FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA., OCT. 19 -- The witness for the defense, a soft-spoken English professor from Duke University, was on the stand today to clear up a few misconceptions about rap music. Rap, he asserted, is indeed a genre of literature.
Even Shakespeare, he noted, used four-letter words "a lot."
The defense lawyer smiled. "Is rap music serious art?" he asked.
"Absolutely," the witness said. "To be able to produce those stanzas is very, very difficult."
"Is there precedence in Western literature for use of these lewd words?" the defense lawyer asked.
"Absolutely," the witness said. "From Geoffrey Chaucer to James Joyce's 'Ulysses,' published in 1922. Many of the greatest classics of Western literature contain quote-unquote lewd words."
Professor Henry Louis Gates, of Duke's English department, was Witness No. 3 in the obscenity trial of three members of the 2 Live Crew. Although the prosecution had not completed its presentation, Gates was allowed to testify early because of a scheduling conflict. He approached his task as any college professor would on the first day of class. Peering through his spectacles, he lectured about the relationship among art, literature, black culture and the 2 Live Crew, whose members Luther Campbell, Mark Ross and Christopher Wongwon are charged with staging an obscene performance at a Florida nightclub in June. If convicted, they face up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"These songs have taken the worst stereotypes of black men and blown them up," Gates said. "And that is that we are oversexed or hypersexed individuals.
"It evolved in the 16th century when the Europeans were discovering Africa and stealing Africans. They had to find a way to justify their enslavement of other human beings. Most often it was said that the blacks have overly large sexual organs."
From there, it was back to the Crew. "One of the brilliant things about these four songs is they embrace that stereotype," Gates continued. "They name it and they explode it. You can have no reaction but to bust out laughing. The fact that they're being sung by four virile young black men is inescapable to the audience. Everyone understands what's going on. Their response is to burst out laughing. To realize it's a joke. A parody."
Gates hesitated briefly. "That's p-a-r-o-d-y."
For those disinclined to buy the position that the 2 Live Crew's lowbrow lyrics should be compared to highbrow literature, Gates had his Archie Bunker analogy.
It goes like this: Archie Bunker was put on television so people could laugh at an ignorant racist.
"Archie Bunker is a metaphor in the same way the lyrics of these four songs are metaphors. They are not to be taken on their literal level."
Metaphor for what?
"It's like Shakespeare's 'My love is like a red, red rose.' That doesn't mean your love is red and has petals," Gates said. "No, it means your love is beautiful."
The prosecutor, Pedro Dijols, strode to the lectern.
The prosecution has not been having a good go of it. It has been bogged down in its attempt to overwhelm the jury with foul language uttered at Club Futura by the rappers the night of their arrest.
Last night the other prosecutor, Leslie Robson, was rushed to a local hospital and was treated and released. A hospital spokesman said that Robson had asked that no information about her ailment be made public.
Lawyers had anticipated presenting closing arguments Saturday in a special session of the court.
After Gates was called to testify, the prosecution resumed the agonizing effort of extracting the necessary expletives from Detective Debbie Werder. It was not easy. Werder could not hear the tape without earphones. Provided with them, she translated some words, mostly words the jury could already hear. She looked uncomfortable when she said them and rolled her eyes at the ceiling. So it went for two excruciating hours.
But Werder was a later frustration for the prosecution. First Dijols needed to discredit Gates.
Dijols read a few lines of what none of the reporters have been able to print.
"Point out the great literary value there, sir," he said.
"For a critic, you have to take a work of art as a whole," Gates replied.
The prosecutor read another unprintable phrase, then snapped: "That's great literary classic poetry."
"I never said it was Shakespeare," Gates answered.
"You obviously compared him ..." Dijols began.
"I did not compare the rhyme scheme to any sonnet of Shakespeare," Gates said. "No, I did not do that."