NSW police are hell-bent on shutting down Western Sydney hip hop crew OneFour, apparently encouraging venues to cancel gigs or block them, suggesting the quartet are dangerous, subversive and associating with gangs.
The Sydney Morning Herald asked for some comment on the sense and efficacy of such censorship. Luckily, I had a few thoughts.
Ban OneFour, that’ll teach ‘em.
It’s true enough, but not necessarily straightforward to say that censorship doesn’t work when it comes to music. And that includes police harassment.
Firstly, as even the Soviet authorities found 40 years ago, when cassettes of radical and decadent western acts like – hmm - the Beatles, Iron Maiden and Billy Joel, made it past their border guards, music is portable, copyable, spreadable. The Internet makes those borders even less relevant today: music will be heard.
More potently, for a good number of young men and women - and no small number of older ones - few things enhance the thrill of any act of indulging in art than the idea that it is at the very least frowned upon, if not declared illicit and dangerous, by your scared elders and betters. That’s the point of it grandpa.
The list proving this is as long as the history of popular music, whether it’s bobby-soxers told to stay away from that skinny Hoboken kid, Frank Sinatra, or the loose-hipped Elvis Presley, school children advised to avert their eyes from the Rolling Stones or The Doors, whole families warned of the presence of anti-royal punks, The Sex Pistols, or glam shockers, Skyhooks, and a nation seen as imperilled by rappers Ice T or NWA.
They all did ok didn’t’ they? Though Sex Pistols and NWA (or, Niggaz Wit Attitude for those who have forgotten some of the outrage) are particularly relevant when discussing the police approach to Western Sydney rappers OneFour.
Both acts were not just blocked from the airways but saw authorities actively work to prevent them performing, whether warning off local authorities and venues or declaring that if certain songs – NWA’s Fuck Tha Police for example - were performed, the show and venue would be shut down.
The Pistols could barely score a gig but went to number 2 with God Save The Queen and their debut album reached number 1; NWA, able to point to real-time proof of their tales of police overreach and racism, filled arenas effortlessly and scored a top 10 on the Billboard soul chart, and a top 40 mainstream chart position, for their debut.
Both acts became household names, if not legends of anti-authoritarianism, among vast numbers who might never have heard of them otherwise, and today you, and your parents, can hear them on commercial radio or Rage, or a pub or club, any weekend.
Here’s the one glimmer of joy though for those whom Paul Keating called the straighteners and punishers. Neither the Pistols nor NWA ever reached those peaks again, splitting in part because of the pressures of constantly being under pressure to be standard-bearers and ideologues first, musicians second.
Who knows, maybe the police are playing the long game.
This comment ran originally in the Sydney Morning Herald.