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Professor Calls 2 Live Crew 'Refreshing' : Arts: Jurors in the rap group's obscenity trial get a course in the history of black culture from experts called by the defense.

October 20, 1990|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Shakespeare, Eddie Murphy, Ella Fitzgerald, James Joyce and James Brown were just a few of the names mentioned in court here Friday as defense attorneys tried to establish for the jury the artistic company kept by the rap group 2 Live Crew.

Most of the name-dropping was done by Henry L. Gates, a professor of literature at Duke University, who called 2 Live Crew's music "astonishing and refreshing."

Gates said the group had taken "stereotypes of black men--as oversexed, hypersexed in an unhealthy way--and blown them up. You have to bust out laughing." The group has "burned (its) place in the history of black culture," he said.

Three members of the Miami-based rap group, including leader Luther (Luke) Campbell, 29, are standing trial on obscenity charges stemming from a performance June 10 at Club Futura in nearby Hollywood, Fla. If convicted, each faces a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The jury, which includes five whites and one black, heard what amounted to a survey course in black culture as the defense attempted to establish 2 Live Crew's place in the artistic tradition.

Gates mentioned the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Joyce as containing language that was considered lewd during its time. He added that rap follows the black tradition of signifying, or "doing the dozens," a form of rhythmic teasing and cajoling, often peppered with lewd or off-color remarks that can be meant as insult or compliment. It is such an ingrained black American practice that its form in history is taught in many universities, he said.

Also testifying for the defense was John Leland, a music critic for the New York newspaper Newsday, who traced the origins of rap music to 1968 in the west Bronx. In the continuum of modern music development, Leland said, "a concert performance (of 2 Live Crew) makes a contribution."

Prosecutors cross-examined Gates and Leland with repeated questions about the artistic integrity of the lyrics. Each time lyrics referring to oral and anal sex were read, the jurors giggled while rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.

Two muddy, noisy tape recordings of the adults-only concert are the chief evidence against the group. The prosecution contends that the lyrics of the song are obscene based on contemporary community standards and that the concert as a whole lacked serious political or artistic value. The defense concedes that the performance was raunchy but contends it is constitutionally protected as free speech.

Both sides rested their cases in late afternoon and the judge set closing arguments for this morning.

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