OutKast vs. Rosa Parks: a clash of icons

Sunday, February 1, 2004

OutKast has the top-selling CD in America, and that’s both good and timely news for the rap duo. It looks like they’ll need the cash.

OutKast is being sued by civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, who objected to the use of her name as a song title in 1998. Her case was thrown out by a district court on First Amendment grounds but was reinstated by a federal appellate court and then rejected for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. This means that a federal district court trial will determine whether OutKast owes Parks compensation, prompting published speculation about a settlement.

It’s a fascinating case, pitting an icon of one generation against icons of a new generation and raising questions about just how much artistic expression the First Amendment affords.

Parks’ original lawsuit claimed that the song defamed her and unjustly appropriated her name for commercial purposes, even suggesting that an authorized 1995 gospel album titled “A Tribute to Rosa Parks” sold fewer copies because of consumer confusion.

Under the First Amendment, artists can incorporate the names of famous people into their work as long as the name is being used to express ideas and not simply to exploit a celebrity. Songs such as Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson,” Joe Diffie’s “Bigger than the Beatles” and Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” all were protected as free speech.

The hitch in this case is that members of OutKast reportedly have said this song is not specifically about Parks, and that it only uses her name symbolically. This statement led the federal appellate court to toss out the defamation suit, ruling that Parks couldn’t be slandered by a song that makes no specific reference to her.

Yet the “symbolic” use of her name is what’s really causing OutKast problems. Parks’ lawyers are arguing that the First Amendment doesn’t protect the use of her name in a title if the song itself has nothing to do with her.

This is an argument that the federal court embraced when sending the case back for a trial.

The court’s reasoning may be the best argument for putting 18-year-olds on the bench. Any young person can tell you that the song is named “Rosa Parks” because of the repeated use of the chorus, “Ah, ha, hush that fuss/everybody move to the back of the bus,” a clear allusion to Parks’ refusal to sit in the segregated section of a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.

While this song is largely an expression of braggadocio, warning rap rivals to make way for superior talent, the metaphor is clear and undeniable.

Young OutKast fans would find laughable the suggestion that someone could enter a record store looking for a gospel album and accidentally come out with an OutKast CD with song titles like “Skew It on the Bar-B” and “Spottieottiedopaliscious.”

The district court had it right in the first place. There’s no reason to award Rosa Parks money for the use of her name.

Of course, it’s easy to understand Parks’ irritation. I’m sure she wants the respect of young Americans and doesn’t want her name to appear on a CD that uses a particularly offensive racial epithet. But irritation is not grounds for recovery.

While the federal appellate court that allowed this case to continue insisted that its decision had nothing to do with the merits of OutKast’s music, the judges’ opinion of the song came through loud and clear.

“While defendants’ lyrics contain profanity and a great deal of ‘explicit’ language, (together with a parental warning), they contain absolutely nothing that could conceivably, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered, explicitly or implicitly, a reference to courage, to sacrifice, to the civil rights movement or to any other quality with which Rosa Parks is identified,” the court wrote. “The use of this woman’s name unquestionably was a good marketing tool – ‘Rosa Parks’ was likely to sell far more recordings than ‘Back of the Bus.’”

In a nutshell, this court decided it couldn’t see a clear connection between the “back of the bus” chorus and the title, and that the use of the name of a then-85-year-old woman was the key to marketing the music of one of America’s hot young rap acts. Could the judges have been any more out of touch?

OutKast – which had two platinum albums before recording “Rosa Parks” –does Parks no real disservice and may in fact have reinforced her importance in the eyes of young Americans. Even this oblique reference to Parks served as a valuable reminder for young people who may have lost sight of civil rights heroes like James Meredith, Medgar Evers and Ralph Abernathy.

If it’s true that OutKast and its record company are considering a settlement, I hope they reconsider. They need to hang in and fight the First Amendment battle. After sitting for seven weeks at No. 1 with their “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” CD, Andre 3000 and Big Boi can afford to take a stand.

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