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Black musicians and piracy: Friends or foes?

An NPD study indicates that black Americans are more likely to listen to pirated music. Should black musicians care?

NEW YORK -- The sun has just come up outside the hallowed Apollo Theater in Harlem, and Lord "Black Jesus" Harrison is doing what he often does on Saturdays: selling CDs of his rap group, Harlem 6.

Lord 'Black Jesus' Harrison of the group Harlem 6 says artists must make a deal with the devil: online piracy. Greg Sandoval/CNET

"We're distributing online and on the streets," Harrison said in a baritone voice on the awakening street. "People got to know who you are... all the greatest did this: NWA, Wu-Tang Clan, this guy 50 Cent."

As his eyes scan the street for potential buyers, Harrison is talking piracy now, and his rapid-fire speech slows to hammer home each point.

"I take the good and the bad, man. You know?" Harrison said. "On the negative side, [music pirates] stole some money, but on the positive side, it was good promotion. You get people out there downloading your tracks, and they know who you are. [Napster] robbed us, but at the same time they made their billions, maybe thousands more people got to know who I am."

The good and the bad: You get ripped off by illegal file sharing, but maybe you get more attention, and that gets people to your shows and buying your music legally. It's a common refrain among musicians over the last 12 years. For every Metallica or Prince railing against piracy, there's a Trent Reznor or 50 Cent willing to experiment with new means of distribution.

But a likely to be controversial study puts a surprising racial spin on the great piracy debate. The NPD Group conducts an annual survey that looks at how consumers interact with music. Russ Crupnick, NPD's senior industry analyst, said last night that 14 percent of people surveyed -- regardless of race -- acknowledged downloading at least one song file illegally. Among people who identified themselves as black, however, the number rises to 21 percent.

So what does that mean to black musicians, who are more likely than not to be selling music to a black audience? The answer, as with anything else to do with race, is complicated, fungible, prone to stereotype, and maybe just unanswerable.

That doesn't mean that some people haven't been taking swings at the tricky racial questions, even before the NPD survey came out. Two weeks ago, during a conference in Canada, Brett Danaher, an assistant professor of economics at Wellesley College, was reporting on the effects of an antipiracy program in France. As a side note, Danaher said his research also turned up information about which genres of music tend to be pirated the most.

"If you take a rock song and a rap song, both of which are equally popular, in terms of legal sales, the rap song, on average, is going to have much higher levels of piracy," Danaher said. "People who listen to rap tend to be more likely to pirate."

Danaher's data supports other studies that found the same results. Rap and hip-hop music are hugely popular with mainstream audiences, regardless of ethnic backgrounds, but surveys show that a large percentage of listeners are indeed black. So what does this mean?

"Caucasian looting"
I began wondering recently where black Americans stood on the issue of Internet piracy. In January, after the antipiracy legislation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, was defeated, commentator Bill Maher on the HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher" called Web piracy "Caucasian looting." I had all kinds of problems with that statement, but I couldn't help thinking about whether he was right. Is Web piracy a white thing?

There's not a lot of data on this, but we can determine that the divisions in the black community appear to be drawn at the same places they are with whites and other ethnic groups. If you don't profit from music, you're less likely to object to piracy.

A decade ago, when Metallica collected names of file sharers using Napster and filed a copyright complaint, Dr. Dre, one of the founding members of the rap group NWA and the music producer who helped give Eminem his start, did the same. Since then, a number of rappers have made it known that they are much more accepting of file sharing.

Rapper 50 Cent has said piracy is just part of marketing and helps promote concerts. MC Hammer, an investor in several tech startups, has criticized the record labels' antipiracy strategy.

At the height of Napster's popularity, rapper Dr. Dre (far right) followed Metallica in reporting names of suspected file sharers. Beats By Dre

As far as distributing music illegally online, members of the rap and hip-hop communities have not appeared to have much involvement until recently. Swizz Beatz, a noted hip-hop producer and the husband of singer Alicia Keys, was listed on MegaUpload's site as CEO when the cyberlocker service was shut down in January. Some media reports disputed that Beatz was actually running MegaUpload. The U.S. government alleges in an indictment that MegaUpload was behind a massive criminal copyright scheme.

Some groups that represent black Americans on political and economic issues came out against SOPA, including Colorofchange.org.

"Black Americans' effective and powerful history of organizing -- and our victories in gaining freedoms, rights, and respect -- has always been dependent on our ability to use the latest technology to share information and communicate with each other," the group said in January. "Today, maintaining an open Internet is critical to protecting and building on the progress we've made."

A Nobel prize winner supports free music
Of course, being anti-SOPA shouldn't be equated with being pro-piracy, but the group's stance does show how intertwined the never-ending debate over copyright has become with issues of social equality.

In fact, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize winner and internationally known humanitarian who helped end government-mandated segregation in South Africa, threw his support in 2008 behind a company that planned to offer free music.

When asked why he was getting involved, Tutu said: "We all belong to the human family, and each human being has been touched by music...until now, there are people who may not have been able to access music because of the barrier of finance."

So there you have it: Desmond Tutu has lent his moral authority and his life of empowering the powerless to free file sharing.

But Crupnick, the NPD analyst, said piracy in the American black community doesn't appear to be based on economics. While blacks may tend to acquire more songs from unlicensed peer-to-peer sites, they also show a higher willingness to pay for access to legal subscription services, such as the premium services of Spotify and Pandora. Crupnick says he suspects that piracy among blacks may just be a means to sample or test-drive songs. In other words, window shopping before buying.

Is window shopping a race thing? I don't think so. But for the sake of "Black Jesus," if you happen to walk by the Apollo Theater on a weekend, check out his CDs.

And pay the man.