As you probably know, the dispute over Cordova House, the proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan has dominated the political headlines for the past month. The dispute has grown from what at least one reporter called a non-issue to a political and ideological fight which has been weighed in on by the likes of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and President Obama (with a subsequent clarification by President Obama’s staff, as reported here by the Washington Post).
I originally planned on reporting on the blog and the interviews (here, here and here) by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons in defense of the cultural center. (In addition to being the founder of Def Jam Records, Simmons is a board member of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.) More recently in the Wall Street Journal Online, Simmons challenged Palin and Gingrich to prove they support freedom of worship for Muslims by asking them “to join me in fighting anti-Muslim hate-speech across the nation.”
But something else—something thoroughly hip hop, 21st century, and about freedom of speech—caught my attention here: dueling videos on YouTube that go to the heart of the debate. This was originally reported as “YouTube music videos go head-to-head over ‘ground zero mosque’” on the site Political Scrapbook. As soon as I read the story and saw there was a hip-hop connection, I had to investigate and bring it to your attention. To borrow a famous cinematic line: “here . . . we . . . GO!”
In this corner, we have a not-ready-for-prime-time Eminem-esque performance by a young rapper who goes by the YouTube handle “big j stokes” laying down his blunt opinions (read: Parental Guidance Suggested) about the dispute in his homemade cut, The Ground-Zero Mosque RAP!!!
In the other corner, in a style that I’ll call “country music karaoke,” is the counter-argument by “Trade Martin” who performs the oh-so-cryptically titled We’ve Got to Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero.
Now that you’ve seen the two sides, let me be a law professor for a paragraph. I always try to tell my students to always try to understand not just the text, but the context. So, a word on the context: the “Rap” appears homemade by a guy who looks no older than about 17. I mean really—he calls himself “big j stokes.” If you need further proof of the desktop-soapbox nature of his comments, look at his channel on YouTube. You’ll be dazed and confused by the hand-cam videos of Big J in karaoke rap battle.
In contrast, the “We’ve got to Stop the Mosque” video was produced by “Project Shining City.” From a quick glimpse of their website, Project Shining City is a conservative website which touts American constitutionalism and is aspiring to speak to “the Glen Beck middle.” Moreover, the co-producer, WooTv. us, is a similar Tea Party website, lead by African American Tea Party activist Lloyd Marcus. The site proclaims itself to be the “Home of the Conservative Voice.”
All this sums up the debate and divisions better than my editorializing ever could. So, (most of) my sarcasm aside, here is proof positive that, contrary to the beliefs of some, the First Amendment is not being undercut by special interests, whether they be left, right, or center. In this case, the First Amendment is doing exactly what it is supposed to do: allowing a debate to take place in the open marketplace of ideas that is YouTube. This debate is happening in a fashion that is driven by music and poetry’s appeal to our emotional and intellectual sensibilities—which is the power of hip hop (and also, apparently, cheesy country karaoke).
It is also uniquely 21st century since anyone with a computer and a mix program can state their point of view backed up by a catchy beat. Here, we have a kid with a desktop camera, a hip-hop consciousness, and a beat who is holding his own with the better-funded right wing conservative interests. This fact shows that the First Amendment is working at its best when it creates this opening for a (small-d) democratic throw down. Best of all, the First Amendment allows almost any point of view to be articulated and then you, gentle reader, get to decide what you believe.
(Afterword: I realize that this whole debate depends on the fact that YouTube is free and that anyone can post to it at any time. Thus, I also realize that much could be said about a real threat to the First Amendment: the possible end of net neutrality. It seems fair to ask whether corporate interests will destroy the marketplace of ideas by putting a price tag on the Internet. That is a serious issue, but it is a debate for a future blog posting.)