Hip-Hop Fridays: Guns, Raps and Race
Jury selection in Puffy's trial has caused several people to ask me how is it possible that someone of Puffy's stature would be carrying a gun on his person and find himself in a position where he would actually have to draw a weapon, as it is being alleged. My initial response to this comment and question is that while I presume Puffy to be innocent until proven guilty, I can say that there is definitely a "gun-phenomenon" in the Hip-Hop industry and culture that points to some interesting aspects of a larger issue - America's racial divide.
Those people who seem to think that achieving a certain class status in this country should make one exempt from any association with weapons really don't understand the power of culture or what has happened in inner-cities over the last 15 - 20 years.
To think that a millionaire rapper, in his mid to late 20s is somehow divorced from the community and conditions that produced him or her or which supports their career, is an indication of denial or ignorance, most commonly held by Whites and even Blacks who live in suburbia, but who may be fascinated with Hip-hop culture through the lens of MTV and BET.
Hip-Hop culture is shaped and influenced by real inner-city life. And the inner cities are flooded with guns. And the guns that are in the inner city are overwhelmingly unregistered and possessed by illegal means. And they are used primarily for three reasons: protection, aggression and economic crime.
In the inner city they are seen as a means of protection for people who fear for the loss of their lives and personal property; they are used as a means of settling disputes, primarily among young Black men; and they are used to support an underground economy of drug sales, robberies and hustling.
Of course there are numerous people in the inner city who have registered guns and own them legally and who use them to protect themselves, their loved ones and "legitimate" businesses activities.
The great majority of rappers come from America's inner cities. They often have left lives of crime to pursue their careers. Some never leave that life behind and dabble a bit in illegal activities, even after establishing themselves as rap artists.
But the vast majority of individuals who may have funded Hip-Hop business ventures (which makes them no different from the Irish, Italians and Jews that have poured dope and otherwise illegal money into legitimate business) from the proceeds of illegal activity, have left that life behind. However, they have not left their friends and family members behind who may still be involved with these activities.
In that sense they are forever linked, by association, to guns in the inner cities.
I recently spent some time driving around the city with a childhood friend of mine; we went through several Hip-Hop CDs as we rode around.
Every one of the albums was by a multi-platinum artist(s) who have earned millions of dollars.
Every one of them was filled with song after song that talked about "gun-play" and a wide variety of firearms that the artist owned, stashed or could use at will.
What is at the root of this apparent fascination between Hip-Hop artists and guns?
I think that at least three factors are involved.
The first of which is pure bravado and braggadocio. For many rappers, guns are symbols of power that demonstrate influence, independence of a sort and even status. Many artists that rap about guns personally don't own or carry any, but talk as if they do in order to project a certain image. Many artists are in love with the gangster image and gangster movies and "imagine" themselves to be crime lords and to have the juice of a crime syndicate from the 1920s and 1930s. Interestingly, the mob figures that are revered and referred to by young black male Hip-Hop artists are always non-Black
Other artists very cleverly use guns in metaphors that convey a message of power and don't mean to express any violent intent - only to provide vivid imagery of a non-violent point.
The second factor is that many rappers honestly see guns as a source of protection. In the last five years I can list several rap artists who have been robbed at gunpoint, almost always for their jewelry. In fact, there are real stories of "rapper robberies" or groups of thieves and robbers who earn their keep exclusively from robbing rap artists. These robberies have taken place in recording studios, street corners and on the set of video shoots. Some prominent rappers have been robbed right in their own vehicles and a few have been carjacked.
And another aspect of this second factor are the high-profile murders of several rappers. The most notable of which are the killings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Several artists are determined to not let happen to them what happened to these artists. And a whole industry of protecting rappers has formed with bonded security firms making sales pitches to Hip-Hop artists about their ability to legally protect them with guns.
I remember one time I was contacted by a former Secret Service agent who tried to sell his services to a Hip-Hop artist that I knew. That was an interesting experience for me as I listened to him break down how he could apply security maneuvers that he used for heads of states to Hip-Hop artists, their everyday activities, travel and concert performances.
The third factor that I can recognize is the rush that Black Hip-Hop artists get from breaking the taboo that seems to exist in America regarding Black men openly carrying weapons in this country, even if they are legally obtained and registered. If you really want to test the open-mindedness of a White person who loves the US Constitution and claims to be color-blind, bring up the subject of how they feel about Black men, exercising their second amendment rights in an organized fashion, owning guns, performing training exercises with them and seeking to protect their communities with them in a manner similar to that of the predominately white militias that exist in all 50 states of the union
The same whites who have no problems with white militias and legal gun ownership have zero tolerance for Black men walking around with guns.
I have always felt that this was at the root of why the Black Panthers were so violently opposed in this country. They broke the ultimate taboo by providing a dramatic visible image of a Black man who owned a gun and who was ready and willing to use it - in every legal way.
Rappers have tapped into this "subconscious" fear held by Whites and prick it with their lyrics.
Having said that, most rappers have a Black target in mind when they speak of their gun usage and in many ways I think that contributes to the acceptance that such violent lyrics have in mainstream society. There is no doubt in my mind that if the same Black rapper who discusses blowing the brains out of another young Black male over a girl, drug deal or disagreement, were to point his "lyrical gun" toward whites he would not have a very long career. The protest, pressure from the record label and attacks from the mainstream media would be so great that eventually the rapper would be silenced, receive little support from the record label or would have to rap about another subject.
I think I can rest my case on that point by directing your attention to the careers of Ice Cube, Ice-T and Public Enemy.
If people honestly want guns to disappear from Hip-Hop artists and lyrics, they will have to do more than just express shock every time a rapper is caught with a gun or even gunned-down. They will have to address the plethora of guns in movies, TV shows, cartoons, children's toys and even the glorification of war by America's political establishment.
And they will have to ask some serious questions about the how and why of the dramatic increase in the supply of guns that has found its way into inner cities - a phenomenon that will take more than government gun buy-back programs to address.
And until the Black community, in particular, demands a change, guns and Hip-Hop will be together for quite sometime.
So, there is more to guns in Hip-Hop than Puffy's high-profile trial.
Friday, January 19, 2001