Even though he was awarded the Pulitzer for his 2017 album, Damn, I like rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) more. It’s a masterpiece that will likely remain a classic years from now. Different themes intersect, collide and overlap on it. There’s rage against racial injustice; there’s the self-confidence and pride of being an African-American; there are black role models, some of whom are fallible; there’s history; and even a critique of the hip hop music business. The Pulitzer aside, Lamar is certainly among rap’s most literate and cerebral exponents. Yet, if you were to download or stream To Pimp A Butterfly from the Indian iTunes store, you would probably not realize how good he is. Perhaps you would not even make much sense of most of the songs—because the Indian store has only the “Clean Lyrics" version of the album.
What this means is that when you hear the album’s 16 songs, all of which are brilliant in their entirety, on the Indian store’s version of it, they are disjointed, garbled even. That’s because they have been sanitized: the n-word, d-word, h-word, b-word, and, of course, the expressive m- & f-words, have been dropped in this version. When Lamar digitally released To Pimp A Butterfly, it was in two forms: the Clean Lyrics version and the Parental Advisory Explicit Content version. The Indian store only has the former, depriving his fans of the real thing. There is a way out of it, though. You could change stores and get the unedited version in, say, the US store. Or, simply try another streaming service such as Amazon Music, where you can get the album in its full resplendent glory.
Fortunately, on the same store’s version of Lamar’s Damn, all 14 songs come uncensored, albeit marked with an E (for explicit). The problem is that when Apple Music launched in India in 2016, everything explicit was censored for Indian listeners. Even if you had tried to switch off restrictions in your iPod, iPhone or other devices, Apple’s self-censorship would prevail. Predictably, there was a backlash, on user forums, social news aggregator Reddit and so on. Apple then offered Indian subscribers an option on the iTunes app to turn off the restrictions. Even so, Lamar’s To Pimp... seems to have fallen through the cracks—the explicit version still eludes the Indian listener.
Contemporary music has faced the censor’s (often misplaced) ire for decades. In the mid-1950s, Chicago’s radio stations received thousands of letters complaining against the “dirty music" they were allegedly playing. The reference was to R&B and blues and the real motive (because those genres were dominated by blacks) was racist. Newspapers also pitched in, and many stations ceased playing the “offensive" songs. Not much later, on the popular Ed Sullivan Show on TV, Elvis Presley was shown performing only from the waist upwards so that his famous pelvic gyrations wouldn’t offend viewers.
In the 1960s, commercial radio stations in the US often wielded the censor’s axe with impunity. When the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was released in 1965, many stations refused to play it on the grounds that it was too suggestive, and full of sexual innuendoes. Some musicians used sleight of hand during that decade to bypass strictures. During one live broadcast of the previously mentioned Ed Sullivan Show, Jim Morrison of The Doors was requested to change the line Girl, we couldn’t get much higher from the song Light My Fire because it suggested drug use (which it probably did!); Morrison promised he would, but when he sang it live he stuck to the original line, causing red faces all round in the studio. But when the same studio asked the Stones to change the words on Let’s Spend The Night Together to “let’s spend some time together", Mick Jagger is believed to have complied.
Musicians and bands have faced other sorts of resistance. After John Lennon once famously said that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, there was inevitably a Christian backlash, with many religious activists burning Beatles records and demanding bans on airplay of their songs. But the most intriguing restriction has to be this: In the early 1970s, a Texas radio station decided to ban airing Bob Dylan’s songs not because they were offensive but because the station’s management felt the lyrics were too hard to comprehend!
Instances of bans, censorship or protests against contemporary Western music (pop, rock, rap or other genres) in India have been few. That’s partly because the audience for such genres is minuscule and much of it passes under the radar. In one rare instance, in 2006, American thrash metal band Slayer faced protests against its album, Christ Illusion, when Catholic churches and Christian activists in India took offence to its cover illustration and some of the song titles. The album was withdrawn by the record label and all inventories destroyed.
For rock lovers in India, it’s probably a relief that much of what we listen to goes unnoticed by the self-appointed arbiters of morals. Imagine what could have happened if some of them had figured out the following lyrics:
a) Come to me for service every hundred miles/Baby, let me check your points, fix your overdrive. b) I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine/She said how’d you like to waste some time/And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind. c) So you see what we can do/Is to try something new/If you’re crazy too and I don’t really see/Why can’t we go on as three?
Those words, if you haven’t figured out already, are excerpts from songs by a) Led Zeppelin (Trampled Under Foot from Physical Graffiti); b) Prince (Darling Nikki from Purple Rain); and c) The Byrds (Triad from Never Before). In case you’re wondering about c), it was written by David Crosby when he was part of the band and it is an ode to a ménage-à-trois. Shh, don’t tell anyone about all this!
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.