Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, August 23, 1995


71-Year-Old Mary Morello Vigorously Campaigns For Rock 'n' Roll's Right To Rap Freely

By Greg Beaubien

Mary Morello doesn't look much like a rock 'n' roll freedom fighter.

The 71-year-old woman from north suburban Libertyville is slender, has gold-tinted gray hair and wears glasses.

So why does she speak out against the censorship of rock and rap music?

"I'm a free person," she says. "And I really believe in freedom."

Morello is the founder of Parents for Rock and Rap, an anti-censorship organization that she runs from her home. She started the group to oppose the Parents Music Resource Center, an organization co-founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore. That group was largely responsible for the parental advisory labels used on tapes and CDs with explicitly sexual or violent lyrics. The organization also pressures record companies, radio stations and music stores to stop producing, playing or selling recordings it considers detrimental to children.

And nothing could make Morello's blood boil more.

"Individuals and groups are attempting to take away our 1st Amendment rights," she says, slapping her kitchen table as she speaks. "The purpose of music is to be enjoyed, not censored. Young people should be able to listen to any music they like, regardless of their age. I always tell them that if you want to keep listening to the music that you enjoy, starting today you have to learn to fight back. If you don't fight for your own freedom, no one's going to give it to you."

For Morello the battle began in 1990, when her son, Tom--then the guitarist of a band called Lock Up--gave her a folder full of newspaper and magazine articles about music and censorship. Her indignation stirred, she soon began a campaign on behalf of the rap group 2 Live Crew, which was being criticized for misogynous lyrics in its music. A Detroit radio station invited her on the air to speak against censorship of the band. "I backed 2 Live Crew's right to their freedom to be themselves," she says.

Perhaps because of the novelty of an older white woman defending a black rap group, Morello was soon interviewed in a host of other media. She also began to write, print and mail a newsletter on censorship issues. Her organization grew to include more than 700 members, some of which are other anti-censorship organizations, pushing the actual number of her members higher. The word soon spread beyond the U.S., and today Parents for Rock and Rap includes members around the world. Despite the name of her group, which was intended as a play on the name of Gore's organization, many of its members are young people who have no children.

Although the Virginia-based Parents Music Resource Center tops Morello's list of "the enemies of freedom," she's also up against the PTA, the American Medical Association and Congress.

At both the state and national levels, the PTA supports the music resource center's efforts to label explicit recordings, says Harriet O'Donnell, head of public relations for the PTA's Illinois chapter. The PTA encourages parents to pressure record companies into compliance, and also lobbies elected officials to draft legislation mandating the labels, she says.

The AMA, in a vaguely worded, open-ended resolution, calls for a mandatory rating system for music, similar to the one used for movies, based on what it calls "concern about the potential negative impact of destructive themes in some music." It also hopes to develop model state legislation that could be used to regulate the lyrical content of music and possibly its commercial distribution, to prevent minors from buying it.

Morello believes speech and expression are being shackled in the U.S., and she puts much of the blame on the current political climate. "Censorship is coming down now harder than it has before," she says. "Look at the Congress that we have--trying to take funds away from the National Endowment for the Arts, trying to kill public television. They must be living in the Dark Ages."

Heading her list of congressional foes is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. In a recent speech that the Kansas Republican gave in Los Angeles, he scolded the entertainment industry for creating music that "pushes the limits of decency, bombarding our children with destructive messages of casual violence and even more casual sex."

But Dole, who is a presidential candidate, covered himself by also declaring that "in America, we have the freedom to speak without Big Brother's permission." And while he decries the "marketing of evil through commerce" as he urges the entertainment industry to produce more family-friendly movies and music, he also attempts to repeal the ban on assault weapons.

"It just reeks of such hypocrisy," says Tom Morello, a Harvard graduate who now plays lead guitar for the rap-metal band Rage Against the Machine. "It's so obvious that Dole's speech was just a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issues. Violence in society is not caused by what's on a tape or CD."

Dole worries that popular culture ridicules and threatens American family values, a sentiment that Mary Morello interprets as an attempt to squelch dissent. "My family values are certainly not the values of the Dole family," she says. "Every American family has different values for itself and its children. And I think that have a political agenda and ideology that they want to put onto all Americans. And that's really wrong."

Although Dole attracted media attention with his speech, some state legislative bodies have taken steps that Morello finds equally disturbing. Judiciary committees in several states--including Pennsylvania, Washington, New Mexico and Illinois--have introduced legislation that would punish record shops for selling labeled recordings to minors, and would also penalize the minors.

Morello believes that only parents have the right to forbid their children to listen to music.

Labels backfire

Currently, there are no laws in the U.S. that mandate the labeling of CDs and tapes with explicit lyrics; record companies do so at their own discretion. The Parents Music Resource Center credits itself with persuading the member companies of the Recording Association of America to label them, but such pressure may have backfired on the parents group.

"Sometimes the labels are used as a selling tool," says Joe Kvidera, sales manager of Tower Records on Clark Street in Chicago. "Teens like `dirty rap' because it's cooler than `clean rap.' "

There's no denying that many rap recordings are explicitly sexual, and that some refer to women in degrading or violent terms. But the 1st Amendment wasn't intended to protect only popular and inoffensive expression. And as Morello points out, outlawing misogynous lyrics in music won't make misogyny in society disappear.

"Kids have told me that there is nothing you don't learn from other kids on the playground," she says. "Some kids hear this kind of language at home, from their parents. They aren't getting it off of records."

Morello concedes that some rappers are misogynous but insists they represent a tiny fraction of the sexism and violence toward women in the U.S. "Why aren't the people who are going after the rappers also going after the misogynous businessmen, and all the others? Why just pick on entertainers?"

She believes the answer may have something to do with racism. Although white heavy-metal bands are sometimes rebuked for lyrics that romanticize suicide or satanism, black rap groups seem to draw the most critical fire.

The Parents Music Resource Center, for example, offers a hot line parents can call to hear about lyrical content in recent rock and rap releases. In explaining to callers how the automated system works, a recorded voice cites as examples Dr. Dre and Hammer, both popular black artists. Callers hear recorded messages by entering the first three letters of the artist's name.

By doing so they learn that "The Chronic," Dr. Dre's latest record, "encourages drug abuse, views women as strictly sex objects and has obscenities throughout." The hot line also warns parents that Hammer's latest recording, "The Funky Headhunter," includes themes of "cynicism, self-pity, hopelessness and revenge."

But as of late July, no information was available on the hot line for the popular white bands Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Green Day or Metallica, all of which make Hammer look downright wholesome.

In his recent speech, Dole criticized four bands or artists, three of which--the Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, and Ice-T--are black. But as Kvidera points out, rap bands may have been targeted most often because there weren't a lot of sexually explicit songs until rap came along.

Morello, however, sees another explanation. "Rap comes from a different culture entirely, one that is unfamiliar to many people," she says. "And unfamiliarity breeds negative feelings."

A global traveler

Morello knows something about other cultures. She was born and raised in Marseilles, a mining and farming town in north-central Illinois. After earning her master of arts degree in African and Latin American history from Chicago's Loyola University in 1954, she spent chunks of the remaining decade living and teaching English in Germany, Spain and Japan.

Still single, she circled the globe on a freighter. From 1960 until 1963 she lived in Kenya, where she married a native who worked for that country's government.

Her husband was part of the first Kenyan delegation to the United Nations in New York. In 1964 they moved to Harlem, the black enclave in Upper Manhattan. That's where their son, Tom, was born. They were happy and accepted in Harlem.

Whites, however, haven't always looked kindly upon her interracial family. After moving to Libertyville, she found a noose in her garage, and surmised that the Ku Klux Klan had put it there. At first no one wanted to hire her, but she finally found a job teaching history at Libertyville High School. Even then, KKK posters would appear on her bulletin board, she says.

She retired from her teaching job in 1987, after 22 years. Since then she has continued to travel, including three trips to the Soviet Union that took her across Siberia and into Mongolia. A trip to Morocco is planned for later this year.

She says she always tries to connect with the people in the countries where she travels. "I accept everybody in the world on their own basis," she says.

Morello recently spoke against censorship on stage at the Lollapalooza concert at the World Music Theatre in Tinley Park. She was a hit.

"It's so surprising and refreshing for kids to see someone the age of their parents standing up for the music they love," Tom says. "It validates and reaffirms their belief that they have the right to listen to the music they love."

Though she is overtly liberal (posters of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara decorate her home), Morello claims to have no political affiliation.

"I believe in true democracy, where everybody has an equal chance," she says. "Malcolm X provided the basis for the way that I think about the world. He taught me to always challenge. I never don't challenge."

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