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Feminist black performance artist Sarah Jones and less-than-politically-correct white rapper Eminem aren't an obvious pair. But the Federal Communications Commission has censored both artists by recently issuing $7000 indecency fines to radio stations for playing their songs.
Ironically, Jones's "Your Revolution" makes a powerful statement against indecencyin particular, the sexual exploitation of women in popular music. The song, originally a poem, pulls no punches in making its feminist critique, taking direct aim at famous hip-hop songs by artists including LL Cool J and Notorious B.I.G. by quoting and then denouncing some of their macho lyrics.
"The hip-hop game is very misogynistic," explains Deena Barnwell, a volunteer DJ at Portland's KBOO-FM radio. "I've been totally disrespected as a woman in this game. Jones's song is inspirational. It says it's cool, you can be in the hip-hop game, but you don't have to be no 'ho. There's nothing else out there besides this song that tells girls that. I feel like it's a personal responsibility for me as a B-girl to get it out there." So Barnwell played the track, and according to the FCC, a listener was offended by an October 20, 1999, airing.
Station manager Chris Merrick figured the song's empowerment message would easily exempt it from the FCC investigation, which beginning this February looked at about a half-dozen other hip-hop songs broadcast on KBOO. "We all had a very good feeling about this song," he says. According to its written guidelines, the aim of the largely listener-supported station is "filling needs that other media do not, providing programming to diverse communities and unserved or underserved groups."
In fact, the Jones song was the only one to make the FCC's final cut. "Our lawyer and I were both stunned," says Merrick, when they received the May 17 notice fining KBOO for airing indecent language at a timebetween 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.when children might have been listening. "The rap song, 'Your Revolution,' " the notice states, "contains unmistakable patently offensive sexual references. . . . [T]he sexual references appear to be designed to pander and shock. . . . " Merrick objects, "It's clearly not pandering. In fact, I thought it was antisexual."
The FCC's characterization of the song betrays a deep political and cultural ignorance, argues the station. "The contemporary social commentary in 'Your Revolution' is a relevant contextual consideration, but is not in itself dispositive," concludes the agency notice. KBOO lawyer John Crigler argues, "[The FCC] oversimplified the context. We said, you gotta listen to the song. You have to understand that the song itself, musically, is a critique, it's a feminist attack on macho values of typical rap music. And you don't get that unless you listen to something. The commission just said, no thanks, we don't want to consider that." Fearing further fines, KBOO management temporarily suspended Barnwell and then moved her show to after 10 p.m., when the FCC believes children will not be listening. Other programmers have also been warned of decency issues, but Crigler says the station will challenge the fine and the reasoning behind it in a July appeal.
Most troubling about the FCC finding to "Your Revolution" supporters is that it condemns precisely the elements of the song that make it such an effective protest in the first place. The feminist message would less likely grab listeners' attention if it did not use such familiar lyrics, according to DJ Barnwell. The original rhymes are offensive, says Jones, and they are especially troubling because they are so popular; that's why she highlighted and responded to them in a song of protest.
But the FCC has reinforced the very image of women as sexual teases that the song means to challenge, protests Jones. "Your Revolution" was inspired by her experience "as a black woman, growing up in a culture where women of color too often are perceived as somehow oversexed," she says. "I read these wordsthat I'm sexually pandering and intending to shockand it was just so clear to me that they were attacking my freedom as a person, as a woman, and as a woman of color, to defend myself." The FCC enforcement bureau's John Winston refused to comment on the KBOO case.
Although the government hasn't officially targeted the artist, the acclaimed poet and creator of the one-woman show Surface Transit is taking the notice personally. Along with the principle of free expression, the performer says, her main line of workeducation, through institutionally funded programsis at stake. "Your Revolution" has been the hallmark of her approximately 60 school workshops in the past year. "A slur like 'sexually indecent' attached to my name, I think that's a red flag for anybody that's working with kids," Jones says.
But Jo-Ann Estella, principal of the Board of Education's Rosewood High School on Riker's Island, where Jones has made several appearances, stresses that Jones's June 21 invitation there still stands. "When Sarah Jones came in, she performed, and the girls were spellbound, as was the staff. Everything that she spoke to in her poetry was positive and resonated with a lot of our young ladies," says the principal.
A Web site devoted exclusively to mobilizing around the song is going up this week. Jones has support from the likes of Danny Hoch and Gloria Steinem, and she is speaking with First Amendment lawyers about pursuing a case.
But music industry veterans say the fight against the government may be uphill. The appointment of Colin Powell's son, Michael Powell, as chair of the FCC, they argue, has sparked an unprecedented indecency crackdown. The FCC's Winston would not provide figures for complaint and investigation rates, but he volunteered, "There's been no new shift, no new program, no new position, of the FCC." The enforcement bureau Web site shows 29 actions in 2000 and 2001 but gives no earlier data.
Certain commissioners have publicly deplored the agency's history of relative leniency. Calling for stricter on-air decency standards, commissioner Susan Ness this April exhorted stations to monitor their programming more closely and broadcast "in a manner that celebrates rather than debases humankind."
For Hunter College student Veronica De La Rosa, Jones's song does just that. "Sometimes we listen but we don't actually hear. . . . Bringing out the famous rappers and their lyrics allowed me to see that they are viewing women as sex objects," she writes in a class essay. "Jones tells us women that we don't have to allow these lyrics to be true, because 'Your revolution will not happen between these thighs.' "