Censorship at Comfest: Noble or Treasonous? - by Pete Vogel

On Saturday, June 24th, a band by the name of Chickenhawk Birdgetters took the stage at the I Wish You Jazz stage at ComFest. They bill themselves as a “Jazz Offensive” and planned a “ComFest Offensive” for their 7pm performance.  Chickenhawk Birdgetters have a vision for creating jazz music that “is dangerous once more.”  They want to remove the shirt-and-tie formality of the genre and “give it a black eye.”  They planned on playing “Fuck tha Police” by N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) and improvise their own version of the tune.  Somehow word got to ComFest officials - and Columbus police - that the band was going to perform the song and they stepped in: They politely asked the band to refrain from playing it because they were fearful it would “incite a riot.”  Here are some of the lyrics to “Fuck tha Police:”

         Fuck that shit cause I ain’t the one / For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun / Ice Cube will swarm on any motherfucker in a blue uniform / A young nigga on the warpath / And when I finish it’s gonna be a bloodbath / Of cops dying in LA.

You get the gist: I listened to all 5:45 of it and it had over 90 curse words and threatened violence on cops four different times.  To perform a jazz improv rendition doesn’t mean the band was going to perform the song verbatim, but the message was pretty clear: this was a provocative piece that would definitely raise eyebrows.

As a musician, I’d normally side with the artist and claim he/she has the right to perform whatever song they desire.  But after learning the band’s intentions - and hearing the song in question - I actually sided with the police and ComFest officials on this one.  This song, quite frankly, is in poor taste and isn’t a good fit for an open-air, free festival where ages range between 7 and 70.  It’s also an affront to law enforcement everywhere: I am friends with several cops and they’d take offense to hearing this song played at a community festival.  I had no problem with ComFest officials - and Columbus police - pulling the plug on this tune.  

Granted, there’s so much more to the story and I wasn’t present at the show: I’ve heard all of this second-hand.  The narrative has changed a lot the past three days as well: rumors circulated that the band was actually threatened by cops - and Comfest officials - and I’m not always sure who, or what, to believe.  But I think the deeper question is this: Is censoring this type of music a noble act or treason?

Censorship used to carry an air of rarified dignity with it.  I often think of Rushdie’s exile from Iran after writing The Satanic Verses or Kurt Vonnegut raising ire after penning Slaughterhouse Five.  But in today’s climate, I’m not sure if people truly feel the sting of censorship anymore.  We all have the freedom to voice our thoughts, opinions and art any way we want, any time we want, with little fear of reprisal.  Sadly, we suffer from the opposite problem: we clearly lack the ability to censor ourselves, even when we should.  In this 24/7, wild-west of social media, it’s not uncommon to take 29 pictures of our Cobb Salad when only one will do.  [Or post too many cat videos.]  Self-censoring is a welcome blessing in this regard.  

Chickenhawk Birdgetters deciding to cover a hateful song about cop violence is simply not appropriate at an all-ages festival.  And they shouldn’t have cried foul when the plug was pulled on them.  Granted, there is a time and place for this type of music, and I’m not condemning the artists for creating it.  But ComFest isn’t it.  I wouldn’t walk into a church and play Nine Inch Nails: it’s in poor taste.  I wouldn’t attend a children’s birthday party and play “Lick it Up”: it’s inappropriate.  Artists have a responsibility to their audience and not the other way around.  I think we’ve lost sight of that.

ComFest officials politely asked the band to censor themselves and not play a tune that could incite violence.  They refused.  Instead, they told ComFest officials that they wanted ComFest to admit “they were censoring a band.”  The band wanted to pin themselves as victims: percussionist Joey Gurwin even put duct tape over his mouth to prove the point.  

Of course, this warrants more questions than answers.  To my knowledge, ComFest has never censored a band in the 40-plus-year history of the event.  No band has ever had to provide setlists or even discuss their sets with officials.  So how did the police and ComFest folks even learn of this?  

After giving it some thought, I came upon a possible conclusion: the “leak” was intentional.  Someone in their camp got word out about their N.W.A. selection and ComFest officials - and police - responded accordingly.  But why would a local band cause such a commotion in the first place?  One word: Publicity.  [Call it “The Trump Effect”—it obviously works.]  The band wanted to earn free publicity - and become heroes in the process - by becoming the first band to ever be censored by ComFest.  It worked: an article was written about them in Columbus Alive, one of the organizers resigned and they have blown up the Internet the past four days.  

It was a publicity stunt.

In this new era of publicity-at-all-costs - led by our Executive-in-Tweet - it’s no wonder that people are divided over this issue.  But there is nothing treasonous about pulling the plug on such a hateful song as “Fuck tha Police.”  To stand in front of a microphone and shout “motherfucker” at a bunch of ten-year-olds isn’t noble, it’s stupid.  In my mind the ComFest Committee - and Columbus Police - got it right: they pulled the plug on an act that wasn’t willing to censor themselves.  When artists don’t have the temerity to govern themselves for the well-being of the community, then others must step in and do it for them.  Well done.


Pete Vogel is a drummer, musician, teacher, movie director and many other thingsClick here to visit his website