On August 7, R&B legend Ronald Isley entered federal p rison to begin a three-year sentence for tax evasion. Isley was convicted last September for nonpayment of $3.1 million worth of taxes between 1997 and 2002. One of the original shaping forces in soul music and rhythm and blues, Isley was the frontman of the Isley Brothers through four decades. His was the lead voice on classics such as "It's Your Thing," "Shout," "Fight the Power," and "Who's That Lady."
During the weeks preceding his incarceration, a small but fervent movement rallied behind Isley. Websites like DefJam.com—home to his present record label—and BlackAmericaWeb.com petitioned President Bush for clemency via Bush's executive authority. Letters, e-mails, petitions, and notices circulated, citing Isley's historical and artistic merit, his nearly seven decades of lawful citizenry, and the fact that he's making a complete restitution of back taxes to the U.S. government.
The 67-year-old Isley is also in failing health—three years ago he suffered a stroke and last year was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which leaves him in a state of perpetual medical need. (Though he recently managed to father a child with one of his backup singers.) Should he go to jail, Isley could die there.
Taken on its own, the campaign for clemency for Isley is quixotic. But a recent presidential act lends it gravity: Only two months ago, Bush commuted the prison sentence of administration affiliate I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. Possibly the most corrupt executive legal action since Ford pardoned Nixon in 1974, the Libby commutation not only casts Isley's situation in stark relief, but has emboldened the Isley movement substantially; supporters' letters and petitions have referenced it outright.
Really, neither Isley nor Libby should be seriously considered for a pardon. Isley is hardly a good guy: During his tax trial he was accused of cashing royalty checks made out to his deceased brothers to help finance his luxurious lifestyle. And in recent years, Isley's closest musical accomplice has been none other than R&B superstar/accused-statutory-rapist R. Kelly, company that hardly speaks to a healthy moral compass.
Recording and performing with Kelly, Isley had taken to billing himself as "Mr. Biggs"—a fur-draped mack persona that's both a grab at relevance in the hiphop era and an attempt to live out certain indulgences in his golden years. Essentially, Isley has cast himself as the ultimate image of black-American antiestablishment financial and moral independence: the pimp.
Libby, on the other hand, is the most establishment-positive character the ruling class could dream of. He's willing to do dirt in service to his country, to jettison his own personal dignity for a perceived greater good, to be a public fall guy for his superiors. Bush's partial treatment of Libby, a convicted obstructer of justice, implies a sense of institutional respect for one of the lowest forms of life from the perspective of modern hiphop culture: the snitch.
The pimp is an icon of free will and the "going-for-self" MO that permeates the modern rap dream. He flamboyantly pursues his ascendancy without deference to the law. In contrast, the snitch breaks the moral code of the street—and probably his own code of ethics, too—in the service of the law. The pimp's mode of criminality gains him punishment from the ruling authority; the snitch's gains him exoneration with potential reward. The difference between these two characters is their methods of dealing with the powers that be—defiance or surrender.
It's poetic that Isley's crime is tax evasion—essentially the placing of the self over the state. Ultimately, his offenses were selfish; though he indulged in pimp playacting, he is certainly not the ghetto Robin Hood of blaxploitation cinema. His heroics to the community begin and end with his musical legacy. That legacy made Isley rich and adored, but it couldn't buy his way out of prison.