[Update: 3:23] Rick Ross on Friday released the following statement about his controversial lyrics:

“Before I am an artist, I am a father, a son, and a brother to some of the most cherished women in the world. So for me to suggest in any way that harm and violation be brought to a woman is one of my biggest mistakes and regrets. As an artist, one of the most liberating things is being able to paint pictures with my words. But with that comes a great responsibility. And most recently, my choice of words was not only offensive, it does not reflect my true heart. And for this, I apologize. To every woman that has felt the sting of abuse, I apologize. I recognize that as an artist I have a voice and with that, the power of influence. To the young men who listen to my music, please know that using a substance to rob a woman of her right to make a choice is not only a crime, it’s wrong and I do not encourage it. To my fans, I also apologize if I have disappointed you. I can only hope that this sparks a healthy dialogue and that I can contribute to it.”

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Rick Ross, the wooly faced hip-hop artist and former Reebok pitchman, is allowed to rap about rape. That’s what the First Amendment is all about. In fact, his rapping about rape didn’t necessarily put Reebok at fault for offering him a lucrative endorsement deal. Hip-hop artists tackle controversial subjects all the time, and Reebok execs presumably knew what they were getting.

But in the nebulous world of artistic expression, the difference between rapping about rape and condoning rape is an important, if murky, distinction. And even after mounting pressure from the women’s activist group UltraViolet finally forced Reebok to dump Ross, the context of Ross’ date-rape lyrics has been drowned out by those who were calling for his head on a platter. In a statement, Reebok executives said “we do not believe that Rick Ross condones sexual assault.” Maybe he does, and maybe he doesn’t. The point is, only Ross can set the record straight, and so far he’s shown little interest in doing that. 

In case you missed the controversy, the lyrics in question came from Rocko’s underground single “U.O.E.N.O,” in which Ross describes what sounds to everyone like a date-rape scenario:

“Put molly all in her champagne / She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that / She ain’t even know it.”

Following intense criticism of the lyrics, Ross defended himself during an interview with the Q93 radio station in New Orleans:

“Woman is the most precious gift known to man. It was a misunderstanding with a lyric, a misinterpretation. The term rape wasn’t used. I would never use the term rape in my records. Hip-hop don’t condone that. The streets don’t condone that. Nobody condones that. So I just wanted to reach out to ... all the sexy ladies, the beautiful ladies that have been reaching out to me with the misunderstanding. We don’t condone rape, and I’m not with that.”

That pseudo-explanation convinced nobody, and with good reason: The lyrics do describe rape. There’s no getting around it. What Ross should have explained is why he rapped about drugging a girl with MDMA and having his way with her.   

Years ago, the California punk band Dead Kennedys released a single called “Kill the Poor.” The song is a political satire describing a dystopian scenario in which the U.S. government hurls neutron bombs into poor neighborhoods as a way of alleviating welfare taxes. It’s a ridiculous idea, and yet, because the song was sung in first person, a great many listeners took the lyrics literally, thinking the DKs actually wanted to kill poor people. Controversy naturally followed.

In one interview, Jello Biafra, the band’s lead singer, can be seen rolling his eyes when the interviewer prods him to explain -- yet again -- his intention behind the song. As much as it annoyed him to do so, Biafra came clean, explaining the obvious (to him) fact that “Kill the Poor” was merely a sarcastic tirade. His explanation was a simple gesture, but it revealed an important nuance about his aims as a songwriter: No, I don’t actually want to kill the poor; I was simply trying to make a point about the government’s treatment of the underprivileged. Now do you get it?

We’ve heard no such explanation from Ross, only an empty line about women being precious gifts and a vague bit about misinterpretations. If his song was truly misinterpreted, why not enlighten us? Why not tell us that he was assuming the first-person voice of a date rapist as a way of drawing attention to a cultural ill? Why not explain that his lyrics are in fact a mockery of date rape? Why not make some effort to clarify his creative intent? 

Perhaps Ross feels that, as an artist, he should not be backed into a corner of forced exposition. Or perhaps he’d prefer that the listener to come up with his or her own interpretation of such lines as “I took her home and enjoyed that.” That would be fine, except that artists who have lucrative endorsement deals to lose can not afford such luxury.

It could also be that Ross meant the lyrics literally. Maybe date rape is his idea of a good time. Speaking from an outsider’s perspective, that’s certainly what it sounds like. I’m not a regular listener of the man’s music, and so I’m not really in a position to make an informed judgment, but I do know that Ross is not just an artist; he was also a Reebok shill. And shills have people to answer to. So maybe, in the end, this controversy is less about an artist’s right to self-expression and more about the dangerous intersection between art and commerce.

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