Their life is a lifetime of hassle and it never stopped being that way.” But she said the group decided not to go public about it.
“Everything N.W.A has to say (about FBI and police) has been said on ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ and there is no further comment,” Charbonnet said.
Charbonnet explained that when Priority received the letter in August it was decided not to make the matter public. A copy was given to Phyllis Polack, executive director of the anti-rock-censorship organization Music in Action, who had long been a supporter of the group. She shared the letter with Marsh, her partner in Music in Action.
Asked why he didn’t make the letter public earlier, Marsh said he did not want to make it public until he had investigated it. Marsh’s story on alleged government involvement in censorship appears in the current issue of New York’s Village Voice.
Charbonnet said that throughout a summer concert tour N.W.A was faced with attempts by local police departments, alerted to the "---- Tha Police” lyrics through a “fax campaign,” to stop the group from performing. Local police feared, she said, that the group would incite violence against police officers. In several cities, N.W.A members met with local media to tell the public and police that they their fears were exaggerated.
The song itself, Charbonnet said, was not part of the group’s concert repertoire, and “whatever the worst fears were, nothing happened.” The only incident occured in Detroit on the last date of the tour last month when the crowd created a disturbance by chanting the song and the group left the stage. Later that day, the group was detained briefly at their hotel by police investigating the disturbance, but no arrests were made.
In an interview last March, N.W.A member Ice Cube, who wrote the lyrics, maintained that the song is a “documentary” presentation of life in Compton, not a call for violence.
About the song in question, he said, “There is a lot of resentment of police because if you are black you get picked on a lot. They see you in a car or with a beeper and they assume you are a dope dealer. The song is a way to get out aggression. We’re not really urging anyone to go out and attack police.”
To the ACLU’s Goldberg, the letter may do “more harm than good” in stopping violence against police. “It reinforces the notion among minorities that the government is against them. (N.W.A) is a positive role model about how you can get out of poverty, and then the FBI writes them a letter.
“The result is to add to the feelings of alienation and separation from society, and those are the things that give rise to violence. . . . Rap is one of the most positive role models, a positive way for poor people using their energies, making art and poetry out of their social dilemma. They should be applauded by the police.”