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Right words to inspire reading?

BET stirs controversy with an edgy video campaign promoting literacy and black pride.

August 24, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Long criticized for showing gangsta rap videos and those with scantily clad female dancers, Black Entertainment Television is now taking those images -- spiced with profanity and frequent use of the N-word -- and remixing them into an audacious animated video promoting literacy and black pride that is drawing both praise and condemnation.

Employing a catchy variation on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the satire, which is airing with BET's afternoon programming, orders viewers to "read a book, read a book, read a [expletive] book" with a bouncy rap lyric.

BET encouraged viewers to join the network's online discussion after it began airing the video about a month ago. But the debate -- both pro and con -- escalated after unedited versions of "Read a Book" recently surfaced on YouTube. Most of the discussion centers on the negative stereotypes of African Americans, rather that the language.

In one scene, a gangster uses a book as a cartridge in an automatic weapon, while another shows a woman shaking her rear with "BOOK" printed on her low-riding pants. The video also says that blacks should raise "your . . . kids," drink more water instead of alcohol, buy land, "wash your . . . teeth" and "use deodorant."

Another version of the video shows pictures of historical figures such as Martin Luther King and the covers of several books such as "The Color Purple" and Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Also spotlighted is popular author Zane, who specializes in black erotica.

The video was written and produced by Bomani Ahmer, who uses the animated rapper D-Mite to deliver the message, and was developed by BET Animation, a new division established by the network's president of entertainment, Reginald Hudlin.

The coarse language is bleeped out when it is broadcast on BET, which is part of Viacom, the owner of CBS, which earlier this year fired shock jock Don Imus for using what he called hip-hop-flavored humor in his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

One e-mail poster, going by the name tcphilosopher, called the video "a satirical observation on the current, ridiculous, offensive and embarrassing state of the once noble art of hip-hop." The poster added, "African Americans, open your mind. This man is not offending us. He's smaking [sic] us in the face and saying WAKE UP. This is what they think of us . . . and the reality is . . . most of it is true."

Posted JNubi07: "My son brought this film to my attention and based on all the vehicles being used to teach our children, this is definitely an attention getter with pointers our children and people of the Afro-culture need to listen to. Great job!"

But disboyizkrazy, wrote: "I am totally offended and do not appreciate the creator's degrading opinion. . . . This does not send off a good message but gives into the stereotypes that we, as a people, are faced with everyday."

And on a BET message board, bethous posted: "This is not a good way to address children. Reading a book should, hopefully, enable children to communicate in a more positive manner than this video."

Denys Cowan, senior vice president of animation for BET, said in an interview Thursday that he was "a little surprised" that "Read a Book" has elicited such a strong reaction. "We were doing it from the point of this being a fun, profound song," he said. "We didn't know it would take on this life."

He added that those who might be offended by the video were missing the point. "The magic of animation is that it can take complex ideas and present them in an entertaining and clear way. And this is a positive message."

As for the use of the N-word, which the NAACP and others "buried" in funeral services following the Imus incident, Cowan said: "That word has never gone away. It's like the death of Superman."

The video first premiered July 20 on "106th and Park" as "the new joint of the week." The video is solely a BET production and is not affiliated with any other literacy or cultural organization.

With its bold animation and in-your-face delivery, the programming of the video appears like a curious move for BET, which retreated in the recent furor over "Hot Ghetto Mess," its comedy clip show that premiered last month.

The show, which was inspired by a website that highlighted blacks in outrageous and sometimes degrading situations and clothing, came under fire from bloggers and others mostly due to its hot-button title and its anticipated content. Two days before the show premiered, the network announced it was changing the name of the series to "We Got to Do Better" in order to calm the opposition and put more emphasis on the show's mission of social commentary and uplift.

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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