A YouTube video depicting a political hip hop artist calling out the University of Connecticut student government for trying to censor his performance last Friday has attracted considerable online attention.
In the video Jasiri Smith, who goes by the stage name Jasiri X, said members of student government threatened to withhold payment for his appearance if he performed the song “Occupy (We the 99).” Several USG officials have blamed the artist’s outburst on a misunderstanding between the event’s organizers and the artist.
The Pittsburgh-based rapper posted the video on his YouTube channel on Nov. 7, and it was re-posted by Washington D.C.-based RTAmerica the following day. As of 2 p.m. Wednesday the videos had attracted a combined total of about 5,000 views.
In the video, Smith said that a “gangster” – USG Comptroller Daniel Hanley—sent him a contract last Thursday night, the day before the performance, notifying him that he was obligated to limit his performance to an already agreed-upon list of 11 songs, and that if he performed any other songs he would not be paid his performance fee of $841.50.
“A gangster told me that I could come up here and perform, but I couldn’t perform one song,” Smith said. “I did a song called ‘Occupy (We the 99),’ so the gangster said ‘you can come to UConn man and we’ll give you a little bit of money, but it’s under the auspices that you can’t perform ‘Occupy (We the 99)’,” Smith said in the video.
“If I don’t get the check Monday keep your check,” he added.
USG President Sam Tracy said that the organization intends to pay Smith the full amount he was promised, and that the contract was an attempt by USG to justify using student fees typically reserved for USG-endorsed events to bring a political performer to campus.
There’s no question that political artists and speakers of many different orientations have performed on campus before. The difference in Smith’s appearance was that while the political rally was paid for with money allocated to the Alternative Political Society by USG’s funding board, Smith’s payment was coming directly from the coffers of a USG committee. Committee money is typically reserved for USG-endorsed events like Student Appreciation Day.
Typically when an event is paid for by USG, the money is allocated to a third-party group that applies for the money through USG’s funding board.
Tracy, Hanley, and Student Affairs Chairman Stephen Petkiss each wanted Smith to be able to perform at the rally, but also wanted to be consistent with USG policy. They also did not want USG to appear to be endorsing a political ideology by paying for Smith’s performance.
“We wanted the performer to come because he had a lot of songs that were about racial injustice and multiculturalism, social justice and racial issues,” Tracy said.
“Kind of ironically, we were trying to avoid the issue of getting in trouble and inappropriately using funds and in so doing, by trying to avoid that situation, we walked into another one,” Tracy added.
“I do regret if we crossed the line into any kind of censorship,” Hanley said.
The group felt they could move forward with booking Smith to perform because it was “nebulous,” according to Tracy.
When asked to list who specifically would have been responsible for holding USG accountable if they had allowed Smith to include political songs in the contract – or if it were to wrongfully allocate money in a future incident Petkiss said USG executives are obliged to follow due process.
Whether or not the contract infringed on Smith’s first amendment rights, asking an artist to limit his or her set list is not a common practice among tier-three organizations at UConn.
“I have worked at WHUS for years in a position where I regularly book artists to perform at student fee funded concerts and I have never once heard of anyone try to control any aspect of the artist’s performance with a contract,” said David Haseltine, a USG Senator and promotions manager at WHUS, UConn’s radio station.
And then there is always the question of Smith’s first amendment rights, were they violated?
Public agencies have very little authority to infringe on a person’s right to free speech. U.S. Supreme Court precedent shows moderate acceptance of content-neutral limitations on speech, but typically political speech is protected regardless of the venue. However, it is unclear how U.S. Supreme Court precedent applies to USG and it is also unclear if the organization could be held accountable in criminal or civil court.
The confusion began when the event’s organizer, Multicultural and Diversity Subcommittee Chairman Colin Neary proposed that USG could avoid this conflict of interest by asking Smith to only perform songs about social issues or racial injustice, which is recorded in the minutes of the student affairs committee’s Oct. 26 meeting minutes.
Neary said he only proposed the idea because he felt it was the only way members of the student affairs committee would vote to allow Smith to perform.
Smith and Neary met at the Occupation in Zuccotti Park on Oct. 5, and Neary asked if he would be willing to perform at UConn, an offer he accepted. To pay for the performance, Neary needed to persuade USG’s Student Affairs committee – chaired by Petkiss– to authorize money from its budget.
Neary made his first pitch to the student affairs committee during their Oct. 19 meeting. According to the minutes, he motioned to vote on appropriating $1,000 for “transportation, lodging and “reservations” for Smith to perform at last Friday’s rally, but the motion failed because several committee members were concerned that Smith’s act was too political.
Neary raised the issue again at the committee’s Oct. 26 meeting. According to the minutes, committee member Stephanie Blasnik addressed concerns that the rally was “too politically charged of an event” by saying that it included “all different sides of politics.”
Neary was the first, according to the minutes, to suggest that the committee could ask Smith to limit his material, but he said he only raised the suggestion because funding for the event had been denied during the previous meeting and he felt it was one of the only ways to win needed votes.
The second vote passed with four voting in favor, one abstention and one against. According to the minutes “In the end, it was decided that Smith will talk more about social issues more than specific political ones.
Soon after, Neary asked Smith to write a set list consisting of songs that were not overtly political and submitted it to Hanley on Nov. 2, two days before the concert.
Hanley then wrote up the contract to include the songs and sent it in an email to Smith explaining the terms of the contract.
Hanley later said his explanation of the contract was “inaccurate” and “poorly written.”
“All of us here at USG enjoy taking [pride] in social justice, however due to our nature as the student government (funded by student fees) we are not allowed to sponsor events that contain obvious political statements and lyrics (such as Occupy: We the 99) – as referring to the Occupy movement, regardless of ones opinion we cannot allow such material as the Undergraduate Student Government.”
Hanley and Petkiss both said that limiting the rapper’s material was the only way they could justify paying him, and that Neary led them to believe Smith was amenable to not performing only mutually agreed-upon songs that were included in a set list Neary submitted to them.
He said the time constraint was one reason for the mistake.
“We were just so rushed,” Hanley said. “The rally was the next day.”
Smith said that while he understands USG’s position, he disagreed with their decision to only allow him to perform certain songs. He said he was not aware that he would only be allowed to play certain songs until Neary asked him for the set list and then only grudgingly accepted because he did not want to disappoint his fans.
“I had initially agreed just because I knew the organizers had put out flyers and I didn’t want to disappoint people who had put a lot of work behind it,” Smith said.
It wasn’t until he arrived at UConn that he decided to perform “Occupy (We the 99),” according to a message included in the description section of the YouTube video Smith posted.
Smith said that he accepts USG’s apology and that he is happy that the organizers were at least not intentionally trying to take a swipe at his First Amendment rights. He added that he will accept payment for the event.
“I’ll accept the payment,” Smith said. “Obviously it wasn’t about the money it was about making sure that free speech is in effect that this deterioration were seeing of people’s rights doesn’t extend to the campus at the University of Connecticut,” Smith said.