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MTV, Public Enemy at Loggerheads

MTV won't air video with lyric about Mumia Abu-Jamal. The rappers refuse to delete the phrase.

September 19, 2002|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MTV has declined to air a new video by the rap group Public Enemy unless the group agrees to excise a lyric advocating the release of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, a death row inmate whose case has been debated across the globe.

The new song "Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need" contains the phrase "free Mumia," which an MTV spokeswoman on Tuesday said was too political to be included in the channel's playlist.

"We asked if they could take out the word 'free,' not the name mentioned," the spokeswoman said. "We felt it was a personal and political position on an individual and we are an unbiased company. We asked them to resubmit the video without the word 'free.' "

The move may be an unprecedented one for MTV, which is perhaps the single most powerful tastemaker for U.S. music consumers and reaches 78 million households.

The station routinely returns videos to music labels asking for edits of content deemed too sexual, violent or crude, but the spokeswoman said she could think of no past example of an edit request based on political speech.

Chuck D, leader of the seminal rap group, said he would never kowtow on political principle in his music.

"I do art and songs to provoke and not to be a joke," he said in a statement Tuesday.

Although Public Enemy has not been a commercial force in recent years, the group is credited as a pioneer of political content in the genre with memorable tracks such as "Fight the Power."

Abu-Jamal is the former Black Panther and journalist whose 1981 conviction and subsequent death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer has been a hotly charged issue for years.

It has become a cause celebre in the music world too, with musicians such as Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys and Bad Religion staging benefit concerts and advocating a new trial for Abu-Jamal.

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