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Rap Under Wrap

By Rory Laverty, The Oakland Tribune

The war in Iraq may be over, but for hip-hop musicians who write song lyrics critical of the Bush administration and its policies, a different sort of battle rages on.

The issue of music censorship has boiled to the surface in the Bay Area, home to some of the loudest anti-war and anti-Bush voices in the rap world. Local hip-hop musicians such as Paris, an emcee who lives in the Tri-Valley area, say that musicians who attempt to voice anti-establishment points of view face a different type of censorship than was faced by generations past. He calls this new censorship "omission."

"If the government just came in and shut us all down, it would be more apparent who the enemy is, and we could adjust accordingly," Paris says. "But censorship by omission is worse because in effect it's a way of leaving the door open, letting you think freedom of expression is possible in certain instances when really the (corporate executives who control radio, TV and the record industry) have made up their minds to make that impossible."

His question is this: If a popular rap group can't get airplay for a political song on commercial radio, can't get an anti-war video into rotation on MTV or BET and can't get a political album released on a major record label, then what good is their freedom of expression?

The corporations that own commercial radio stations say their playlists are determined by consumer demand, not political content, and that the problem with most anti-war rap songs is that they aren't "bumpin'," meaning they don't have the beats or verbal flow that make hip-hop songs popular.

A spokesperson for Clear Channel Communications, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, says there is no conspiracy from above to keep certain voices off the air.

Yet several pro-war anthems are getting their share of air time. Clint Black's "I Raq and Roll" and Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" have ruled the country music charts and have become crossover hits.

"All playlists for our stations are decided locally, by the listeners," says the spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They do a lot of local research in the local communities, then give people what they want. Everything is locally driven."

Many Bay Area rappers dispute that statement, saying that no matter how huge the turnout for their live shows and no matter how bumpin' their beats, any song that is critical of the establishment gets a cold shoulder from commercial hip-hop radio stations such as KMEL (106.1 FM) and WILD 94.9, both of which are owned by Clear Channel.

Big Von, programming director for KMEL and WILD, did not return repeated calls for comment.

While most anti-war and anti-Bush hip-hop songs are available only via the Internet, there have been some exceptions. The Beastie Boys garnered solid airplay with their anti-war song "In a World Gone Mad," and rocker Lenny Kravitz scored a mild hit when he teamed with an Iraqi pop star on the song "We Want Peace."

Paris believes commercial radio has turned a deaf ear to his output during the past decade because he wrote incendiary songs such as "Bush Killa" and "What Would You Do," which have lyrics critical of both Bush administrations. The latter song is available for free download on the Web site, and Paris urges anyone interested to subscribe to his free e-newsletter.

On his newest album, "Sonic Jihad," which is slated for a possible May release and has cover art of a plane flying into the White House, Paris decided to handle all the production himself rather than "prostituting" himself for a major label. Likewise, with major chains including Wal-Mart refusing to carry his album, Paris is handling distribution through his Web site.

He says the unabashedly political nature of his lyrics, not the shocking cover art, is what makes him dangerous to the corporate elites.

"Sonic Jihad is about waging righteous warfare against everything that's wrong right now," says Paris, who was born and raised in San Francisco. "Against our out-of-control government and its policies, against the current climate of manufactured fear and the war on terror, against the pro-war propaganda we're assaulted with daily, against police brutality and against the embarrassing state of hip-hop, which has been corporatized so much that it no longer reflects the will of the people."

He isn't the only hip-hop artist espousing such views and claiming corporate opposition because of it. Michael Franti and his group, Spearhead, have drawn crowds of more than

30,000 to their shows, including anti-war benefits in Berkeley and San Francisco. But they have found few takers on commercial radio for their catchy anti-war anthem, "Bomb the World," which contains the chorus "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb the world to peace."

Among the Bay Area's commercial radio stations, only The Wave, (FM 93.3) has "Bomb the World" in rotation. It has gotten steady play on independent stations such as KALX and KPFA.

Don Kelly, the program director for The Wave (KKWV, 93.3 FM), says he gives priority to quality, not politics when choosing which songs to play.

"When Michael (Franti) decided he wanted to release 'Bomb the World,' I thought, first of all, this is great music, and that's what we're looking for," Kelly says. "We want to be very diverse musically and culturally, to really represent the Bay Area and act as a sounding board, both from the opinion point of view and musically. I think the song's message is strong and the music is great."

He says the station has not received any negative responses to Franti's song, but if there was an outcry, he's sure The Wave's owner, Infinity Broadcasting, "absolutely would not" tell him what to play.

Other "conscious rap" groups such as The Coup, Dilated Peoples, Blackalicious, and De La Soul are hitting the same wall of disinterest from commercial radio when they offer songs containing political criticism. Even rapper Nate Dogg, a longtime member of the commercially popular Dogg Pound rap family, had trouble getting his song about 9/11 picked up.

In past war protest movements, radio was the vehicle by which anti-war songs such as "Ohio," a Neil Young song about the Vietnam war protesters killed by police at Kent State University, gathered mass attention in a timely way. No such anti-war song earned widespread popularity during the war in Iraq.

Hip-hop columnist, KPFA disc jockey and former KMEL deejay Davey D ( says that "if you're not on the air, you're nowhere." And with four corporate entities owning the vast majority of radio stations in this country, he says the corporate campaign to ban the airing of anti-government and anti-war music is a carefully calculated political play.

"I can only come to the conclusion that you're dealing with an entity that wants to have certain provisions granted to it by the (Federal Communications Commission) and the government," he says. "They want to buy up more stations and don't want any restrictions, so they say, 'Let's go along with the program, keep all this anti-war sentiment to a minimum.'"

Davey D says it's all part of a political campaign to stay on the Bush administration's good side and lobby for fewer regulations on station ownership.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit research group that tracks political donations, since the summer of 2000, Clear Channel (based in San Antonio, Texas) has donated $176,000 to the national Republican fundraising groups and $25,000 to Democrats. A Clear Channel spokesperson would not comment.

Kelly says he believes most people in the radio business just want to play good music that gets high ratings.

"The way you do that is to make your constituency happy with what you're doing, musically and otherwise."

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