Music

The Reverend vs. Rap

In the spring of 1993, the Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem found a vice to fight against: misogynistic rap lyrics.

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Otis Butts III poses in Harlem, New York, in the 1990s.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Otis Butts III poses in Harlem, New York, in the 1990s.
Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

In the early 1990s, the Rev. Calvin Butts fashioned himself as an advocate for inner-city black neighborhoods. From the pulpit of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Butts campaigned against advertisements for liquor and cigarettes.

In the spring of 1993, he identified another malignant force: violent and misogynistic rap music.

“I may have more in common with a white man who loves humanity than I do with a black man who thinks he ought to call all women Bs and hoes,” Butts said in a TV interview. “There is some point where we can’t be pushed into this corner and say, you know, just for the sake of unity we ought to keep this quiet.”

Butts singled out some rap acts by name: NWA, 2 Live Crew, and the Geto Boys. He called their music “filth.”

And he didn’t just rant against rap from the pulpit. On the morning of June 5, 1993, he led a few hundred supporters to the sidewalk in front of his church. There, he’d placed several boxes of cassette tapes and compact discs. He also had a steamroller.

But when Butts climbed aboard and got ready to start crushing, he found that his path was blocked. Dozens of rap fans had showed up to stage a counterprotest. They shouted that the reverend was out of touch and accused him of censorship.

Taking in the tense scene, Butts called off the steamrolling.

Instead, he and his followers boarded a bus to midtown Manhattan. There, they dumped everything in front of the Madison Avenue headquarters of the Sony Corporation. Sony, Butts said, was “representative of an industry which laughs at black people all the way to the bank.”

Some members of Butts’ group crushed the music under their feet for good measure. “Recognize that this poison kills,” Butts said into the megaphone that day. “This is your garbage. Take it back!”

Butts told the hip-hop magazine the Source that he was a fan of rap music and called it “an important art form.” He said that he was speaking out against “those who prostitute the music and send negative and filthy messages to our children and adults.”

In 1994, the group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony used a line from one of Butts’ sermons as a sample:

We’re not against rap. We’re not against rappers. But we are against those thugs.

The song didn’t include Butts’ next line, which was much harsher:

But we are against those thugs who disgrace our community, our women, who disgrace our culture, and who have absolutely nothing of redemptive value to offer except the legacy of violence and sexual assault and foul language.

Butts came down hard on rappers, but he was willing to engage with the music and its defenders. The next black activist to take up the fight would be less accommodating.

How did hip-hop divide black leaders along generational and gender lines? How did veterans of the civil rights movement make common cause with white conservatives?

And how did a 66-year-old woman on a moral crusade upend the music industry?

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Slow Burn Season 3: Tupac and Biggie now on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And to hear the interviews we just couldn’t fit into the main episodes, join Slate Plus.