CORRECTED: Sharpton urges divestment to clean up rap lyrics

Corrects spelling of last name in byline.

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DETROIT (Reuters) - Activist Rev. Al Sharpton organized rallies across the United States on Tuesday urging public divestment from the music industry until rap lyricists stop employing the “n-word” and terms degrading to women.

“We’re talking about Viacom (Inc.), Time Warner (Inc.), Vivendi,” three entertainment conglomerates that Sharpton said would be pressured to clean up their musicians’ lyrics if threatened by the withdrawal of government-run pension fund investments.

“The opposition has tried to use the argument of free speech, but they don’t have the freedom to use peoples’ pension funds against their own will and interest,” the 2004 presidential candidate said in a telephone interview from Detroit, where he deplored the use of “nigga,” “bitch,” and “ho,” -- slang for whore -- in popular music.

“I’m here in Motown in Detroit as a symbol of when music was not denigrating and was entertaining,” Sharpton said.

Pension funds don’t act on such calls unless the state tells them to, because their mandate is to maximize returns, not make moral judgments, said Clark McKinley, a spokesman for the California Public Employees Retirement System, the biggest U.S. pension fund.

“We get all kinds of divestment calls and this is just the latest,” McKinley said.

In Detroit, about 80 people joined Sharpton’s protest despite rainy weather while in New York, about 150 braved heat, humidity and exhaust fumes to gather on the sidewalk outside Virgin Media Inc.’s flagship Times Square store.

“These young people are destroying the fabric of black history and black culture for a dollar,” said M. Morton Hall at the New York protest, giving his age as “50-plus.”

Tamu Favorite, a New York actress and playwright in her mid-thirties, wrote a play called “Ten Steps Backwards” to channel her anger at use of the “n-word.”

“Our ancestors fought and marched so we wouldn’t be called the N-word,” she said, wearing a T-shirt she designed that read “Embracing the ‘N’ word is embracing slavery.”

Legislation proposed in New York state calls for $3 billion in pension fund investments to be redirected away from music companies that distribute rap music with the offending lyrics, Sharpton said.

In February, the New York City Council passed a symbolic citywide ban on the “n-word” and in July, Councilwoman Darlene Mealy moved to extend the ban to “bitch” and “ho.”

Sharpton was among the leading voices demanding talk show host Don Imus be fired for referring to black women basketball players as “nappy-headed hos,” and to demand an apology from “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards for his tirade at a comedy club where he repeated the “n-word.”

“Nappy” is a slur describing the tightly curled hair of many African-Americans.

Additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago and Helen Chernikoff in New York