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Walking a path into lyric Hell

February 19, 2006 12:51 am

THE STABBING DEATH of Baron J. Braswell II last month has people debating everything from The Free Lance-Star's decision to print the names of the juveniles charged in connection with the incident, to whether a song like "Knuck If You Buck" incites violent behavior.

That is as it should be. When a tragic event happens, everything that led up to it and took place after it deserves scrutiny.

From my subjective view as someone who works in the newsroom here, publishing the names of those arrested after the slaying was the right thing to do and an easy call. They may be juveniles, but these kids were caught up in a very grown-up situation that resulted in a deadly crime. As members of a high-school football team, they are public figures whose actions off the field gain public notoriety whether we name them or not.

And that's the second point. When the names are published, the rumor mill is halted. In the days immediately after the incident, we were bombarded with anecdotal information about who was purportedly involved. Many students who were merely questioned by police found their names bandied about as being directly implicated. That caused unnecessary anger and sadness among family and friends--not to mention the individuals themselves.

We are obviously keeping a close eye on the case to see how it unfolds from here on. If anyone charged is cleared, the newspaper will carry that information too.

Analyzing what spawned the events of Friday night, Jan. 20-- well, that's a lot more difficult. Part of me tends to believe that I, as a middle-aged white male, am in no position to really know, understand, or certainly judge what is going with high-school-age kids these days, much less black high-school-age kids attending a hip-hop party. Maybe I'll gain a little insight when my young kids reach high school.

On top of that, a career in journalism can't help but make someone like me an advocate of free speech. Without fail, whenever I hear or witness something that to me has no redeeming value, I remind myself of the quotation: "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

That quote, according to an Internet encyclopedia, is attributed to the French writer and philosopher Voltaire, but is more likely a summation of his views.

So my knee-jerk reaction to the lyrics of a song such as "Knuck If You Buck," perhaps the last words Baron Braswell ever heard, is that while they may be disgusting, who am I to tell anyone what they can or cannot write, sing, or listen to? I wouldn't want anyone telling me what I'm allowed to write.

But then again, I think I'm able to both write provocatively and exercise some self-control at the same time. It seems at best childish and at worst malicious to offer for public consumption every lewd, disgusting, or violent thought that crosses one's mind. Why is it necessary to use foul language, glorify violence, and denigrate women? For bravado's sake? To test the shielding power of the First Amendment?

Consider this verse from the song "Knuck If You Buck," by Crime Mob:


Well I'm a gat totin' pistol holdin'

Nigga on yo damn street

Stompin jumpin bumpin

And get crunk off in this damn thang

Throwin dem bows up at dez hoes

They screamin they bleedin from they nose

But we start to swang we makin niggas hit the flo.'

So now I'm seriously thinking, maybe for the first time ever, that as a parent and as a member of a community, I can reconcile being selective about the speech I find acceptable. And I can say this without fear of hypocrisy, knowing that the hundreds of records from my youth that live in my basement contain countless references to sex and drugs--but not misogyny and murder.

With due respect to the letter-writer who argued that people kill people--not music, movies, or video games: If it were only that simple. Do we really know how every individual is affected by outside influences? Of course you punish the killer, but why is one person a killer and another not?

In the same vein, though, a waiting period and background check prior to the sale of certain CDs--and not just those rank gangsta rap ones--might not be such a bad idea.

Irresponsible speech needn't rise to the level of shouting "FIRE" in a crowded movie theater to exceed First Amendment protection. Indeed, how is that so different from pumping those lyrics into a crowded ballroom that includes a bunch of rowdy teenagers, at least one of whom is packing a knife?

Freedom of speech carries with it a level of responsibility. At the newspaper we are bound by legal interpretations of libel and defamation as well as the day-to-day judgment we count on from those who work here. Newspapers make news when they are held responsible for printing words that frivolously damage someone's reputation or character.

The threat of legal action that could close this newspaper and put hundreds of employees out of work causes us to be careful about what we say.

If the words from another line in the song, And stomp his ass down to the flo' , became instructions precisely followed in the moments leading to Baron Braswell's death, is it unreasonable to think that the writer of those words should be held liable for the damage he has caused?

Federal fines and crackdowns have successfully forced Howard Stern off the radio airwaves and to a place where you really have to want to hear him to find him--and pay for the privilege.

Lawsuits by women's groups and mainstream community activist groups could tie the Crime Mobs of the world up in court and cost them plenty in legal fees no matter the outcome.

It's easy to say that parents need to help their kids put this stuff in perspective, but there are just too few Cleaver families these days. Too few parents care enough to even try, and anyone who remembers being a kid knows the attraction of anything taboo. Still, parents should constantly express their disgust for such lyrics and the "artists" who use them. It might actually rub off on enough kids to make a difference.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.