When did this ridiculous notion that it was cool to grow up impoverished and fighting for your life everyday take hold of the American consciousness? Okay, it has always been cool in America to take fashion, style, speech and musical cues from the underclass because neccessity, or in this case poverty, has always been the mother of invention. The inability of poor teenagers in the ghetto to buy the latest designs from the runways in Paris has always led them to be amazingly creative with what they are able to afford, often leading to fashions that put those same Paris runways to shame. This was picked up on long ago and now Paris has been copying Harlem fashions for decades. The need for diversion, entertainment, and self-expression has also led to amazing innovations in music and dance from Blues to Jazz to Rock n' Roll to R&B and Hip-hop which has in turn influenced art, fashion, and language around the world. I get that. The inherent hipness of the underclass has never been in doubt. What I don't get is the desire to immitate the negative aspects of the ghetto. When did drugs and crime become hip?
If I was a conspiracy theorist it would be easy for me to look at the way the music and entertainment industry seized on the image of the "Black Gangsta" and so-called "Gangsta Rap" and promoted the hell out of it until twenty years later "Black" and "Gangsta" (or more troubling "Black" and "Nigga") have almost become synonymous in the minds of most Americans. I could look at how the rise of socially and politically conscious "Afro-centric" hip-hop was nullified by gangsta rap and who it was pushing this poison the hardest and how it mirrors J. Edgar Hoover's "Black Messiah Program" and see a concerted effort to divide the Black community. For those unfamiliar with the Black Messiah program it was J. Edgar Hoover's plan for "...preventing the rise of another Black Messiah to galvanize and unify the Black community like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King." In a nutshell his plan was to prevent a Black leader from unifying the African American community by creating their own Black Messiah with a counter message to divide Black people's opinions. So, for Chuck D. there was Eazy E. When KRS One called for education and an end to black on black crime, Niggaz With Attitude called for the youth to get high and sell drugs as a way to snatch a piece of the American Pie. When groups like Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Klan, and even Arrested Development were calling for a return to Afro-centric pride, artists like Snoop Doggy Dog and Ghetto Boyz countered with "Get high, sell drugs, smack hoes, and kill any nigga that stands in your way." If Hoover was still alive I would have been certain that those early gangsta rappers were on the FBI's payroll. Was George Bush smart enough to mastermind a plot this insidious? I have no idea. I'll have to wait until all the files from the late eighties and early nineties are declassified to know for sure. All I know is that with the fall of communism America was in desperate need of a new paper tiger to justify all those huge government expenditures and the young Black male stepped up to the plate awfully quick. Now instead of nukes and multi-million dollar Apache helicopters we spent it on prisons, cops, and military hardware for the local police. But if this glamorization of drugs and violence isn't some government plot to keep the Black man in check than what is it?
I'm sure the increased emphasis on gun violence that has resulted from gangsta rap hasn't hurt the NRA much. If you're Black it's almost a prerequisite that you must own a gun now. How else are you supposed to keep it real? The image of gun-toting Black teens has scared all those white liberals who had previously been campaigning hard for Civil Rights into die-hard conservatives lobbying for increased police presence in the ghetto, loosening of the miranda laws, more prisons, and the impending death of Affirmative Action. No more "Whitey Guilt" now that niggas are killing each other. I'm sure the KKK couldn't be happier. The real curiosity is why Black people have fallen for it so easily and why the rest of America is so eager to emulate us.
Having been cut off from our roots in Africa for more than two centuries, Black people have long been in search of an identity. Calling us African Americans is a joke since most of us have less ties to Africa than White South Africans. In fact, if you wanted to get the African perspective on an issue you'd be better off going to a White person who's been raised in Africa than a Black person whose ancestors were brought to America on slave ships centuries ago. So, we have struggled to create new identities for ourselves. This struggle has resulted in Jazz, Blues, Rock n' Roll, and now Hip-hop. We are struggling to define ourselves by what we see around us everyday. Most Black Americans grow up surrounded by poverty and crime so inevitably we have come to identify ourselves by these things. America's fascination with sex and violence made it easy for the media to exploit this image and sell it to America in books, movies, and music videos, making millions off what should be considered an American trajedy. Instead of hiding our dark underbelly we flaunt it proudly for the world to see. Niggaz With Attitude!
I remember driving in a cab in Thailand on my way to a Thai boxing match at Lumpini Stadium. The cab driver was fascinated by the fact that me and my friend were both Thai boxers since we were both considerably larger than any Muay Thai fighters he'd probably ever seen. He began fiddling with the radio, finally settling on a station that played love songs, before asking us what we wanted to listen to.
My friend Kit replied, "This is fine for me. Wrath likes that Gangsta rap stuff."
"What's Gangsta rap?"
"You don't know what gangsta rap is?" I asked.
Kit piped in, "It's music about killing people."
The guy looked amazed.
"They make music about killing people?"
He looked over at me like I was some sort of savage.
"Yeah, I just use it to get me hyped up before a fight. It helps fire me up before I go in the ring."
"What kind of music did you listen to when you were fighting?" Kit asked.
The cab driver was a retired Thai boxer as well.
"I listened to this. All Thai boxers listen to love music."
As we drove along I started thinking about how ridiculous Black people must sound to the rest of the world, making music about killing ourselves, selling drugs to each other, pimping and exploiting our own women, and otherwise disrespecting ourselves, instead of making music about fighting the corporate power structure or the government, or empowering the Black community through education and economic enterprise. We must look like idiots. We are truly a lost people.
The funny thing to me is how other cultures have co-opted this gangsta image. I remember the first time I went to San Francisco and saw Fillipino gangs wearing Raiders jackets, "Loce" style sunglasses, cornrolls, Afros, and with their jeans sagging down around their ankles. I thought I was going to hurt something I laughed so hard. The first time I saw a white boy dressed like that and talking slang like he had been raised in East Oakland next door to Too-Short and Tupac instead of some suburb somewhere where he no doubt had been, I wanted to slap the shit out of him. When I heard about white gangs in Little Rock Arkansas imitating LA gang members, selling drugs and shooting each other, I laughed my ass off again. At first I thought that if the KKK had masterminded the whole gangsta thing then it had backfired. Then I realized that this would only strengthen their case that we had to separate the races or risk being "contaminated". It would strengthen the conservatives'case that America was going to hell in a handbag and we needed a return to "Traditional family values". It would strengthen the NRA's case that "If we outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns." It would strengthen the governments' case that they needed more money and a loosening of citizens rights that protected them from such things as illegal search and seizure because now your next door neighbor might be one of these gangstas. It would sell millions of records to a growing market of consumers who no longer cared whether or not you can play an instrument, meaning that record companies no longer need to incur the expense of an entire band, but could sign one solo artist and put him in the studio with a keyboard, a drum machine, and a sampler. Mo' money.
So who is responsible for the ghettoization of America? Is it a government plot? A political power play? A racist masterplan? A corporate marketing scheme? Or just the misguided attempt of a displaced, disenfranchised, miseducated, desperate people searching for some way to belong, some way to prosper, some way to accomplish what every light complexioned race that has come to America has accomplished in a few generations, acceptance and assimilation, some way to get what every other culture in the world has, a sense of who we are and what we are, a true identity? Which is it? It is probably a little of all of this. Strangely enough, the idea that the gangsta image might just be a last desperate grasp for a Black cultural identity disturbs me more than any conspiracy theory. That's truly sad if drug dealing and pimping is the best we could come up with. If the best word Black people can come up with to describe themselves is "Nigga" than these niggas are crazy. Martin Luther King would shoot himself if he were alive. But in America, even an identity as negative, as shameful and self-destructive as "gangsta" is quickly taken from us and co-opted by other races. Just as Blues and Jazz, which were once seen as the very essence of Blackness, are now played and enjoyed by primarily white artists and audiences, so too will artists like Eminem, Bubba Sparks, and Paul Wall eventually become the majority in Hip-Hop. And as much as I love this music of ours, I will not mourn the pasing of it and its entire image of violence and materialism. This is one piece of Black culture America is welcome to.