By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2002; Page C01

Sarah Jones thinks maybe the Federal Communications Commission has mistaken her for somebody else.

But that's not why she's suing them. She's suing over free speech, the First Amendment, to protect her reputation. The 28-year-old New York poet, playwright and spoken-word performer who attended Bryn Mawr College, speaks Spanish, French and German, and debuted her one-woman show "Waking the American Dream" before a crowd of more than 250 at the Mayflower Hotel on Thursday night, says the regulatory agency must have confused her with salacious rap stars Lil' Kim or Foxy Brown.

Mayhap they think she's "Bootylicious."

She says that might help explain why last May the FCC fined Portland, Ore., community radio station KBOO-FM $7,000 for an October 1999 airing of Jones's rap-poem "Your Revolution" (as in your revolution will not happen between these thighs).

The song is meant to be a feminist attack against the misogyny, commercialism and numbing sexual sameness of rap on the radio. At least one listener didn't hear it that way and complained to the FCC, which in turn cited the station, saying the song contained "offensive sexual references" and that those references appear to be designed "to pander and shock and are patently offensive."

The song repackages popular rap lyrics of graphic sexual imagery -- themselves not cited by the FCC -- and uses them as part of the critique.

"I've toured India and Nepal and spoken about women's rights internationally," Jones says. She's performed the song at middle and high schools and "to have 'sexually indecent' attached to my name is something we couldn't let stand."

Deena Barnwell, 31, urban music director at KBOO and the deejay who played "Your Revolution," says when she heard about the FCC complaint, "I laughed at first.

"I was astonished, really. I said no way the FCC is going to find this sexually pandering," says Barnwell, who considers the song her personal mantra of empowerment.

That is why Jones, in a suit joined by People for the American Way, took the unusual step of filing suit in federal court Tuesday against the FCC for violating her First Amendment rights. Separately, the radio station has appealed the FCC fine and is awaiting its final ruling. In a similar case last month, the commission rescinded a finding of indecency against a Pueblo, Colo., station that played an edited-for-radio version of the Eminem song "The Real Slim Shady."

An FCC spokesman, David Fiske, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the appeal or the Jones lawsuit, but says "the agency is obligated to enforce the indecency rules" laid down by the famous 1978 "seven dirty words" Supreme Court decision. That enforcement power was expanded in a later, lower court ruling that also weighs context and the time of a broadcast. But it's the listeners who file complaints, he says -- the FCC does not monitor the airwaves. The decisions "come down to very subjective case-by-case situations."

It's a lot of legalese that Jones says could be avoided if she and FCC Chairman Michael Powell simply could sit down and talk and vibe and build.

"He might understand who I am, see what I'm about, and he might play it for his kids," she says, laughing.


Your revolution will not find me in the
back seat of a jeep
With L.L., hard as hell,
you know
doing it and doing it and doing it well,
you know
doing it and doing it and doin it well

Jones says she wrote "Your Revolution," in the lingua franca, after going to one too many parties with songs that degraded women. Popular rapper "Ludacris can rhyme," she says, but it's "frustrating to sit down and hear that he has all these hos in different area codes.
You just want some alternative. What is wrong with creating a conversation instead of a stream from one perspective?"

Even some of those implicity criticized by Jones have embraced her, she says. After a 1999 New York performance of "Surface Transit," a one-woman show that includes "Your Revolution," Jones says uber-rapper and stud Jay-Z (who brags in song that he's "got this model chick," he's "got this Chinese chick," he's "got this project chick . . .") came up and hugged her. "He was like, 'I'm a fan. I'm a fan.'

"That speaks to the need for and appreciation of different voices in hip-hop," says Jones, who grew up listening to the lyricism of Eric B. & Rakim, and socially conscious messages of KRS-One. Those kinds of voices are now often silenced or driven underground by the corporate rap structure of big record labels and commercial radio stations, she says.

She cites rapper Limp Bizkit's song "Nookie," and asks, "Is there anybody who doesn't know what 'nookie' is in that context?" "Your Revolution" makes specific reference to Foxy Brown, she of the "Ill Na Na," and Jones says "whether the FCC is aware or not, that is a reference to her sexual organs."

And while she's had people call to say they hate hip-hop and thank her for attacking it, she quickly sets them straight. She's a fan, a head. She love-loves hip-hop.

"I'm not attacking hip-hop," she says. "I'm attacking sexism in the larger culture. I'm a cultural critic and a member of the hip-hop generation."

This is a complexity in hip-hop rarely seen by a larger culture stuck in MTV rotation. But it is one that fans of Jones have come to expect.

Her Thursday performance of "Waking the American Dream," which was commissioned by the National Immigration Forum, is a funny, thoughtful, affecting look at facets of the immigrant experience through 10 characters -- all performed by Jones. It is staged as a poetry slam for immigrants, hosted by a Pakistani accountant who's won his company's golf tournament 11 years running, and the crowd alternately sits rapt or doubled over with laughter at Jones's expansive gestures and Streep-esque accents.

Afterward, the audience stands and claps and claps some more. And Jones seems touched.

The statuesque native of Baltimore has spent the past couple of years playing to bigger audiences and gaining more renown. In 1997, she won the Nuyorican Poets Cafe's Grand Slam Champion. "Surface Transit," which was nominated for a Drama Desk award by the New York theater critics, won an award for best one-person show at an HBO comedy festival. She was featured on HBO's Def Poetry Slam last year, as was her fiance Stephen Colman, and toured her second show, "Women Can't Wait," internationally and before a U.N. conference on women's rights.

After Thursday's whistles and applause die down, and the floor is opened for questions, Jones fields one from the second or third row.

First up, a young woman who has one question: Where on the Web, she wants to know, could folks sign up to support "Your Revolution?"

2002 The Washington Post Company