Hip Hop Fridays: Who let this Dogg out? by Erin Aubry Kaplan
Of all the celebrity wattage that has lately illuminated the cause of saving Crips founder and convicted murderer Stanley Tookie Williams from execution — a cause that will prevail or not within the week — no light has shone more unexpectedly than that of rapper Snoop Dogg.
The media has largely missed that point, viewing his presence as par for the course.
Snoop (nee Calvin Broadus) is a north Long Beach native and the self-proclaimed "doggfather" of West Coast gangsta rap who is intimately familiar with Crip life and who helped build a whole musical and cultural paradigm on black gang culture. He's recorded on the genre's definitive (and crime-plagued) label, Death Row. For Snoop to show up at Save Tookie rallies and to speak at the mike, his favorite tool of expression, therefore appears, on the surface, unsurprising — one street-bred brother supporting another.
But it's a lot more complicated than that.
Though they come from the same place in many more ways than one, Snoop and rappers of his ilk have actually worked at cross purposes with Williams for years. While Williams has been busy in prison denouncing the gang life and violence in the 'hood, Snoop's music has accepted it, at least, and glorified it at most.
Certainly this made business sense, if nothing else: Gangsta rap's popularity, which quickly spread far beyond black circles, was fueled much less by overt social commentary or activism than by inherent elements of pulp fiction and a certain moral detachment from the harrowing events it described. It made young black men iconic instead of socially irrelevant. And with his laconic air and laissez-faire attitude toward "niggas" and street life, coupled with his seductive hooks, Snoop epitomized the L.A gangsta doyen, and the city's regard of its own black ghettoes — don't care, don't fix, but be sure to mine for whatever shock and entertainment value is there.
Snoop learned the lessons of Hollywood well, branding himself as "major playa" through his music and through ventures like a line of porn videos that solidified his quasi-benevolent thug/pimp image. The unwaveringly earnest, unsexy works of people like Williams seemed the furthest thing from his mind, to say nothing of his business plan.
But then, Williams' 25-year-long stay of execution ran out, and Snoop found himself at an unexpected critical moment. It was coming; the aging star (he's 33) has been coaching Pop Warner football for the last several years and started a youth foundation. Hard-core gangsta rap's popularity has been steadily downshifting and, in the racially oppressive age of George W. Bush, hip-hop figures such as Russell Simmons and P. Diddy are finding their political voices either by design (the "Vote or Die" campaign) or default (like rapper Kanye West's tortured conclusion, after Hurricane Katrina, that Bush "doesn't like black people").
But although I always thought that those guys, rooted in the East Coast, had serious things to say that were waiting for an outlet, I never felt that way about Snoop. So when he began appearing among crowds gathering around the state to call for clemency for Williams, I was genuinely shocked.
His eyes, usually at a drugged half-mast, were wide open. His voice was urgent and clear, in contrast to the emotionally vapid purr, punctuated by insider wordplay like "telefizzle," that is his trademark. Most remarkably, he described himself as a role model who felt a responsibility to carry on Williams' message about the destructiveness of gang life.
"Tookie transformed a little bit of me," Snoop told an audience of young people recently at the Central Library, where he took part in a celebrity-studded reading of Williams' works. "So many people on the streets don't write books and don't care about y'all."
It's official: Snoop Dogg cares. I'm not so naive to think that he'll change his tune wholesale and start preaching peace and cooperation in the 'hood from the pulpit of his CDs; that's simply not what's made him rich and famous. And in the bigger picture, although black popular music has always coded and reflected social problems, it has never itself been an engine of social change — that's been the job of politicians, community leaders and others, too many of whom are spending too much time fretting about hip-hop's failure to lead black people out of their current troubled state (talk about projection).
It seems particularly deluded to expect gangsta rap to do the leading. Which is why I take such heart from Snoop's unequivocal stance on the significance of Tookie Williams, not just to him but to young folks a couple of generations removed from the grim, entirely unglamorous beginnings of the Crips.
Snoop Dogg as a missing link of black leadership? It's a stretch. But so far it's holding.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This editorial appears in The Los Angeles Times.
Erin Aubry Kaplan
Friday, December 9, 2005