The Rap Flap

ACTING on a 1973 Supreme Court obscenity ruling, county law-enforcement officers in Florida and Texas have arrested some store-owners for selling a rap album by the group 2 Live Crew, and put others on notice. These actions reflect more than tension between the public's moral sensitivity and artistic freedom. More than censorship is involved. What's occuring is a clash of cultures - black inner-city male youth versus the social mainstream.

Officials argue that the obscene lyrics of the rap album ``Nasty As You Wanna Be'' outweigh its value as an art form, and that the public good is thus undermined. Defenders of rap say officials do not understand the context of the music - that it accurately represents, and even protests, the world of the ghetto and hence qualifies as art.

Censoring a record clearly has its ironies. Both hard and soft pornography are readily available in stores and over cable TV. Such material, however, isn't generally classified as art. It remains a bit isolated from the mainstream.

Rap itself is not a subject for censure. Some of the music is extremely inventive. 2 Live Crew, however, represents a harder-edged rap that has come on the scene lately. Their album's lyrics are clearly obscene - filled with crude references to sexual behavior and organs. The music denigrates women and suggests violence against them is acceptable.

This music may reflect the lack of values, anarchy, and animality of the streets. Or it may even offer may even offer a momentary stay against the confusion of those streets. But it offers no way out, ``no transcendence,'' to borrow the expression of Preston Williams, black minister-scholar at Princeton University.

It's easy to agree with those who feel mass acceptance of such music disturbing. But censorship is, at the least, questionable as an effective response or deterrent. It's a bucket of water on a forest fire. Or perhaps a bucket of gasoline is a better analogy, since 2 Live Crew record sales, already ``platinum,'' are booming with the recent publicity.

Vigorous public debate on the issue and discussion within families are important. Perhaps that's the value of the censorship debate. But people ought to be able to decide for themselves whether obscenity outweighs art.

Censorship isn't really the main issue here. What most needs attention is an underclass subculture alienated from the family that the music describes. A study described in the Atlantic Monthly's June cover story,``Growing Up Scared,'' found that one in 11 inner-city teenagers had been raped; one in five had their lives threatened. One expert notes a ``new breed'' of young people on the street who are ``very reckless, very carefree ... and dangerous.''

Obscene or violent music and the phenomenon of ``wilding'' may both be signs of the times in urban America. Censorship doesn't get at the origins of these phenomena. It may in fact only deepen youthful cynicism.

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