Speakers Debate Rap Lyrics
Performers, Baptist Minister Square Off Over Meaning
In a vigorous debate over the messages and merits of "gangsta" rap, three rappers squared off last night against a Harlem church leader who has waged a personal crusade against sex, misogyny and violence in rap lyrics.
At a forum sponsored by the Black Students Association (BSA), Rev. Calvin O. Butts III repeated the message that gained him national prominence last summer when he rolled a bulldozer over albums by such rappers as 2 Live Crew and N.W.A.
"While I was driving down the street in Newark I heard blasting out of a record store, 'Any whores in the house? Any whores in the house?' What is important about that? Why is that necessary?" Butts asked the more than 140 students gathered at Emerson Hall.
Three artists from the rap group Bulldogs--Cruz, Ed O.G., and Scientific--argued against Butts' charges, saying rappers simply portray street life as it is.
"Rap music is a form of speech, and it's like a newspaper," said Bulldogs member Cruz. "We just tell it like how it is. We're not telling anyone, 'Go get a gun and shoot someone.'"
But Butts, the senior minister of the 180-year-old Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, said that by using profane language, rap "becomes dehumanizing and makes [us] no better than the people who enslaved us in the first place."
African-American traditions are being "sacrificed on the altar of American culture, which causes us to sell our souls for a bigger piece of the American pie," Butts added.
The minister said his actions in June 1993 were intended "to arrest the attention of the larger community and say, 'This is not acceptable. It is dehumanizing and degrading.'"
The question-and-answer session that followed the debate generated heated participation from the audience.
Students said rappers, as some of the most visible figures in pop culture, are bound to influence their fans whether they want to or not.
"As a Black man, people are going to look at you as a role model whether you like it or not," said Cynthia D. Johnson '95.
"If a kid can listen to a rap song and go out and kill someone, there's something wrong with that kid," Ed O.G. said. "It's not the music that's doing it. Music doesn't kill people. People kill people."
BSA President Kristen M. Clarke '97 asked Butts whether the steam-roller event was appropriate for a religious leader.
"When you are faced with a severe crisis that requires action to meet that crisis, you have to draw attention. And we did," Butts replied.
"One should never be afraid of expressing something against which we have dissatisfaction or distaste," Butts said. But Scientific charged that Black church leaders are ignoring more pressing concerns facing the Black community.
"There's a lot of stronger issues for Black people that they could talk about," Scientific said.
"There are certain standards and principles by which we must live," the minister countered. Butts said his church is actively involved in schools' curriculum issues, police brutality protests and paying college tuition for students.
The rap artists argued that as an artistic form, rap serves to depict the realities of Black urban daily life.
"Are you asking to keep us from telling the truth?" Cruz asked.
"What's important is you let the people know that you're [only] acting," Renee A. Richardson '96 told the Bulldogs members.
Students interviewed after the debate said it shed light on the emotional issues surrounding "gangsta" rap. "It brought a lot of issues to the forefront that need to be discussed," said Alvin L. Bragg '95, former BSA president.
But others felt that the rap artists had failed to answer some questions.
"They really didn't answer the challenge of replacing negative messages by more positive ones," Johnson said.