Special Briefing: The Campaign to Criminalize Rap - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Special Briefing: The Campaign to Criminalize Rap

Special Briefing: The Campaign to Criminalize Rap

By OZY Editors


There’s more to the battle against rap music than one bar’s DJ policy — but it’s a symptom.

By OZY Editors

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What’s happening? Last week, Chicago gay nightclub Progress Bar took heat for emailing its DJs a new rule barring the use of rap music on its sound system. “Our goal is to promote a positive, happy, energetic, upbeat and most importantly … a FUN vibe,” the email explained, saying that any DJs who break the rule will no longer be welcome. Once the email leaked, accusations of racism weren’t far behind. Shortly afterward, Progress Bar emailed an apology and retraction, saying its first message had been “unwelcoming and hurtful.”

Why does it matter? Well firstly, who ever said rap never has a “fun vibe”? But more than that, the bar’s short-lived anti-rap campaign is just one of several insidious encroachments on rap as a genre, especially as it makes inroads around the world. Rap’s historic association with marginalized communities — and with protest — doesn’t sit well with certain authorities … and they’re taking steps to silence it. 

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 Jamal Knox better known as Mayham Mal

Source Getty


Full court press. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case of Jamal Knox, a Pittsburgh rapper sentenced to two years in prison for threatening to kill specific police officers in his songs. The high court appeal was brought by a group of rappers, including Killer Mike and Meek Mill, who argued that Knox was making a political statement rather than a “true threat.” Hip-hop lyrics have occasionally been used in court as evidence for criminal actions, though critics of this practice point out that such admission isn’t used for any other genre.

Russian to judgment. In Russia, the rise of the internet as a dominant driver of the music industry has helped foster a vibrant youth rap culture. But those same youth are becoming more critical of the Kremlin — perhaps due to rap music’s focus on poverty and other negative aspects of life in Russia — and it shows: Some popular rappers have had shows summarily canceled or have been detained by police. President Vladimir Putin has previously suggested that instead of banning rap music, the state could attempt to control it or guide it. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities reportedly requested last year that TV programmers avoid guests associated with hip-hop. Since then, some rap acts have made it onto Chinese screens, and there’s been speculation that the guidelines were purposefully vague to encourage TV shows to self-censor.

Not all bans are created equal. This year alone, many radio stations have opted to ban music by R. Kelly and Michael Jackson after high-profile documentaries detailed their alleged sexual abuse of underage people. Spotify also removed R. Kelly’s music from its featured playlists, but it elected not to remove Kelly or Jackson from its streaming service altogether.

History repeating. This is far from the first music panic, and rap is far from the first victim. Rock ’n’ roll music was famously demonized by religious conservatives both as appropriating spiritual music and as teenage savagery. Rock fans aren’t innocent, though: Witness 1979’s Disco Demolition Night. Disco as a genre had been initially the province of mostly Black artists, and then was wholeheartedly embraced by the gay community. In the 1970s, it went mainstream — to the dismay of rock fans. When the Chicago White Sox, hoping to attract a crowd, announced they’d destroy disco records during the intermission of a doubleheader, 50,000 people showed up and incited a riot, storming the field and causing the second game to be canceled.   


Russia’s Youth Found Rap. The Kremlin Is Worried, by Ivan Nechepurenko in The New York Times

“Rap has begun capturing the minds of young people in Russia just as those aged 24 and under are moving from being the group most supportive of Mr. Putin’s government to one that is increasingly critical of it.”

Can His Rap Return to Syria? By Mat Nashed on OZY

“The album, Terminal, addresses the predicament of youth who grow up with hip-hop in the Middle East. In Shorbaji’s view, many of them feel too Arab for the West and too Western for the Arab world.”


The Threatening Nature of … Rap Music?

“Are these increases in rap trials just another example that racism in this country is alive and well?” 

Watch on TEDx Talks on YouTube:

Vladimir Putin’s Cracking Down on Rap

“No government should be in charge of rap, especially not a government run by Vladimir Putin. You’re gonna have the first person to lose a rap battle by poisoning.” 

Watch on The Daily Show on YouTube:


Best defense. In a 2014 ruling, New Jersey’s Supreme Court overturned the attempted murder conviction of Vonte Skinner, which had been based in part on lyrics the aspiring gangster rapper had written. “One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell–Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects,” read the opinion. Skinner got a new trial and was sentenced to 16 years in jail.

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