“I learned I have the right to say anything but, I gotta be prepared for the blowback, the ramifications of what I say.” – Ice-T
In 1992, American rapper Ice-T, with his controversial single ‘Cop Killer’, managed to cause quite a stir in and outside of the music industry.
‘Cop Killer’ was a song that was composed with a backdrop of the cases of police brutality that had been taking place in the wake of the civil movement that was already underway in the U.S. The song was heavily criticised by the then President George Bush as well as various law-enforcement agencies. They argued that the song portrayed anti-police sentiment and created a negative impression on the younger generation and, thereby, should be commercially withdrawn. Several musicians, along with a number of organisations, defended Ice-T’s creation, stating that not only was the censorship on the song a violation of a musician’s freedom of speech but also the grounds of the argument were baseless considering the song stated what was already prevalent in society.
“I think it was so radical because at the time y’all didn’t see the videos.”
‘Cop Killer’ was released by the band Body Count, of which Ice-T was a member, in their eponymous album in the year 1992. The single, as Ice-T stated, was a “protest record” sung “in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality”. ‘Cop Killer’ was composed and released at a time when racial discrimination was rampant in the U.S. and what Ice-T’s song suggested was not fiction – it was very much situated in reality.
It was perhaps because that news didn’t find its way into the mainstream media that made them sound like something Ice-T came up with out-of-the-blue, slashing the cops. But of course, the song did not exist in isolation. The context of the narrative was as crucial as the words because this wasn’t an attempt to slash the police force in general. It was drawing attention to a picture of the society that was kept away from the general mass’ eyes. As Ice-T once said: “I was singing pre-Rodney King and the Rodney King thing was not something that was just… rare.” He was referring to the unavailability of visual proof that made it easier for the people in power to shake the liability off of their shoulders. Instead, what Ice-T faced was a censoring of his right to artistic expression as a musician and freedom of speech as a citizen.
“YouTube didn’t shut me down. The question is, who put the pressure on them to shut me down?”
‘Cop Killer’ outraged many police officials as well as politicians. CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) called for a boycott on all products by Time Warner as a way to make sure the song was put off the record. Many police officers threatened to not respond to emergency calls if the song wasn’t withdrawn. The PMRC asserted that the song was a bad influence on the younger generation and that it must be retracted. Ice-T and Jello Biafra contested this with an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show as being baseless considering there was nothing in the song that went out of what was already rampant in society.
Censoring the works of an acclaimed musician because he spoke a truth that didn’t quite sit right with the authorities was merely the tip of the iceberg. No wonder the powerless were (and are, to this day) marginalised and silenced so easily for speaking up. Ice-T and the Warner Bros. Records, after receiving several threats from the shareholders, decided to take the song off the album, following which Ice-T chose to leave the record label for good. When asked why he decided to do this of his own volition, he said: “Everybody thinks Warner Brothers censored me; no. WB put the record out, they just got attacked”, followed by: “It’s a business. So, they were like, okay, if me and you have a big corporation and if one person in that business is causing a problem it’s gonna make us lose, they’re going to have a conversation with you.”
Ice-T stated, logically and with a cool head, that he opted to leave because he realised that he was not able to express his full potential with the record label any longer and that that he needed to find another vehicle where he could put out his music. Ice-T received many death threats for his song and for the sentiments he portrayed in the number prior to his censorship, as well as post the censorship. However, he was resolute in what he wanted to put out regardless of how the audience received it. He didn’t want to cause an undue problem, as an artist, but he didn’t want to stop speaking his mind out of fear either.
“I don’t wanna die but I know that that’s possible when you speak out.”
Censored of not, Ice-T realised where his responsibilities lay, as a musician and as a human who had a platform to make his voice heard.
Below, see one of his recent interviews in which he reflects on censorship and the freedom of speech.