Rap superstar Lil Wayne offended many people when he recently resurrected the name and image of the slain teenager whose brutal beating and death in Mississippi sparked fervent waves of Civil Rights protest in 1955.
"I beat the p--- up like Emmett Till," Lil Wayne audaciously uttered on "Karate Chop (Remix)," spawning a vortex of criticism from scholars, intellectuals, artists, and activists for conjuring up a memory long associated with the pain and terrorism of Southern racism.
Emmett Till's family and music icon Stevie Wonder issued public rebukes, indicting the rapper for breaching inviolable terrain.
Guilty as charged, Lil Wayne's suggestive simile enlists him in a long lineage of artistic line-crossing with roots extending way back to biblical days when an exasperated lyricist wished vicious deaths upon Babylonian infants (Psalm 137:8-9).
Like Lil Wayne and the biblical psalmist, the plays of William Shakespeare often crossed the line. An old man's eyes are gouged out in King Lear, a young woman's hands and tongue are severed in Titus Andronicus, a confused husband strangled his wife in Othello, an ambitious king ensued a bloody reign in Macbeth, and the monarch's wife Lady Macbeth claimed to be ruthless enough to kill a newborn nursing at her breast.
Edgar Allan Poe's narrators crossed the line when one buried an axe in his wife's brain in "The Black Cat," and another buried his friend alive in "The Cask of Amontillado."
Mr. Kurtz crossed the line in Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness, when the ivory trader put the severed heads of Africans on stakes to decorate his hut.
An entire village crossed the line by stoning a wife and mother to fulfill a ceremonial death sweepstakes in Shirley Jackson's frightening tale "The Lottery."
A wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood, birds plucked out the eyes of Cinderella's stepsisters, and Hansel and Gretel burned an old woman to ashes in the classic versions of our favorite children's stories.
More recently, Andres Serrano crossed the line with his award-winning photograph of a crucifix plunged in a glass of urine. Zombie movies crossed the line by showcasing severed human heads, extracted organs, and tortured bodies. Country music icon Johnny Cash's protagonist in "Folsom Prison Blues" crossed the line by killing a man in cold blood just to watch him die. Marilyn Manson crossed the line with his callous desecration of the Bible in the video for "Antichrist Superstar."
HBO's critically acclaimed television series The Wire crossed the line when drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield fired fatal bullets into a young woman's breasts. Showtime's shows Californication and Shameless traverse the line of decency and respectability in the most shocking and offensive ways.
In 1979, hip hop entered the line-crossing enterprise for the first time when rapper Spoonie Gee threatened to shoot-to-kill his sexual conquest's boyfriend in "Spoonin' Rap," one of the earliest recorded rap tracks.
And the grimy urban art form never retreated from crossing the line.
Kool G Rap's sociopathic narrator relishes killing passengers and police and raping a woman in "Train Robbery."
An assassin slays women and children and slits the neck of a priest in Jean Grae's brilliantly sadistic single "Chapter One: Destiny."
Notable tracks by Eminem exude utter fascination with the minds and motivations of psychopathic killers. Remy Ma contemplates castrating men and shipping the severed penises of her victims to their parents in her seditious single "Bilingual."
DMX claims he had coitus with a corpse in his gloomy track "Bring Your Whole Crew." Gucci Mane confesses to armed robberies and murder for hire in "Stick em Up."
Snoop Dogg alludes to leaving a "nigga" bloody, Magic forecasts killing and entombing an enemy in the foe's own backyard and bringing more adversaries to a state of eternal sleep, and C-Murder swears by the mantra "make em bleed!" in the ominous track "Down 4 My Niggas."
In "Wavey," Kreayshawn talks about entering your home and killing your mother, brother and dog, while sparing your cat with the cruel intent to take it home and expose the feline to a more torturous death at the paws and jaw of her "goon" cat.
The indelicate video for "Yankin" showcases two scantily clad men on all fours, harnessed like animals, with newcomer rapper Lady standing over them holding their leashes like the proud owner of two pet humans.
And Lil Wayne's recent Emmett Till controversy reminds us that the Holly Grove standout has been crisscrossing the line for decades.
In his remix version of Snoop's abovementioned track "Down 4 My Niggas," Lil Wayne threatens to cut off your testicles and then hand them to your partner. In "Stand Up," he contemplates defecating on your girlfriend and then pissing on her lips so she can give you a urine-soaked kiss. A few lines later he confesses, "We don't give a f--- about a casket" when alluding to his Holly Grove hometown as a veritable murder camp.
More recently in his single "John" Lil Wayne threatens to knock your head off your neck, and in "My Homies Still" he claims to have so much cocaine that his snorting partner is going to need another nose.
It goes without saying that Lil Wayne and hip hop artistry delight in blurring the line of distinction between bourgeois decorum and moral repugnance. But such a keen capacity for reconnoitering the evil elements of our humanity makes hip hop quite akin to other esteemed art forms.
Like country music's prison songs, hip hop lyrics invent new ways to flaunt exaggerated bravado and debauchery. Like chilling murder mysteries, rappers explore the evil that lurks within the hearts of men and women. Like the creepiest of horror flicks, hip hop tales feature monsters of savage unrestraint and things that go bump in the night. Like mobster movies, hip hop takes consumers on vicarious trips to biospheres where Nietzschean master morality reigns and social contracts rooted in Kantian respectability are rendered null and void. Hip hop, more skillfully and more seductively than other art forms, offers momentary reprieves from mundane existences to indulge in adrenaline pumping, blood rushing, head-nodding beats and vicious lyrics.
Hip hop's penchant for the provocative notwithstanding, perhaps no rapper in the history of the genre has ever uttered anything more reprehensible than the biblical psalmist and Lady Macbeth's aforementioned allusions to infant brutality.
But that's the provocative power of art as safe space to articulate the most shameful inexcusable sentiments.
Lil Wayne, Shakespeare, and the angry author of Psalm 137 oblige in taking temporary residence in darker, evil worlds to investigate and celebrate the complexity of our human experience. In this way, artists thrive by going where convention says they cannot go.
But crossing the line does not come without consequence.
Shakespeare's plays generated formidable protests from 17th-century Puritan moralists and as a result, Parliament banned Elizabethan theater in London for decades. Similarly, rappers' risqué lyrics spark antagonism from late modern moralists, mostly in the form of married, middle-aged, middle-class, arbitrators of aesthetic acceptability.
Fortunately, our modern day Shakespeareans wear public scrutiny as a badge of honor, reminding themselves of the poignant words spoken by Hyman Roth in Godfather II: "This is the business we've chosen!"
But should contemporary aesthetes take cues from 17th-century Puritan moralists? If so, then who are the privileged voices to inform the public of acceptable parameters for artistic expression?
And where do you set the line that cannot be crossed? Is art better served with attempts to sanitize and moralize art out of its provocative power? My answer is a resounding no!
So as the French say, "L'art Pour L'art."
Which simply entreats us to let art be whatever it wants to be, even when art transgresses boundaries, shocks, and offends.
Whether it is a surrealist savant using human blood and feces as paint; artist Renee Cox depicting a naked female Jesus in her controversial remake of The Last Supper; satirist Seth MacFarlane offering an off-color pun about President Lincoln's assassination; rock band Black Sabbath extolling terror-enthused lyrics and themes; shock jock Don Imus alluding to Rutgers coeds as nappy headed hoes; comic Sheryl Underwood sexualizing standing U.S. presidents and relishing in raping her childhood sweetheart; or Lil Wayne using Emmett Till as a simile for arduous sexual service to female anatomy, when it comes to artistic expression, no line is impassable, no border is impenetrable, no frontier is uninfringeable.