C DELORES TUCKER KNOWS THE value of music. As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s, she played organ at the church where her father was pastor and gamely squeezed an accordion in the orchestra formed by her nine brothers and sisters. "We had a very traditional family," says Tucker, 66. "Music and education were exercises we had to master. We were taught practice makes perfect."

Perfection, however, is not what Tucker, now a prominent political activist in Washington, finds in some of the music of today's teenagers, especially the hard-edged urban beat known as gangsta rap. "You can't listen to all that language and filth without it affecting you," she says. Though she has no children of her own, she says she has seen firsthand the impact that gangsta rap—with its sexually explicit, sometimes violent lyrics—can have on teenagers. One of her nephews, now 18, dropped out of high school and got his girlfriend pregnant after becoming a gangsta fan. "His behavior started changing," she says. "He tore down his art on the walls and the album covers went up. He started doing everything [the rappers] do."

That was Tucker's cue to start fighting back. Last May, Tucker, a lifelong Democrat, teamed up with Republican William Bennett, codirector of the conservative advocacy group Empower America, to launch a surprise attack on the record industry. At the annual shareholders' meeting of Time Warner in New York City, Tucker chided the giant media and entertainment conglomerate (parent of PEOPLE'S publisher) for "putting profit before principle." At the end of her blistering, 17-minute speech, a third of the audience broke into applause. "I knew it would have a tremendous impact," says Tucker. "Time Warner doesn't need this pornographic pimple on its countenance."

In her own way, Tucker has been making an impact since she conducted a youth choir at 16. Her parents were unschooled Bahamian immigrants who nonetheless, she says, "had an education in the university of God." Tucker helped out on their farm outside Philadelphia and commuted to a private girls' school in the city, where she graduated in 1947. That summer she met William Tucker—she calls him T—at an adult education center. He says he was struck by DeLores's high ideals—not to mention her sparkling brown eyes. "She was not a girl you would play with," says William, a Washington businessman. "She was a girl you would marry." Four years later, he did.

Long before Tucker could even vote, she was drawn to public life. At 16, she made her first speech from a flatbed truck outside a posh Philadelphia hotel that discriminated against African-Americans. In 1961, NAACP Philadelphia branch president A. Leon Higginbotham, a family friend, asked her to help raise money for the civil rights struggle. Tucker says she became the group's most successful fund-raiser and took part in dozens of demonstrations, including the historic 1965 march on Selma, Alabama, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "I've marched all over this country," she says. "Wherever there were marches, I've been there."

After serving as Pennsylvania's secretary of state, Tucker founded the National Political Congress of Black Women in 1984. Then, two years ago at their Washington office, a young volunteer showed Tucker a Snoop Doggy Dogg CD featuring a comic book-style insert with illustrations of guns, drugs and explicit sex. "This started me marching again," says Tucker, who began picketing record stores with "Gangsta Rap is Rape" signs and urging music executives to drop offensive acts from their rosters.

Tucker's crusade didn't make national headlines until she began working with Bennett earlier this year. Together they produced TV commercials and wrote newspaper opinion pieces before finally jolting the shareholders of Time Warner. In a subsequent meeting with company executives, Tucker challenged chairman Gerald Levin to read lyrics from a Time Warner record aloud. When he refused, she briefly stormed out of the room. "This [music] is [so] filthy that the executives of the company that distribute it can't even read it aloud," she says.

Time Warner management hasn't commented publicly since the meeting with Tucker and Bennett, but previously said it was exploring an industry-wide answer to the problem of violent and misogynistic music. For Tucker, that's not enough. The fight won't stop, she says, until Time Warner stops selling gangsta rap and starts "promoting positive messages" for all young people—but especially African-Americans. "We have to try to save these children. They don't have daddies in the home, they don't have jobs, they don't have a support system," she says. "They only have us."

PATRICK ROGERS
ROCHELLE JONES in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Rochelle Jones.