Music Execs Silent As Debate Rages Over Rap Lyrics

AP, May 12, 2007

Facing fierce criticism of sexist and depraved rap lyrics, top music industry executives planned a private meeting to discuss the issue and “announce initiatives” at a press conference afterward.

That was three weeks ago. The press conference was canceled, without explanation. And ever since, music’s gatekeepers have been silent.

Leaders of the four major record companies, which control nearly 90 percent of the market, may fear cracking the door to censorship. Others say the record chiefs are “scared to death” of further damaging sales in an industry already hobbled by digital downloading—or that they choose to remain in the shadows rather than protect “indefensible” lyrics.

Or perhaps they are leery of stepping into a racial minefield: While black rap artists recite those lyrics, the top execs are white—like the man who ignited the controversy, radio host Don Imus, fired for describing a women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”

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Ebony magazine pulled the rapper Ludacris from its June cover. Verizon dropped pitchman Akon after video surfaced of the singer simulating sex with an underage fan on stage. Chart-topper Chamillionaire says his new CD contains no curses or n-words. Percy “Master P” Miller, founder of No Limit Records, whose son Romeo also is a recording artist, says he’s starting a new label for “street music without offensive lyrics.”

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The Rev. Al Sharpton, who protested outside major record labels last week, is planning to lead busloads of protesters to music executives’ homes in the Hamptons over Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s indefensible,” Sharpton said of why the record executives keep silent. “They’re hoping it’ll go away. We’re not going anywhere. We plan to continue to march until those three words are gone, until those four companies agree in some way that the use of the words “nigga,” “ho,” and “bitch” should be beneath our standards.”

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The four major recording companies account for close to 90 percent of U.S. music sales through traditional distribution channels, said Jerry Goolsby, who holds a chair in music industry studies at Loyola University, adding that it is difficult for the industry to track sales in the emerging digital landscape.

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Some in the music industry, such as Russell Simmons, one of hip-hop culture’s chief architects, have defended rappers’ free-speech rights. Simmons, who got rich by co-founding and then selling the seminal Def Jam label, recently called for the three words at the center of the debate to be treated the same as extreme profanities and consistently blanked out of “clean” and radio versions of songs.

The closest the industry has come to a public discussion is when Warner Music Group vice president Kevin Lilies appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show and acknowledged “there’s a problem.”

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The ailing Big Four have released short statements saying they value their artists’ right to express themselves, “even if that means some of their music will not appeal to all listeners,” Universal said. They noted that they use warning stickers and work with broadcasters to edit controversial words, “including those that are the focus of the current public debate,” Warner said.

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But some say the executives’ refusal to engage in that debate publicly is tinged with race. The very top executives in the music industry are white men, observed Lisa Fager, who co-founded IndustryEars, a think tank focused on the media’s impact on minorities and children.

“Nobody wants to put the white man’s face on things,” said Fager, who is black and once worked in the music industry on artist development. “They don’t want to see the real person behind it.”

Gorder, of the Berklee College of Music, believes their reluctance is rooted in the bottom line: The major companies fear that if they don’t distribute the music with sexist and violent music, independents will.

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