`Gangsta Rap' Not Poetry In Motion -- Laureate Joins Critics Citing Violent Lyrics

WASHINGTON - The nation's poet laureate yesterday condemned "gangsta rap" music, calling its lyrics violent, intolerant and too commercialized, and said the music leaves its earlier African-American oral traditions behind.

"What I find is that most gangsta rap for me is irresponsible and that what joys it can give in terms of language is certainly overridden by lots of other things," Poet Laureate Rita Dove said after a speech at the National Press Club. "I feel distressed by its lack of tolerance and violence."

Dove joined a growing chorus of prominent people, particularly in the black community, who have spoken out against this popular form of music that describes and often glorifies the lifestyles of gangsters.

Critics have said the music, frequently laced with offensive language, glorifies crime and violence and demeans women.

In recent months, some radio stations that program rap music have dropped "gangsta rap" from their play lists.

Meanwhile, educators, religious leaders and police organizations have been calling for a ban on the sale of "gangsta rap" music at record shops.

The critics have found themselves clashing with the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment, however. Just last week, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of song parody on First Amendment grounds. Its ruling came in the case of rap group 2 Live Crew, which changed the lyrics of the Roy Orbison hit "Oh, Pretty Woman" to include language many people found offensive.

Dove said she was more supportive of early rap music.

"In the very early days of rap music, it was phenomenal, and it really sprang out of the oral tradition in black communities, where one had to be a virtuoso," Dove said.

"It was part of survival to learn how to deal with one's situation by articulating one's concerns about it. That is certainly the wellspring of poetry."

Dove said that most "gangsta rap" music is now "commercialized."

Dove, a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner and the first African-American to be named poet laureate, has used her position to speak out and promote poetry more than many previous poet laureates.