Pepsi's sticky race war

Ozzy Osbourne vs. Ludacris! Bill O'Reilly vs. Russell Simmons! Beneath the goofy grudge match over those Pepsi TV ads lies some real racial hypocrisy.

Published February 8, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

In 2003, hip-hop is more tolerable to the masses than it has ever been. These days, rappers are often better known than contemporary rock stars -- even emcees not named Eminem. Seeing rappers doing commercials for major consumer products still gives pioneering hip-hop journalist and "media assassin" Harry Allen pause. "I'm one of those people that, to this day, when I hear hip-hop in a commercial, I'll write down the name of the commercial and the product, just as a form of recording it," Allen says. "I remember very clearly when you didn't hear that."

White kids have jumped on hip-hop the same way that their parents and grandparents did with Little Richard. But there are still curmudgeons, just as there were in the days of early rock 'n' roll. The obvious example has been Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly, rap's most visible critic over the past six months. His first attack on the genre came against Pepsi's choice of rapper Ludacris as its spokesman. O'Reilly and his viewers managed to get the spots pulled, ostensibly over Luda's foul language. Later, O'Reilly attacked Jay-Z when the rapper was named Principal for a Day at schools during his latest tour. Both actions were made under the auspices of protecting "morality," and that is certainly O'Reilly's prerogative. But when Pepsi chose Ozzy Osbourne -- full-time legend, shock-rocker emeritus, and current winner of the Cleaver/Huxtable TV Dad of the Year Award -- O'Reilly was notably silent.

Russell Simmons, CEO of Island Def Jam Records and head of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, duly noticed that silence. Simmons considers Pepsi's choice of Osbourne as a spokesman, mere months after dropping Ludacris, to be hypocritical. In a statement issued Feb. 5, Simmons called for a boycott of Pepsi by "all artists and supporters of hip-hop culture." The boycott will continue, he says, until Pepsi apologizes to Ludacris, donates $5 million to the emcee's charitable foundation and returns his commercials to the air.

Framing this initiative in the context of "the hip-hop community" is necessary for Simmons to further the agenda of his group -- and his record label, which boasts Ludacris on its roster -- but it also ignores the real issue. Yes, Ludacris is a rapper, but O'Reilly would have protested his ads just as vehemently if he were an R&B singer. (Think you'll be hearing R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" in a commercial anytime soon?) The reason Osbourne's ads were tolerable and Luda's were not has nothing to do with musical form and everything to do with race. Simply put, Ozzy's white and Ludacris is black, and that makes the former more tolerable -- yes, even now -- than the latter. By not looking at this in terms of race, Simmons can make his point without alienating the millions of white kids that keep his label afloat or offending the white power brokers with whom he hobnobs at cocktail parties. But it lets O'Reilly and his followers off the hook.

It's clearly silly for anyone to think that Ozzy Osbourne, the self-described "prince of fucking darkness," is of higher moral fiber than Ludacris. Osbourne made his name with Black Sabbath, crafting some of heavy metal's most disturbing (and, yes, brilliant) records, where the only thing darker than Geezer Butler's bass lines were the songs. Much of the hype surrounding Ozzy's lyrics has been overblown, but his embrace of satanic imagery is not exactly the kind of thing that makes the Fox News crowd feel warm and fuzzy. Consider this stanza from 1970's "Black Sabbath":

Now I have you with me under my pow'r
Our love grows stronger now with ev'ry hour
Look into my eyes, you'll see who I am
My name is Lucifer, please take my hand.

On paper, such a line seems no different from anything in "Sympathy for the Devil," but Ozzy's lyrics never had Mick Jagger's allegorical smirk. Where the Stones chose "Sympathy" to deliver an anarchic social message, Sabbath seemed more concerned with startling listeners with their loose rhythm section and Ozzy's spooky lyrics (although "War Pigs," from the album "Paranoid," is a fine moment of political commentary). What always made Ozzy an easy target was that his work -- pre- and post-Sabbath -- never had a sense of humor that might have dulled the connotations of his lyrics.

By contrast, Ludacris is basically a barrel of laughs, clearly not meant to be taken seriously. His cartoonish, larger-than-life image has elicited chuckles since he was the DJ on WHTA-FM's evening show in Atlanta. Rather than the diaries of a gangster, Luda's albums sound more like the confessions of a class clown. Titles like "Move Bitch" and "Stick 'em Up" seem to affirm O'Reilly's gripes, but both of those songs -- and countless others -- are fundamentally, well, ludicrous. Yes, gunplay is mentioned, but never in a way that seems serious. To say Ludacris represents a threat because he talks about guns is like saying Mini-Me is a violent thug because he threatens to beat people up.

When you get right down to it, the current public personas of Ludacris and Osbourne are remarkably similar. Thanks to MTV, Osbourne has gone from being the Prince of Darkness to a lovable dad, a benign and harmless old coot who wouldn't harm anything except a carton of Marlboros. In his own MTV appearances, Ludacris is one of the rare rappers who comes off as a smiling, happy presence.

In reality, it's almost always a waste of time to discuss "morality," but O'Reilly made the argument necessary by his anti-rap campaign. If he's on a crusade to purify the spokespeople that corporations hire for commercials, his voice should have come through loud and clear the day after Super Sunday, when the Osbourne Pepsi spots debuted. O'Reilly, of course, claims he only takes up a charge at the behest of his viewers. Those same viewers who besieged him with e-mails about Ludacris' "vulgar" music must not have done the same with Ozzy, even though I suspect more of them own copies of "Blizzard of Oz" than "Word of Mowf." That's the double standard at work.

But if the double standard is on the basis of race, not age or genre, how successful can Simmons' campaign against Pepsi ever be? The money in hip-hop remains largely in the hands of white people, and those same white teenagers that buy up Def Jam releases from Ja Rule, Jay-Z and others also helped make "The Osbournes" a phenomenon. Can Simmons persuade those white suburban kids to stop drinking Pepsi? Can he make them understand the racial hypocrisy at work here? Probably not, and maybe that's not his job. It's understandable that Simmons avoided any direct mention of race in his call for a boycott. But racism, or at least racial anxiety, is clearly what lies beneath the whole Ludacris-Ozzy affair.

If Simmons can generate enough of a stink to make the right people take notice, Ozzy will be off the air before any of us can say "Iron Man." But if Pepsi does that, it'll be because its corporate honchos decide the metal god's continued presence might damage the bottom line. Like most other things in America, this dispute comes down to money. One thing Bill O'Reilly and Russell Simmons seem to share, at least in their public postures, is the expectation that big corporations do things for reasons of morality or integrity. (In fact, I'm sure they both know better.)

Pepsi admakers chose Ludacris because they felt he would help them sell sodas, and that's the same reason they later chose Ozzy. They don't care who buys the soda -- black, white, brown, yellow or green -- as long as the can in their hand is blue instead of red. So as long as the Osbourne ads have high Q ratings and Pepsi flies off the shelf, we'll be left with the most disturbing image of Ozzy's entire career: getting cuddly with Florence Henderson. Can we talk about something else now?

By Bomani Jones

Bomani Jones is a writer in Southern California.

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