After complaints from lawyer and anti-misogyny activist Denise Ritchie, New Zealand's Ministry of Immigration has agreed to ban the hip hop group Odd Future from New Zealand.* Odd Future had been scheduled to support Eminem at a concert in Auckland this weekend.
Ritchie charges Odd Future with celebrating sexual violence, and it isn't hard to find images of girlfriend-bashing, adbuction, rape, and even necrophilia in their work. A typical Odd Future song features minimal, erratic beats, distorted samples, and lyrics that are alternately sad, absurd, and sick:
Product of popped rubbers and pops who did not love us
So when I leave home keep my heart in the top cupboard...
I'm Dracula bitch
Don't got a problem snatching a bitch
Kidnapping, attacking, with axes and shit
'Til I grab them throats and start smacking the shits
But if Denise Ritchie and her supporters think that the Odd Future should be banned from New Zealand for promoting sexual violence, shouldn't they also be calling for the Rolling Stones to be turned around at Auckland airport?
The Stones are scheduled to play in Auckland in April, and their set is sure to include an old favourite called 'Brown Sugar', in which Sir Mick Jagger narrates, in a joyous voice, the torture and rape of a young black girl by an elderly slave master:
Gold coast slaveship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver knows he's doin' alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good.
A-ha brown sugar just like a young girl should...
I'm no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You should have heard me just around midnight.
'Brown Sugar' gleefully documents the sexual predation that was endemic in America's slave trade. The song's lyrics are as explicit and as apparently pitiless as anything by Tyler the Creator, the leader and main lyricist of Odd Future.
But neither Denise Ritchie
nor anyone else will object to the upcoming Stones concert. The Stones will be welcomed almost as reverently as that other venerable British institution, the Windsors, and tens of thousands of Kiwis will sing along to 'Brown Sugar'.
If we do not treat 'Brown Sugar' as a defence of slavery and sexual violence, it is because assume that Sir Mick is wearing a persona when he performs the song. We recognise that he is giving his voice and mannerisms to a character, a monster who belongs to a monstrous period of history.
We show a similar ability to distinguish between the subject matter and message of a work of art when we read novels, or watch movies, or enjoy television. Last year huge numbers of Kiwis enjoyed the final series of Breaking Bad
, Vince Gilligan's TV drama about a chemistry teacher who reacts to a cancer diagnosis and a financial crisis by becoming a methamphetamine manufacturer and a gangster. Like its predecessors, Breaking Bad's
final series was full of drug making and taking, stabbing, shooting, and misogynistic language. Neither Denise Ritchie nor anyone else, though, has accused Vince Gilligan of inciting violence, or demanded that his programme be pulled from our screens.
But the tolerance that we give to a song like 'Brown Sugar' or a drama like Breaking Bad
is not extended to the work of Odd Future. Unlike the fans of the Rolling Stones or Breaking Bad
, the young, working class, mostly non-white audience of Odd Future and similar bands is apparently incapable of distinguishing between art and life, and of differentiating an artist's personae from his or her opinions. Denise Ritchie and the Ministry of Immigration consider the lyrics of Odd Future straightforward statements of the views of the band's members, and deem fans of the band to be too feeble-minded to resist its supposed message of hate and violence. If Tyler the Creator raps about being Dracula he isn't adopting a persona, but instead suggesting, in deadly earnest, that his fans follow his example by sleeping in a coffin and drinking blood from the throats of his victims.
Odd Future is only the latest hip hop act to be targeted by censors. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the outcry against the dominant cultural expression of African Americans is linked to the dehumanisation and criminalisation of that community by successive American governments.
As Eugene Jarecki showed memorably in his recent documentary film The House I Live In
, the 'War on Drugs' that the Reagan administration began in the 1980s has seen generations of young black men branded as crazed, conscienceless animals by law enforcement agencies, the media, and politicians. The police siren that features so prominently in so many classic hip hop tracks has become a permanent accompaniment to life in cities like Lose Angeles, Detroit, and Baltimore, as the same police force that ignores white drug users locks down whole black neighbourhoods.
In a 2011 article called 'Why You Should Listen to Odd Future, Even Though It's Hard'
Frannie Kelley argues that the bloodthirsty, absurdist lyrics of the band are a sort of ironic response to white prejudices about young African Americans. Kelley thinks that the criticisms commonly made of Odd Future 'might say more about the people making them' than they do about what the band. The latest campaign against Odd Future underlines Kelley's words.
*In an interview with Radio New Zealand this morning, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Immigration argued very unconvincingly that the ban was motivated by Odd Future's history of 'inciting violence' in public, rather than on the content of its lyrics. I'll discuss this argument in another post.
Footnote: this very interesting report from Britain, which features interviews with fans of Odd Future, adds to my feeling that there is an irony to the band's music that has escaped many of those who decry it from a distance.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]