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Artist or Would-Be Assassin?

By Richard Harrington, The Washington Post

"I am not an assassin and 'Bush Killa' is not an assassination attempt," Oakland rapper Paris insists. "I am an artist and 'Bush Killa' is a song."

"Bush Killa," in fact, is a cut from Paris's new, independently released album, "Sleeping With the Enemy," on which he envisions stalking and slaying the president -- whom he blames for policies that have blocked civil rights gains, encouraged racism and provoked genocidal neglect.

In what stands as the most extreme example so far of a rapper's rage against the powers that be, the album's inner sleeve photo shows an armed Paris waiting to ambush Bush in front of the Capitol. Some sample lyrics:

I'm looking for a way to make a play and keep it neat

And check it out and make a route and pick a rooftop

And get a spot where the view's hot

Set up shop cause all I wanna see is {expletive} brains hangin' ...

So don't be telling me to get the non-violent spirit

'Cause when I'm violent is the only time ya devils hear it

Rat-a-tat go the gat to his devil face

I hope he thinks of how he done us when he lay to waste ...

The song ends with a Bush speech halted by gunfire.

The White House yesterday declined to comment on the song, and a spokesman for the Secret Service, which is charged with protecting the president, said, "We're aware of it and we're not commenting." But Paris and the American Civil Liberties Union don't expect others to be so circumspect -- particularly those who think the record violates statutes that make threatening the life of the president a crime. In an extraordinary move, the ACLU issued a statement in conjunction with the release of the album last week calling any moves to suppress or prosecute Paris "politically wrongheaded and constitutionally indefensible."

"The Secret Service has no need to contact us," says 25-year-old Paris, whose real name is Oscar Jackson and who graduated from the University of California in 1990 with a degree in economics. He admits the song was designed to spark controversy but says, "This is nothing but art."

"Bush Killa," the ACLU says in a statement, is just "the latest in a series of angry, highly political songs by African-American artists who dramatize scenes of racial injustice. ... It does not violate laws prohibiting incitement or solicitation of unlawful acts, nor does it contravene the federal law criminalizing threats against the President. ... As an artist and political radical, Paris has a First Amendment right to express his rage towards the President and even to advocate armed revolution."

As for whether Paris's song might provoke others to become assassins, ACLU spokesman Jon Cummings says incitement is "a legal principle that applies only to very direct advocacy of imminent illegal activity -- for example, a speaker standing before a group and saying, 'Over there is the president, here are some guns, go shoot him.' The courts have interpreted it very narrowly to apply only to very close discussions between people ... . Words like 'inducement' and 'advocacy' do not have any legal meaning."

And, Cummings adds, "this song does not constitute real advocacy. Like {rapper Ice-T's} 'Cop Killer,' it's a first-person narrative describing one person's circumstances in which he's been led to the decision that he's going to do this thing. He's not telling people to do it."

"We're taking an offensive stance," says Paris. "We're not going to be caught in the same position that Ice-T and Time Warner were earlier this year. Our position is that it's not illegal, it's art and nobody can shut it down because we're independently owned and manufactured." Boycott threats against Time Warner companies led Ice-T to withdraw the "Cop Killer" song from his album.

Paris went independent after Tommy Boy (a label owned by Warner Bros. Records) paid him an undisclosed, but low six-figure sum to compensate him for not releasing the album. The settlement allowed him to finance his already existing record label, Scarface, which is being distributed through an independent network.

Paris remains signed to the Tommy Boy label, but in the wake of the "Cop Killer" controversy, Warner Bros. and other major labels began scrutinizing rap albums more closely. Time Warner executives, leery of a cop-killing song titled "Coffee, Donuts and Death" on Paris's album, as well as proposed artwork, refused to release the album. At the time, Paris says, they were unaware of the "Bush Killa" cut.

The rapper, whose politically charged 1990 album, "The Devil Made Me Do It," sold a quarter of a million copies, had wanted "Sleeping With the Enemy" to come out before the presidential election. He hoped "Bush Killa" would become "an election issue since rap had come under fire so much -- Sister Souljah, Tupac and Ice-T had all come under so much scrutiny. I figured, let's bait them with this so I can interject my own agenda into this debate. What Warner Bros. Records did was systematically delay me until post-election."

Paris, who styles himself the Black Panther of Rap, says his efforts to shop the album to other labels were stifled.

Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, who also oversees the PolyGram-distributed label 4th and B'way, says he wanted to release "Sleeping With the Enemy," which he calls a "brilliant and important record." Blackwell says he scheduled it for release two weeks before the election and designed a marketing strategy "to make plain the underlying injustices spurring Paris's angriest raps."

But after PolyGram's legal department in London reviewed the lyrics, according to Blackwell, CEO Alain Levy "expressed grave doubts about the legality of many of the songs on the album, adding, 'The strict legalities apart, we have to be sensitive to the current political climate in the United States, particularly in the light of the Ice-T experience.' " Levy then declined to allow 4th and B'way to release the album.

After the settlement, Paris contacted the ACLU's Arts Censorship Project. The ACLU's Cummings points out that "Paris personally wanted to launch a preemptive strike against those who would want to censor him, and we were the natural people for him to come to to get a legal opinion on whether or not his song violated the federal statute."

The applicable statute reads: "Whoever knowingly or willingly deposits for conveyance in the mail ... any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States ... or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President ... shall be fined no more than $1,000 and imprisoned not more than five years, or both."

While deploring the very idea of assassinating the president, the ACLU calls "Bush Killa" a political protest, not "a meaningful threat," and cites some case law. In a 1983 decision (United States v. Howell), a federal appellate court noted "a true threat is a serious one, not uttered in jest, idle talk, or political argument." Three years later in United States v. Olson, a federal district court found an alleged violation not a true threat because the "defendant spoke his threatening words in the context of his political views primarily against the foreign policies of President Reagan." And in a key 1969 case (United States v. Watts), the Supreme Court rejected an attempt to prosecute someone for "political hyperbole," in this case a defendant responding to a draft notice by saying "if they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ. They are not going to make me kill my black brothers."

"It's nice to be pro-active for once," says Cummings of the ACLU's unusual preemptive position, "to say 'don't even try censoring this record because here are the facts and you won't get away with it.' 'Bush Killa' doesn't violate any statutes." Paris himself doesn't expect "Bush Killa" to receive any airplay. "It's not a commercial release at all, it's just an album track. It was intended so we could have access to the media." There will be no video. The first single and video are for "The Days of Old," which deals with black-on-black crime.

"The main difference between me as a political hip-hop artist and others in the gangsta rap genre is that my anger is focused, theirs is unfocused. So you see brutality and black-on-black crime and drugs and misogyny glorified in their music, but in my music you see anger pointed directly at the people who need to be blamed for a lot of the things that go on in our community."

Paris, incidentally, voted for Bill Clinton on Nov. 3, and says, "I just hope he never gives me reason to write 'Clinton Killa.' "

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