Guess What Today Is!

Today is my Uncle’s birthday, and he’s not feeling well, so let’s all say “Happy Birthday and feel better soon!” Now he can cringe as I go from warm birthday wishes to what this blog is about, the National Action Network’s Decency Awards, which is an extension of their Decency Initiative. For those of you who think you’re unfamiliar with the NAN, does this name ring a bell? Reverend Al Sharpton. Yes, this is his organization.

A year ago today Sharpton and the NAN organized “A Day of Outrage” which were peaceful protests targeting music companies and industry executives across the United States. Although today is special, the Decency Initiative is active all year round. They are currently celebrating that because of pressure Nas’ latest album was released as untitled as opposed to n-word, which was its original title. Stay tuned, that’s another blog all together.

This isn’t a tirade against the NAN. Their organization does a lot of good. Keep demanding answers about Sean Bell Rev. Al! My problem is the idea of the Decency Initiative. It’s the same beef I have with the Anti-Defamation League (Another organization that does a lot of good, but….). You can’t just go around trying to silence anyone that has something to say that you find offensive. Yes, in a perfect world there would be no racial or religious slurs, there would also be no anger or outrage, no need for public discourse, and finally no need to get my butt up off the couch. (Wow, did I just do a “Ripple of Evil” like on the show “Root of All Evil”?) Censorship is not the path to understanding, it’s the path to ignorance.

What follows is my open letter to the NAN about their Decency Awards and Initiative. I’d like to think that I make a passionate, thoughtful, and polite argument on behalf of rap artists everywhere, but when you touch sensitive subjects, like the use of the n-word, well, reason does not always prevail. Somehow, I’d like to think that as a white Jewish woman I’ve gotten the brunt of rap music’s bile, and it makes my point of view valid, but as my friend Max said, “You’re not black.” But since other than Nas I can’t find anyone else willing to take a stand for the rights of rap artists, I took the plunge. Okay, plunge is a strong word, I’ve dangled my feet in the water…if I’m not litigated out of existence…or fired due to pickets outside of where I work….perhaps there will be a plunge. Nas, if the NAN comes after me, will you fund my legal defense?

To Tamika Mallory, National Director of NAN’s Decency Initiative:

I see on your website that August 7, 2008 the Decency Awards “are being held to honor entertainers who carry the torch of decency and to highlight positive images in our community.” That I am encouraged to “send in my nominations of entertainers, artists, athletes, and public figures who I think should be recognized”. But I am warned that, “all nominations are welcome, but keep in mind that haters will be disregarded”.

This forces me to ask the question, then why are you hating on the rap community? I’m writing to you today to please ask you to stop. Do I like to hear myself referred to as a bitch or ho, or my friends as niggers? Absolutely not! And yet, it boogles my mind that your organization, one that focuses so much time and energy on so many worthy causes, would waste your time to endeavor to enforce your version of decency onto musicians and their distributors.

I am a better person today because of the rap music I listened to in my youth. I grew up in a mid-sized rural community in Illinois, but because of artists like the Geto Boys, Queen Latifah, NWA, and Ice-T, I was able to learn about people living lives entirely different than my own. Yes, they had horrible language, and it shocked my 13 year-old ears to hear words like bitch and nigger, but that’s what art, at its best, is supposed to do. It shocked and enlightened me. Rap music started a chain reaction in my life. I thought more about the world outside of my hometown and I grew concerned about issues like race, drugs, poverty, and censorship. I’m sorry, but how dare you try to deny that life changing experience to others?

Please stop going after the music labels. Yes, they pressure artists, but I find it hard to believe that any music executive listens to an album and goes, this is okay, but you really need to add more references to bitches and niggers if you want to go gold. Those words are there because they are the language of the artist. And as a bitch and ho, I’m telling you, I’m okay with those words. How weak do you feel women are that they can’t handle a musician using them? In this day and age those words have no power, in fact, most women wear the label of bitch like a badge of honor. Those words have nowhere near the awful legacy of the terrible word nigger. Not being African American I cannot speak first hand of the feelings that word evokes. I can tell you that trying to police language is not going to solve anything. Putting the words out there makes them less powerful, not more. There was a time when bitch was universally a highly offensive term, but about 200 million bitches later, it’s really just another word…I promise. And thanks to the rap community, the word nigger really is losing its power. I worked in music retail for 10 years and every day I would hear teenage boys refer to each other as nigger. They were obviously using it as a term of affection, friendship, and brotherhood. At no point ever did I feel they were saying it out of malice or the belief that they were speaking to their slave. Thanks to rap music the word’s meaning is evolving.

As long as there are differences, there will always be hate, it’s a sad fact of human nature. Where there is fear and ignorance it will always be found. However, censoring artists is wrong. You never change the discussion if you edit the dialogue.

Please, take a moment to re-evaluate your Decency Initiative. I think if you do you’ll find that there are more important things you can be doing than picketing record label’s offices.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter and for all the good that your organization does.

Rebecca Elson