Cat Stevens, Eminem and Bruce Springsteen have almost nothing in common, obviously. But in recent weeks, controversies have erupted centering on statements these artists have made, either in their music or in interviews, about politically charged issues. Each has handled the situation differently, and those differences speak volumes about the role of artistic provocation in our society — and how artists can most powerfully fuse their identities as private creators and public voices.
Cat Stevens, unfortunately, represents the easiest case to take a stand on. He rose to international fame in the Seventies on the strength of lovely, delicate songs like “Wild World,” “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and “Moonshadow.” When he later converted to Islam, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and more or less disowned the many popular songs he had written, it was hard for fans to understand what he was up to — and Islam certainly could have handled the matter more gracefully. But the choices he made were private and, ultimately, nobody else’s business.
However, when Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeni called for the death of author Salman Rushdie due to the alleged blasphemies against Islam in Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, Yusuf Islam refused to condemn that decision. He now denies that, but I heard him interviewed at the time and, while he did not himself call for Rushdie’s death, he devoted his comments exclusively to the novel’s insults to Islam, clearly implying that anyone who wrote such things deserved whatever he got.
Cat Stevens’ albums have now been reissued, and Yusuf Islam is giving interviews that try to deny his capitulation to the Ayatollah Khomeni’s repugnant, fundamentalist thuggery. Revealingly, however, Yusuf Islam still refuses to condemn the Ayatollah’s call for Rushdie’s death as wrong and evil — or to acknowledge his own reprehensible passive support of it. Until he does, he has no right to expect anyone who cares about artistic freedom — or basic human morality — to forgive or forget what he did.
As for Eminem, the young white rapper told us on his debut album that his goal was to “piss the world off,” and he’s definitely succeeded. His new album, The Marshall Mathers LP, has incited a tremendous amount of criticism for its homophobia and sexism. Those charges are true, of course. The level of violence against women represented on the album — both verbal and physical — is scarifying, and Eminem tosses the epithet “faggot” around with outrageous impunity.
But some gay-rights groups are saying The Marshall Mathers LP should never have been released by Eminem’s record label, Interscope, and that’s way out of line. You don’t have to justify the views expressed on the album to know that censorship of it would be wrong — and would almost certainly backfire on the very groups calling for it.
But Eminem and the album’s executive producer, Dr. Dre, haven’t helped anything with their insulting dismissals of critics’ complaints. As in so much hip-hop, Eminem’s album pushes hot buttons — about male sexuality, gender relations, class. He’s not the demon his critics claim he is, but he needs to understand that, just as he has a right to say whatever he likes, people have every right to say what they want about him. Meanwhile, his getting arrested on weapons charges, needless to say, only confirms the worst stereotypes about the man and his music.
Bruce Springsteen has drawn heat from law enforcement groups since he began performing a new song called “American Skin,” which explores the issues surrounding the police shooting of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo. A resident of the Bronx, Diallo was shot forty-one times by four police officers who mistook the wallet he was holding for a gun. (The officers were found not guilty of murder in a jury trial held in Albany, N.Y., after a court determined that they could not get a fair trial in the Bronx.) In disgraceful — not to mention, remarkably stupid — statements, the head of the New York’s Fraternal Order of Police has publicly denounced Springsteen as a “fucking dirtbag” and, incomprehensibly, a “floating fag” for writing “American Skin.” Predictably, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani has joined the chorus of criticism.
In fact, however, “American Skin” is a model of intelligent political songwriting. In the song, Springsteen never mentions Diallo by name — he evokes the situation only in such details as “41 shots” and lyrics like, “Is it a gun?/Is it a knife?/Is it a wallet?/This is your life.” When Springsteen performed “American Skin” on the opening date of a ten-night stand at Madison Square Garden in New York City, he surrounded it with songs that universalized the issues that help create tragedies like the Diallo shooting — issues like immigration, race, economics, corporate exploitation, class struggle and the tarnished, but enduring ideal of what America can be. (The song sequence ran “Point Blank,” “American Skin,” “Promised Land,” “Youngstown,” “Murder Incorporated,” “Badlands.”) In this country, wallet issues are as fatal to poor and working-class people as knives and guns, Springsteen is saying, in part. As long as that is true, tragedies like this one will continue to occur — and to divide us even further.
To say that Springsteen teased out those larger meanings, though, is not to say that he ever lost sight of the individual man who died. Diallo’s parents attended the opening night’s show, and his mother has publicly thanked Springsteen for remembering her son. That Springsteen has also performed benefits for officers killed in the line of duty has rarely been mentioned in all the media furor.
Beyond writing the song, Springsteen has not made any public statements about the Diallo case, either in interviews or from the stage. And, at this point, he shouldn’t. The debate he has inspired — even in its basest aspects — is necessary, both in New York City and in the country as a whole. As his song powerfully points out, nobody’s “American Skin” — white or black, rich or poor, cop or citizen — is thick enough to withstand forty-one shots. Whether that skin is also too thin to withstand essential criticism from one of our country’s greatest songwriters, remains to be seen.