Saturday, May 05, 2001

Rosa Parks argues vs. rap

Court told name was wrongly used

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The rap group Outkast claims it wanted to honor civil rights icon Rosa Parks with a song bearing her name.

        Ms. Parks says the group just wanted to make money.

        Her lawyers told a panel of federal judges Friday in Cincinnati that the profanity-laced song, “Rosa Parks,” is exploitive and offensive.

        The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit must now decide whether the song exploits Ms. Parks' name for commercial gain, or whether it is an artistic statement protected by the First Amendment.

        Attorney Johnnie Cochran, known for defending O.J. Simpson, argued that Ms. Parks' name was used only because it would draw attention to the group and help sell albums.

        “This case is about commercial exploitation,” Mr. Cochran said. “It's about money.”

        But the attorney for Outkast and Arista Records, which produced the album, said the case is about freedom of speech. The lawyer, Joe Beck, said Ms. Parks is a well-known public figure and the song bearing her name is a form of artistic expression.

        He said forcing Outkast to remove Ms. Parks' name from the album, as she has requested, would set a dangerous precedent for artists everywhere and would have a chilling effect on free speech.

        The song appears on the group's 1999 album Aquemini, which sold more than 2 million copies. Despite the title, Ms. Parks is not mentioned in the song.

        But the song repeatedly uses the phrase “back of the bus,” a term the group contends is synonymous with Ms. Parks because of her refusal in 1956 to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

        Ms. Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white man became an enduring symbol of the civil rights movement. But Mr. Cochran said Outkast taints Ms. Parks' legacy by linking her to a song she considers profane.

        In the song's chorus, Outkast uses the phrase “back of the bus” to show disrespect to rival rap groups, suggesting those groups should go to the back of the bus to make room for Outkast: “Ah ha, hush that fuss. Everybody move to the back of the bus.” The lyrics include profanity and a racial slur.

        Mr. Cochran said the decision to attach Ms. Parks' name to the song had more to do with making money than making art. He said the record company made “Rosa Parks” the focal point of a national ad campaign and gave consumers the impression that the civil rights legend endorsed the album.

        “Rosa Parks stands for the proposition that everyone has the right to sit in the front of the bus,” Mr. Cochran said. “This is demeaning to her. ... This lady was deeply wounded by this song.”

        Mr. Beck said the names of public figures routinely appear in works of art without permission. Unauthorized biographies, movies and songs such as “Bette Davis Eyes” are common in the entertainment business.

        One of the three judges asked Mr. Beck if it would be appropriate to attach Martin Luther King Jr.'s name to a song about bombing and killing law enforcement officers. Mr. Beck said it might be offensive, but it would be legal. “There are many uses of Martin Luther King in titles, and some are very offensive,” Mr. Beck said.

        He said the First Amendment allows Outkast to name the song “Rosa Parks,” even if Rosa Parks objects to it.

        The three-judge panel will decide the case later this year. The case began in Detroit and was appealed to the 6th Circuit after a federal judge in Michigan threw out Ms. Parks' lawsuit.

        Ms. Parks wants her lawsuit reinstated. She is seeking damages in excess of $25,000.


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