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Say No to 'Ho' but Yes to Free Speech

Most of us would never dream of hurling the N-word at an audience, baring a nipple on national television, or calling a group of African-American women "nappy-headed hos" over the airwaves. Yet because of the actions of a handful of public figures, performers have come under greater scrutiny in recent years-none more so than the hip-hop community, following the comments made by shock jock Don Imus.

The leaders of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network-hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis, East Coast regional minister of the Nation of Islam-released a statement April 23 advocating that the recording and broadcast industries "voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words 'bitch' and 'ho' and the racially offensive word 'nigger.'" Simmons and Chavis also emphasized that their "internal discussions with industry leaders are not about censorship." 

The statement continued: "Our discussions are about the corporate social responsibility of the industry to voluntarily show respect to African Americans and other people of color, African-American women, and to all women in lyrics and images." As a result, the debate within the entertainment industry over the right to censor versus the right to free speech has grown from a murmur to an all-out shouting match.

Many groups-such as the Parents Television Council-that operate under the pretext of protecting children against sex, violence, and profanity in entertainment have placed that "social responsibility" on the industry rather than the individual. Although media savvy, such groups do not represent the entire viewing audience.

We will still have situations such as the one in which Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada mandated that comedians avoid using the N-word on his stage-a result of pressure from African-American groups, following former Seinfeld star Michael Richards' well-publicized onstage outburst. As a consequence, according to a December Inside Edition report, comedian and actor Damon Wayans was banned from the Laugh Factory for three months and fined $320 for using the N-word 16 times in a 20-minute performance.

We understand the arguments made in this debate. It is difficult to defend the artistic merits of songs with titles like Too $hort's "Paying for Pussy" or music videos that feature a few fully clothed men surrounded by thongs-er, throngs-of gyrating, half-naked women. And, yes, some entertainment isn't "family-friendly." If censors decide that the N-word isn't acceptable in music, will it be acceptable in books depicting some of the more grim aspects of history? Where do we draw the line? We've seen books such as Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Richard Wright's Native Son banned from school bookshelves in the name of protecting the public. What thoughts, ideas, and beliefs could be lost if TV, film, art, books, and other media were to come in whitewashed, family-friendly packages?

Some of us may not purchase certain rap artists' CDs, watch their music videos, or believe the messages their products convey. But as advocates for performers, we respect all artists' right to express themselves in whatever way they see fit. For artists, the right to free speech comes with responsibility. Performers must take the time to ask, "Is this the message that I want to convey to the world? Is this a character or story that I believe in? Can I respect this work today and in 20 years? Is this an image that accurately reflects my world?" 

You may say no to "ho," but say yes to your and your fellow performers' right to say it. As linguist Noam Chomsky commented in a 1992 interview with John Pilger on the BBC's The Late Show, "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."   

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