Monday, July 19, 2010

Why Censoring Rap Music Sucks

I’m sharing the above music video with you not because Janelle Monae is one of the coolest people alive, or because the song is extraordinarily catchy, but because of Big Boi’s verse—or more specifically, the censoring of Big Boi’s verse. The line in question goes: “You gotta keep your balance or you’ll fall into the gap/It’s a challenge but I manage cause I’m cautious with the s----.”

Before I downloaded Ms. Monae’s whole album, I assumed that the censored line was “shit,” but that was stupid in hindsight, since “shit” doesn’t rhyme with “gap” and surely an experienced MC like Big Boi wouldn’t screw up like that. The word deemed inappropriate by the FCC and radio stations is actually “strap,” defined by my dictionary as “a strip of leather, cloth, or other flexible material, often with a buckle, used to fasten, secure, or carry something or to hold on to something.” Huh? What’s objectionable about that?

My first thought was Big Boi was referring to the practice of “tying off” with a belt before shooting up some heroin, but Big Boi has never rapped about using heroin before, to my knowledge, and I doubt he would advise his listeners to be “cautious” with it—more likely he would tell people not to use heroin at all. Some quick checking on Urban Dictionary revealed that “strap” actually means “gun,” an evolution of the old usage of “I’m strapped,” or “fully strapped.” So the censorship equation is strap=gun=bad=bleeped out.

This is the fundamental problem with censorship, or at least censorship as it relates to music, especially rap—it’s not just “curse words” that get cut, it’s words that touch on a host of different topics, from drugs to crime to sex, even when the message behind the lyrics is fundamentally positive. Like in Big Boi’s case, he’s not telling people, “Go out and shoot a bunch of people with your gun,” he’s saying, “I’m awesome, and furthermore, I exercise caution when I have a firearm in my possession.” He’s preaching gun control and restraint, but I didn’t even know that thanks to the short-sighted censoring of his verse.

More fundamentally, the censoring of words in rap songs doesn’t just wipe out words like “fuck” and “shit” and “bitch” that are defined by most people as “offensive” (although it’s hard to imagine the person who is still legitimately offended by these words). The censors have decreed that rapping about violence and drugs is out-of-bounds, even if the message of the song isn’t pro-violence or pro-drug. This is more than defended the tender ears of our children, this is an insidious plot to control the discourse of pop music—that’s maybe an exaggeration, but not by much.

It also might be an exaggeration to call the censoring of rap music racist, but (white) pop has been relentlessly concerned with sex, drugs, and violence for decades, and no one stepped in to tell the Rolling Stones that “Under My Thumb” was misogynistic (it’s nastier than anything Snoop Dogg ever said) or the Beatles that “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was unsuitable to be played on the radio due to its title. How can “Cocaine” be released by Eric Clapton as a single, yet when Big Boi mentions buying weed on “Bombs Over Baghdad,” the lyrics are censored to: “shoulda bought an o---- but you copped a d—“? Is the difference lyrical context, the standards of the times, or the skin color of the musician? What are the standards for censoring music beyond the bleeping of “the seven dirty words?”

Or to put it another way, how would the FCC choose to censor the Police B-Side, “Once Upon a Daydeam?” It’s one of the most brutal songs I’ve heard from a mainstream artist, yet there’s no profanity in it. But if Big Boi can’t say he’s cautious with the strap, can Sting sing about unborn babies being killed?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, and I forgot to mention Sublime's "Smoke Two Joints" which was played on commercial radio all the time when I was growing up, and has the most drug-related content it's possible to have in a song. If it had been rap, it would have never made it to the air.