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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Opinion Politics |
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Trigger warning: this column discusses sexual assault in the context of song lyrics.

On the 13 February – two days before they would have performed in Auckland – hip-hop collective Odd Future were barred from entering New Zealand. Immigration NZ justified the ban by saying that the collective “has been deemed to be a potential threat to public order”. Their evidence: in 2011, a cop pulled a muscle after Odd Future rappers jumped onto a roof.

On 1 May, the bureaucrats were forced to release the emails in which they made their decision. The emails discussed Odd Future’s “history of promoting and inciting hatred” and the “opportunity to spin [the ban] into a good news story”. We’d never given our immigration bureaucracy the power to censor art, but they had done that anyway because they thought it would make them popular. And then they had lied. Power has never cared for its own limits, but this was an arrogance beyond the usual bureaucratic conceit. The only conceit greater was the silence that would follow.

Odd Future’s songs feature rape and abuse. Perhaps it was too much to hope that our loud-mouthed elite would come to their defence. The right to share horrid stories does not make for Herald editorials or Parliamentary speeches. And maybe banning misogynists from entering New Zealand is reasonable. But if the power to censor touring artists should exist, we should at least agree as much first.

If that power was given, it wouldn’t be to an anonymous immigration functionary. But could we be sure a cabinet minister would never censor art with which (s)he disagrees? Could we be sure a judge would see past black-letter law and through the thicket of social mores? Even if Odd Future should’ve been banned, it’s hard to know who we could’ve trusted to tell us that. Perhaps we should accept we can trust no one at all.

I don’t know whether Odd Future are parody or whether that even matters. I don’t know whether rape in hip-hop is the same as rape in Shakespeare. Jay-Z once said: “the rapper’s character is essentially a conceit, a first-person literary creation”. Perhaps rappers’ creations still have ethical obligations. I don’t know.

I don’t know whether the Odd Future ban was racist. There are plenty of white people who write songs about misogynistic abuse. The Rolling Stones. Alt-J. Sublime. Tom Jones. Maybe we should be banning them too, but we’re not. When white indie boys sing about rape we never presume they’re endorsing it. Perhaps we should give rap that benefit of the doubt. To be honest, I just don’t know.

There’s a lot we can’t know. Art is fucking complicated. To oppose censorship is to oppose the idea that we will always have the answer. We may not like Odd Future’s lyrics, but to call for their ban requires an arrogance we cannot sustain. That the bureaucracy so willingly forgot this should be haunting us all.

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