The piece comes after Kweli canceled a performance at the Riot Room in Kansas City because the venue had also booked the Norwegian black metal band TAAKE, whom Kweli said “sympathizes with racism and bigotry.” The group has been accused of writing anti-Muslim lyrics while the band’s singer reportedly once performed with a swastika painted on his chest.
On Wednesday, TAAKE canceled their North American tour and shared a lengthy Facebook post in which they compared the backlash against them to “the McCarthy witch hunts” and blamed the cancellations on “a small minority of left wing agitators [who] are able to force their agenda on the majority, and deprive music fans of their freedom to attend concerts and go about their day to day activities without the fear of reprisals and retaliation.” The group also criticized Kweli, claiming his decision to cancel his Riot Room show was influenced by anti-fascist activists known as Antifa.
Kweli doesn’t mention TAAKE in his essay, but focuses instead on the issue at the center of the band’s complaint about “left wing agitators”: Free speech. Kweli opens his piece with the story of Jeremy Christian, who harassed a teenage Muslim girl for wearing a hijab and then slashed the throats of three men who tried to stop him (two of the men subsequently died). At his arraignment, Christian shouted, “Free speech or die, Portland. You got no safe place. This is America. Get out if you don’t like free speech.”
While Kweli recognizes that Christian and others like him are extremists, he argues that “many on the far right, the side adjacent to white nationalist and Nazi types like Christian, use the principle of free speech as an excuse to say whatever they want without consequence. Like Christian, they think free speech applies only to what they want to say and hear.”
Kweli adds that this kind of free speech advocacy “is disingenuous at best and, at worst, insidious. This is an invented oppression… What today’s right-wing free speech advocates are truly advocating is for Nazis, the KKK and other white supremacist organizations and sympathizers to have additional, special rights the rest of us do not have: the right to say whatever they want without dissent, argument, pushback, or consequence.”
Kweli goes on to discuss the contours of this new debate, specifically how right-wing free speech advocates accuse anti-fascist activists of being “the real Nazis.” The rapper suggests that the right views Antifa’s efforts to stop racism and fascism as more dangerous than actual racism or fascism. He also argues that the right refuses to acknowledge how fascist and racist rhetoric inherently breeds violence.
“Those who believe in ethno-states and are anti-diversity are, frankly, anti-human,” Kweli writes. “The sole way to achieve that goal is through violence and extermination of others. It doesn’t matter if the speaker who supports ethno-states and hates diversity is polite… Hating a person for how they were born is illogical and hateful, and hate does not always deserve a debate.”
Kweli deftly ties the current debate over free speech to the free speech controversy that engulfed the music industry, especially hip-hop, when he was a teenager. In the late-Eighties and early-Nineties, Tipper Gore – wife of then-Senator Al Gore – launched a campaign to censor explicit content in music. While Gore went after musicians from all genres, for Kweli, Ice-T became the most prominent target, especially after his rock band Body Count released their infamous song, “Cop Killer.”
“As much as one could within the business, Ice-T martyred himself for the culture in the name of freedom of speech,” Kweli writes. “Today’s self-proclaimed right-wing martyrs for freedom of speech are not gangsta rappers. They are political talking heads who align themselves with white supremacist rhetoric.”
Kweli also notes that just as one North Carolina police precinct vowed not to help any record store selling Body Count albums, police did little in 2017 to find the white supremacists who beat up DeAndre Harris and killed Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“Being a free speech absolutist in this era is a white privilege pushed by those who believe, like Trump, that there are ‘very fine people’ who march with KKK and Nazis,” Kweli writes. “Claiming to be oppressed by opponents of freedom of speech allows these white supremacists to claim they are just as oppressed as the people they oppress. They are jealous of the strength shown by the oppressed; it looks fun and sexy from where they sit.”
At the end of his essay, Kweli touches on how this new free speech debate has played out on college campuses and social media. In both arenas, far-right activists have claimed their speech has been inhibited, whether it’s university administrations disinviting controversial speakers, or Twitter banning users for hate-speech. However, Kweli argues that neither of these are legitimate violations of free speech (rather, he quips, those who get kicked off Twitter for harassment likely violated the site’s own terms of service that all users must agree to).
“Freedom of speech in America simply means the government cannot arrest you for what you say,” he says. “This I agree with. This doesn’t mean I must tolerate or listen to what you have to say, and it doesn’t mean that your misinformed opinions must be treated as fact or with respect, either in the flesh or on social media… There are places in the world where free speech is truly being suppressed. Your Twitter account is not one of them. Your college campus is not one of them. Use your free speech to show solidarity with those who are actually being oppressed instead.”