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Behind the Guns N' Roses Racism Furor : The continuing debate over whether the band's song, 'One in a Million,' promotes bigotry

October 15, 1989|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Rock 'n' roll is in the hot seat again.

Call it media hype or justifiable outrage, but an acrimonious debate is raging over whether hard-rock heavyweights Guns N' Roses--as well as rap idols Public Enemy and speed-metal kings Slayer--are promoting bigotry and hatred.

Guns N' Roses has been under fire for a host of inflammatory lyrics in its song "One in a Million," which uses derogatory epithets to describe blacks and gays. The furor has continued, largely fueled by a Rolling Stone cover story in August. In that article, Guns N' Roses leader Axl Rose deepened the debate by stating: "Why can black people go up to each other and (use racial epithets), but when a white guy does it, all of a sudden it's a big put-down?"

Since then, rock and racism has become a hot story, with Guns N' Roses smack in the bull's-eye:

* A host of media outlets, from the "Today" show to the New York Times, have spotlighted heated reactions to the group's allegedly racist and anti-homosexual lyrics.

* Interviewing Boy George on his talk show, host Arsenio Hall blasted Rose as an "ignorant racist."

* In a letter to the New York Times, actor Sean Penn admiringly defended "One in a Million," comparing it to a Robert Capa war photo, labeling criticism of the band "pseudo-liberal hogwash."

* Parents Music Resource Center founder Tipper Gore also joined the debate, criticizing Guns N' Roses on "Entertainment Tonight" and, in a letter to the New York Times last Sunday, sounding the call for more "concern" and "outrage" about "troubling messages marketed to children through popular music."

In a full-page ad in Hollywood trade papers late last month, the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked the music industry: "Have we, as a nation, grown so apathetic about the racial, religious and sexual bias that is beginning to permeate our society? . . . Isn't it about time (the music industry) takes a firm stand against the immoral spread of hatred and bigotry?"

It's hard to believe that the Rolling Stones outraged parents and TV programmers two decades ago by singing "Let's Spend the Night Together." But now the Shock Rock mantle has been passed to Guns N' Roses, whose "One in a Million" offers a far more graphic--and vulgar--sketch of modern life. The song portrays a small-town boy's first fearful glimpse of grimy, downtown Los Angeles and uses scabrous, streetwise language--unsuitable for publication in this newspaper--replete with slurs against blacks, gays and immigrants.

The rock ballad attracted some initial media scrutiny when it was released late last year. But it didn't emerge as a cause celebre until a commentary published in the Village Voice in late August took the press to task for criticizing Public Enemy for anti-Semitic remarks by one of its members without expressing similar outrage over Rose's lyrics.

(Earlier this year, Prof. Griff, known as Public Enemy's Minister of Information, gave a much-publicized interview claiming that Jews were behind "a majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe." Though the group fired Griff, he was eventually reinstated, even though he refused to retract his remarks; in his most recent interview, he called his statements "100% pure.")

Defending his song in Rolling Stone, Axl Rose said he used a racial epithet because "it's a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem. There's a rap group, N.W.A. . . . I mean, they're proud of that word. . . . I've had some very bad experiences with homosexuals. (But am I) anti-homosexual? I'm not against them doing what they do as long as they're not forcing it upon me."

Rose would not comment further, but his management firm issued a statement saying: "Guns N' Roses do not base their career on bigotry. . . . It is an artist's right to comment with honesty on both the beautiful and the ugly."

Are such racial epithets fair game because blacks use them too? Not at all, says Arsenio Hall.

"I never do--ever. And Guns N' Roses' attitude points out the very danger in using it. Because ignorant white people like Axl Rose are going to get the idea that's it's OK to use it too. The difference is very clear. N.W.A uses it in a figurative way, whereas Guns N' Roses uses it in a negative, derogatory way--as a white slavemaster would use it.

"There are rules of the turf. . . . I met several members of Guns N' Roses during the MTV Awards, and they seemed nice and decent. But Axl never said a word to me. And if we ever talk, I'll tell him another rule of the street. If you use that kind of language, you get your (rear-end) whipped. And I hope someone whips his (rear end) so he knows it's a mistake."

One thing is obvious--the debate over ethnic slurs has touched a raw nerve.

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