THE VIOLENT death of rapper Proof made it clear to some that the blood-soaked connection between hip-hop culture and the culture of violence can no longer be dismissed. Others believe the rap star’s death was exploited by the media to paint a distorted and inaccurate picture in an attempt to wrongly vilify an art form and lifestyle overwhelmingly associated with Black youth.
|IN LIFE, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were two of rap's biggest stars. In death, they have become two of the biggest symbols of how excessive violence has infected a once often socially-conscious art form.|
Many have searched for answers to this dilemma, and still not much has changed to offer a definitive view. The influence of hip-hop has been targeted again and again by numerous groups – by conservatives and liberals alike – as harmful to the community and a negative influence on youth culture, and so, the correlation between violence and hip-hop rages on.
It is convenient to place the blame on hip-hop, and perhaps hip-hop music has done this to itself with its ubiquitous images of violence and the acquisition of “bling” (a term used to describe diamonds, jewelry, and other flashy items) over the socially consciousness music of what is referred to as “the golden age of rap,” from 1985 to 1993. Today, hip-hop may be full of style, but critics say it has produced little in the way of substance.
Some would argue that the recent death of rapper Proof is overplayed as evidence of the negative influence hip-hop can have on so many lives.
“One of the things that got lost in the media coverage of Proof’s death is that it wasn’t related to hip-hop at all,” said Khari Kimani Turner, founder and leader of Black Bottom Collective. “Hip-hop got thrown into the spotlight because of who Proof was. Had cooler heads prevailed on both sides, Proof and Keith Bender Jr. would be alive today.”
Wrestling with the issue of life imitating art has always been one of the major discussions in and outside of hip-hop culture. In fact, many rap artists are in search of “street cred” (short for street credibility) to help lend verisimilitude to the lives they live on record.
In an episode of “The Sopranos” in its sixth season, a rapper hires one of Tony Soprano’s goons to shoot him, in hopes of raising the sales of his debut album. In the end he gets more than he bargained for, but the outcome makes the point clearly: hip-hop and violence – even narrative violence orchestrated on top of programmed beats – share a place at the same table. But where does one end and the other begin, and does hip-hop really have anything to do with violence in the real world?
The prevailing examples of violence in hip-hop music crossing over into the real lives of the artists are Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur, two rappers with a famous rivalry who both met the same violent end.
“Any rapper who argues that hip-hop does not have an effect on how young people think and behave is foolish,” said Turner. “The notion that the artist is not responsible for the child is complete bull----. Every artist should cater to the best interests of the listener, not just to the dollars of the listener. That’s where rap has lost a little bit of its soul.”
But the responsibility doesn’t just fall onto the artist.
“Parents need to be much more vigilant in monitoring what their children are being exposed to,” said Turner.
Now more than 30 years old, it is an interesting time for hip-hop, he mused, because the music now has its own elder population (with luminaries like Jay-Z well into their thirties), aiding the slow rise of considerate thought in new hip-hop.
“Hip-hop now has (rappers) who are old enough to be sensitive about what they’re putting out there,” Turner continued. “There’s always advice to be given to both sides of an issue. My advice to our elders would be not to try to get hip-hop to back to what it was. Hip-hop is its own entity, it’s self-sufficient. As a culture, it stands on its own. It does not look for, nor does it need, to please those who have come before it. It’s rooted in disenfranchisement. Hip-hop has always been about establishing its own way.”
Soren Baker, senior editor of The Source magazine and author of “The History of Rap and Hip-Hop,” agrees that hip-hop has the potential to spark violence.
“Hip-hop does influence violence, unfortunately, because there’s a disconnect,” he said. “Rap to a large degree has gotten away from the even-handed reporting on the down sides of violence: the reality of being incarcerated, the reality of losing a loved one. The late 80s and early 90s did a good job of that. We have people talking about the down side of violence, but it’s become rare. There’s been a seismic shift in how rap is made.”
The rapper 50 Cent’s career was, in part, fueled by the fact that he was shot nine times and survived the ordeal, and made the successful recordings “Get Rich or Die Trying” and “The Massacre.” His influence has stretched to include books, a movie (“Get Rich or Die Trying”), a video game (“50 Cent: Bulletproof”) and other media outlets, including endorsements for Reebok.
On Sony’s official site for the rapper (www.50cent.com), the first image a person sees is 50 Cent firing a gun at the viewer. The smoke from the gun billows out behind a banner that says “Certificate of Death.” Scroll down further and there is a photo of a gun with scattered bullets, further illustrating the violent images that permeate hip-hop.
Violence in entertainment is a phenomenon that has made its way into pop culture as well. For example, the hip-hop community has embraced the movie “Scarface” (1983). Tony Montana (Al Pacino) represents for many rappers the transition from poverty to wealth. Not only are the posters from the movie referenced in many hardcore rap music videos, the film has also found its way into other mediums.
This shift in rap’s focus, Baker reasoned, is why hip-hop has become so uneven in its execution.
“The goal was to be the best rapper, now the goal is to make the most money,” he said. “The latter has nothing to do with being a good artist. You have a moving away from the self-imposed mandate that rappers had to be lyrically inclined to have a social bent to their lyrics, even if they weren’t overtly political.”
All of the blame cannot be placed at the feet of hip-hop culture, he noted, since violence has been going on since the beginning of time.
“You can’t say that rap creates it, because there’s always been drugs; there’s always been weapons, whether it’s guns or knives.”
The bigger question in Baker’s mind is where do we as an entertainment-driven society – in a world where celebrity scandals make the evening news – take hip-hop?
“Rap has typically reflected society,” he said. “It’s going to take society to change. Where rap is going to go kind of depends on the society that creates the artists.”
Rap artist Defari is an example of positiveness in hip-hop. He earned his degree in sociology at the University of California-Berkeley and his master’s in history education at Columbia. His second album, “Street Music” will be released Aug. 8. He has made an appearance on Dr. Dre’s album, “2001,” and is from Los Angeles, so he understands violence because he has seen it firsthand.
“Rap emanates from the streets,” he said. “From the streets comes the sex, the drugs and the violence, and rap being born of that, is going to mirror all that. When it comes to Black-on-Black crime, we’re still suffering from the psychological legacy of slavery, even though we don’t want to admit it, and the coldest part about it is that knowledge is at an all-time low. Regardless of what’s going on (in the streets), rap is going to voice that. Do they go hand-in-hand? You’re d--- right they go hand in hand.”
As an MC he tries not to glorify penitentiaries or guns and says, “I’ve always tried to deliver complex concepts in simple verbiage, simple words. I think that’s the mark of a great MC. I’ll never add to the problem.”
Role models still play an important part in how children see the world, and Defari is well aware that kids of all backgrounds are listening to hip-hop and emulating its culture.
“Always remember that hip-hop is entertainment,” he said. “Don’t look to (an) artist to be your hero – look to your granddaddy, or your dad, or your mama or grandmother as your heroes. If you can walk away, walk away. There’s only one thing waiting for you as a Black man: either a pine box or a cell. Walk away and live another day.”
This argument will most likely continue in one form or another, said Baker, as hip-hop and violence continue the dance they started more than a decade ago, when “gangsta rap” burst onto the scene.
“Like all forms of art, rap has the potential to be very powerful, and it has shown that it can be (a force) for positive change, turning society’s eyes to what they have overlooked by and large. Rap (still) has this huge potential to be a positive change for good,” said Baker.
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