A rare but not unheard of cousin of the commencement season speaker controversy is the spring concert performer controversy. Students have objected in the past to bands’ names, insufficient ethnic diversity and, perhaps most often, objectionable lyrics.
This year, the student-run event programming organization at George Washington University is in the hot seat for booking -- and eventually disinviting -- the rapper Action Bronson for the campus spring fling.
After the announcement that the chef turned rapper would be headlining the university's spring concert, students flocked to the Internet in protest. Chief among their concerns was an older song by Action Bronson entitled “Consensual Rape.” Its lyrics, many students said, appear to depict a woman being drugged and raped. Nestled in a garden of explicit and violent language, the song -- whose lyrics at the end of this paragraph some may want to skip -- includes the lines, “Then dig your shorty out cuz I geeked her up on Molly/Have her eating dick, no need for seasoning.”
Other students argued that, per its title, the song describes consensual acts. The reference to the drug Molly suggests to many that the woman being described might not be capable of giving consent.
In addition, though, critics pointed to a music video that shows the rapper stabbing a woman’s dead body repeatedly and a discography that they said is generally filled with violent, misogynist and racist material.
“A man with his views, his history of misogyny and promotion of violence isn't someone who belongs on our campus,” said Emily Milakovic, a student who started a petition calling for Action Bronson to be cut from the concert lineup. He is also “violently transphobic,” she said. “He refers to trans people as 'it,' he posted a picture of a trans woman he harassed and threw water on, and he tweeted that if trans people don't want to get 'pissed on or spit on' they shouldn't get drunk. He is degrading and hateful, and I don't believe it's right to our transgendered students for him to be here. Likewise, having our school pay for a man who promotes violence against women could be very traumatizing for sexual assault survivors.”
A far more common complaint from students about similar concerts is that the performers are underwhelming, but cancellations, or pushes for cancellations, pop up from time to time. Last year, for example, students at Princeton University objected to the rapper Big Sean performing on campus because of lyrics many consider to be sexist and repulsive. A performance at Oberlin College by a band called Viet Cong was canceled last year because the band’s name was deemed to be offensive.
George Washington's Program Board tried to mollify its critics with an assurance that Action Bronson wouldn't sing "Consensual Rape," but students continued to object.
As pressure mounted on social media Thursday, and by the time Milakovic’s petition had amassed 349 signatures, the program board, which organizes various events on campus, announced its decision to remove Action Bronson from the concert.
“We apologize to the GW community for causing distress over the past few days and for attempting to bring an artist who is not consistent with our values of diversity and inclusion,” the board wrote in a post on Facebook. “Spring fling is intended to be an event for all students to enjoy and including Action Bronson in the day would go against this.”
Action Bronson responded in a Facebook post Thursday evening. It reads, in part, "Five years ago in 2011, I wrote a song called 'Consensual Rape' that admittedly contains lyrics and a general sentiment of violence towards woman [sic] which I never meant to represent who I am but rather to depict a story …. But, the song in question has caused people discomfort and pain and I’m sincerely sorry about it. It was not my intention to hurt people when I made it years ago, and I certainly will be much more sensitive on this matter moving ahead."
In response to the disinvitation, students accused the program board of caving to a loud minority and smothering free expression. A counterpetition, with nearly 500 supporters as of Thursday evening, appeared almost immediately after the announcement. “By removing Action Bronson we are limiting free speech and free artistic expression,” it says. “People who are offended by his lyrics can simply not come.”
Samantha Harris, a lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said it’s important to note that this isn’t a case of institutional censorship. “The invitation was both issued and rescinded by a student group,” she wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “One can certainly argue the merits of the student board's decision to rescind the invitation instead of allowing him to perform under protest, but this situation doesn't raise censorship concerns.”
But just the fact that some find Action Bronson’s lyrics objectionable (“I read them, and yeah, ick,” Harris said) is still a problematic basis for a decision like this, she said. “What crosses the line for one person doesn't cross the line for another … and if you hand that line-drawing power over to authorities to enforce without clear, content-neutral criteria, it's a recipe for censorship and abuse of discretion.”
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