Bob Dylan is undoubtedly one of the most gifted songwriters of all time thanks to the honesty that runs through all of his work, and he famously speaks his mind whenever he sees fit. On one occasion, during what seemed like an entirely innocuous interview, Dylan would face a charged of ‘inciting racial hate’ after providing his candid opinion on race relations.
The interview that led to Dylan finding himself in boiling water was one held with the French version of Rolling Stone. Even though the singer-songwriter’s remarks were about America rather than France – and one that originally appeared in the American publication – it was the European country that charged him with the offence. The entire situation was genuinely bizarre, and the calamitous complaint wasn’t filed about his comment until two days before he received the Legion d’Honneur in 2013, from France’s then Socialist government who aligned with the values of Dylan’s music and outlook towards life. However, not everybody thought that he was a character that the country should be hero-worshipping.
Dylan had told Rolling Stone in 2012: “It’s like the United States burned and destroyed itself for the sake of slavery. The USA wouldn’t give it up. It had to be grinded out. The whole system had to be ripped out with force. A lot of killing. What, like, 500,000 people? A lot of destruction to end slavery. And that’s what it really was all about.”
He continued: “This country is just too fucked up about colour. It’s a distraction. People at each others’ throats just because they are of a different colour. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back – or any neighbourhood back. Or any anything back.
“Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery – that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”
Dylan’s comments about Croatians would lead to him being charged with ‘inciting racial hatred’. A Croatian group in France were responsible for the initial charges against the songwriter, and their secretary-general Vlatko Maric publically condemned Dylan’s comment, stating: “It is an incitement to hatred. You cannot compare Croatian criminals to all Croats. But we have nothing against Rolling Stone magazine or Bob Dylan as a singer.”
The most peculiar aspect of the whole situation was the timing of the charge against Dylan. It alludes to the issue directly correlating to the government awarding him a Legion d’Honneur. Everything that he previously said was now under a microscope as the opposition to the regime tried to undermine the government’s decision to celebrate him. This, coupled with a backlash that was occurring behind the scenes about Dylan receiving a Legion d’Honneur, was a hotbed of controversy. This debate stemmed from his radical anti-war stance and history of using drugs, which many felt prevented him from being lauded by the French government.
If Dylan were convicted of this charge, he would have faced a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 euros. After over five months of investigating, a judge threw out Dylan’s case on April 14th, 2014. As Dylan had not provided his consent for his Rolling Stone statements to be published in France, where anti-hate speech is illegal, he didn’t incite anything in the country and shouldn’t face the charges.
Despite the charge against him not resulting in a conviction, this episode has changed Dylan’s relationship with the country. There was less than a month between him being lauded in Paris with his Legion d’Honneur to finding himself staring at a possible prison sentence over an interview that he gave over twelve months before. Suppose the French government never awarded Dylan this honour, then it’s hard to imagine that this case would have ever come to fruition. However, seemingly attacking Dylan was a way of attacking the government through association, which left him in the middle being treated as a political toy.