“Is he being unfairly targeted?”
The day Action Bronson’s headlining performance at Yonge and Dundas Square was cancelled by the organizers of NXNE, bowing to the pressure of a petition claiming the New York rapper’s music “glorifies gang-raping and murdering women,” which attracted 40 thousand signatures, I went on the news to talk about it. It’s a privilege I have as a music journalist who is not camera-shy, and something I personally enjoy, sharing my views with the masses, helping to provide context to the headlines of the day. On this day though, it kind of sucked. Because it meant I actually had to listen to Action Bronson. In advance of the taping I reviewed the song cited in the petition, “Consensual Rape” (highlights: “Your life is cheap like a hooker in the Philippines”; “Don’t get me pissed off, fuck around rip your tits off”) along with the video for “Brunch,” which shows him angrily, repeatedly spitting “fucking bitch, fucking bitch… you scumbag bitch” while stabbing the corpse of a dead women rolled up in a carpet and stuffed in his trunk. Brutal. And so when the host at CP24 asked if I thought this whole thing was unfair, I had a difficult time keeping my answers clean enough for live TV. And since there’s never enough time to express everything in those short bits, I wanted to write about it all here.
This is a story about 40 thousand people saying no to misogyny, and winning.
It takes a lot for me to cheer for someone’s gig getting the axe because they offended someone. Like most people, I abhor censorship, which is usually propagated by uninformed folks who put the “jerk” in knee-jerk, and scapegoats certain genres unfairly. My personal tastes in music and art run towards some pretty dark stuff, and even if they didn’t I’d still think it was fundamentally wrong to decide what others should enjoy. But I do make a distinction between art that is simply violent or explicit and art that is filled with hate. (It’s why I love gory, disturbing horror films but not exploitation films.) And after thinking about this situation for a few days, I have concluded this is not about censorship at all. It’s definitely not about rap music. Or policing art. It’s bigger than that. This is a story about 40 thousand people saying no to misogyny, and winning. And what a great victory that is.
Since the petition to remove the concert from a free public space was started, by Toronto’s Erica Shiner, there has been plenty of outcry from fans of Action Bronson and others, shouting about the right to free speech. Which means they have no clue what freedom of speech actually means.
Freedom of speech is the right to say what you want and not get arrested by the state for it. And even then, it’s not absolute. In Canada, we have a Broadcast Standards Council to regulate what can be said over the public airwaves. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, subject to “reasonable limits.” The hate propaganda section of our criminal code (319) makes illegal the public incitement or willful promotion of hatred against “any identifable group” and is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. It’s mostly used to shut down racist propaganda but also protects against intimidation, harrassment, physical force or threats of physical force motivated by hate against race, religion, ethnic origins, age, sexual orientation, disability and sex. Women have been protected by this law since October of 2014, when Bill C-13 was passed to amend the code, a very important step to recognize that hate can be gendered.
Note that gender is not on that list. Because we as a society have yet to recognize that half of the population is often a target of abuse. This is partly why, in 2000, attemps to ban Eminem entry to Canada to perform at Skydome on the grounds that his music promoted violence against women failed, because that’s not at that time it was not actually a crime.) And if you still don’t believe that’s true, or a problem, This doesn’t eliminate the problem, of course. Take a look at the kind of Tweets that were lobbed at Shiner when her petition started to take off. (Warning: vile language and crimes against grammar ahead)
Reading these made me furious. More furious than watching “Brunch.” It made me realize that I dislike Action Bronson’s supporters more than the rapper himself. They have no art to hide behind. This might be an unfair assumption but I’d bet they’re not activists working to free Pussy Riot or Iranian bloggers or stop Bill C-51. They are simply filled with hate. And they have no shame in saying these things publicly. Because they live in a world where women are objects to be talked about, to be talked at, any way they choose. And when you are angry with something a woman says or does, the appropriate and perfectly acceptable response is to call her a cunt who should get beat up. I know. It’s not my first day on the internet. Don’t read the comments and all that. But why should we let this go simply because everyone does it?
This isn’t about the lyrics of any one performer. It’s about how violently some react when women dare to present an opposing viewpoint that might mess with the fun they are having at our expense.
A lot of fans protesting the petition point to the fact that the song “Consensual Rape” is four years-old. This reminds me of when I tell my mother I don’t want to visit the friend of hers I know used to beat his wife when I was a kid and she says “Oh, he’s not like that anymore.” Like that makes it OK. They say there’s no way he was even going to play it at this concert. But from what little I know of Action Bronson (whose response to the petition was “FUCK ALL YALL HATERS BLOW DICK”), seems pretty likely he would have pulled that track out to play here just to piss off his detrators, to show who is boss.
That’s what this is about. Not about the lyrics of any one performer, however offensive they may be to some. It’s about how violently some men (and some women) react when women dare to present an opposing viewpoint that might mess with the fun they are having at our expense. Because: How. Dare. We.
This is about a sea change in the public’s acceptance of garbage being thrown at women, in the name of “boys will be boys” entertainment. It has has everything to do with Gamergate, and FHRITP, and female comedians speaking out against sexist hecklers. It’s about saying enough with this shit.
Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence. Go ahead, Action Bronson, put your art out into the world. I’m not going to stop you, or tell you your records should be burned or your lyrics blacked out, or kept out of stores or off the air. I’m not even going to sign a petition trying to ban you from playing in my city’s town square. Just know that you don’t get to say whatever you want about women anymore and expect them not to talk back. We are not props in the back of your trunk. We have freedom of speech too.
Note: Updated to reflect amendments to the Criminal Code made in October 20, 2014 which added gender to the list of identifiable groups protected by hate propaganda laws.