In what his attorney claims is the first case of an artist being arrested for recording a song, West Coast gangsta-rapper C-BO was taken into police custody Tuesday for what law enforcement officials claim is a parole violation found in the lyrics of his recently released album, Til' My Casket Drops.
C-BO, a.k.a. Shawn Thomas, who was convicted in 1994 for negligent discharge of a firearm during a fatal gang-related shooting, was arrested after police in Sacramento, Calif., claimed that the lyrics to new songs such as "Deadly Game" (RealAudio excerpt) -- which features the lines: "When they try to pull you over/ Shoot 'em in the face ya'll" -- were a violation of probation conditions that forbade C-BO from advocating a gang lifestyle.
C-BO, 28, who is being held without bail in Elk Grove jail in Sacramento, was charged with breaking conditions of his parole, which forbade promoting a gang lifestyle, criminal behavior and/or violence against law enforcement, according to C-BO's attorney John Duree. Additionally, C-BO is said to have violated a travel restriction and a stipulation requiring that he provide documents to parole officers. The rapper served 15 months on the weapons charge at California's Soledad Prison and was paroled last July.
"The condition on its face of promoting gang activity is one thing," Duree said. "But the interpretation by the parole authority that he can't sing his songs is something else."
Tip Kindel, assistant director of the California Department of Corrections Communications Office, said the punishment for the parole violation could range from a verbal admonishment to one year in jail.
Kindel said C-BO signed a form on June 12, 1997, that specified that he would not "engage in any behavior that promotes the gang lifestyle, criminal behavior or violence against law enforcement."
The State Board of Prison Terms will hold a hearing within 45 days at which time the rapper would be allowed to present whatever evidence he feels is pertinent to the charges, Kindel added. "I'm not aware of previous cases exactly like this one," he said. "But it is not uncommon for these kinds of issues to come up depending on the type of parole conditions set, which in this case were gang-related."
Saying he was "shocked" by the arrest, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression program director David Greene said Wednesday that his censorship-fighting nonprofit group was considering getting involved. "It's shocking to me that constitutionally protected free speech can be considered a parole violation," he said.
The rapper's publicist, Phyllis Pollack, said police "ransacked" C-BO's house during the arrest Tuesday, "claiming they had to arrest him because he didn't provide lyrics sheets, which sounds a little like Nazi Germany to me or at least the second coming of the PMRC," she added, referring to the Parents Music Resource Center, the group founded in the '80s that fought for the stickering of albums with parental warnings.
Pollack argues that C-BO was merely expressing his political opinions on the album, which will debut at #41 on the Billboard 200 albums chart next week and which includes the "Deadly Game" lyrics protesting the three-strikes law. In that song, C-BO raps, "I got two strikes right now as we speak/ And, Pete, I'm not 'bout to let you motherfuckers do me ... with Wilson in the office you gets no dates," referring to California Gov. Pete Wilson.
"There's nothing in the parole conditions that would prohibit him from being a rap artist," Kindel said, "so long as he doesn't break those conditions."
Kindel said his office learned about the album's release, which had been scheduled for Tuesday but was moved up to Feb. 24, from media accounts and calls from media outlets who'd been tipped off by Pollack about a possible arrest.
Parole officials then bought the album and transcribed the lyrics, which Kindel said, "without question promote a gang lifestyle."
The case is believed to be the first time "anyone has ever been incarcerated and arrested for singing a song or recording one," Duree said.
Florida record-store owner Tommy Hammond was arrested in 1988 for selling copies of raunchy rap group 2 Live Crew's Move Something, but he was later acquitted. The former leader of punk agitators the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra, was arrested in 1986 on charges of distributing material harmful to minors that was linked to a sexually explicit poster by artist H.R. Giger that appeared in the Kennedys' album Frankenchrist; Biafra was later acquitted.
Arguing that the parole board was perhaps missing the distinction between an artist telling a story and encouraging fans to act, Greene said he felt the board was not giving fans of C-BO's music enough credit. "The production of music without question falls under constitutionally protected freedom of expression," Greene said. "What the board seems to be missing is that it is his expression that will integrate him back into society. All the board is doing is stifling that. They won't make him a 'better' citizen by not letting him speak."
Prior to this most recent arrest, C-BO was charged with marijuana possession in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1995, while on parole for the firearm charge, Duree said. Til' My Casket Drops is C-BO's sixth album.
Nina Crowley of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, a censorship-watchdog group, said that if the case against C-BO goes to trial, it could be a landmark First Amendment issue involving his rights to freedom of expression. "I'm not surprised it happened, considering the attitudes that prevail today," Crowley said of her reaction to the arrest.
"If a kid can be arrested in Texas for wearing a T-shirt that someone finds offensive, anything can happen," Crowley added, referring to a recent case in which 18-year-old John Schroeder was arrested for wearing a Marilyn Manson shirt with the words "I Am the God Of Fuck." [Wed., March 4, 1998, 7 p.m. PST]