Hip Hop And Violence: 'I have to ask myself - did I help promote violence?'
The question of whether the media is irresponsible in promoting music with violent lyrics won't go away. And for journalist Sonia Poulton, once part of the scene, the answer is becoming clearer
Monday 10 July 2006
David Cameron caused a stir when he told Radio 1 recently: "Do you realise some of the stuff you play on Saturday nights encourages people to carry guns and knives?"
The Tory leader's attack on gangsta rap was directed at the BBC but, as this debate has grown, I wonder if there were other journalists, PRs, television producers and radio executives out there who - like me - are feeling a little guilty about their own roles in promoting this music?
Gangsta rap emerged in the Eighties from the West Coast of America. It was rap's seamy underbelly and very different from the conscious polemics of the likes of Public Enemy over on the East Coast. It was my job, as a music journalist until the late-Nineties, to report on it for music and style magazines and newspapers. I also relayed tales of my adventures in rap-land for Kiss FM radio listeners every week. I was rewarded with unrivalled access to the biggest artists and the scoops that came with it.
I have discussed Tupac Shakur's murder around P Diddy's dining table (he knew the rumours and denied involvement) and listened to a fearful Snoop Doggy Dogg prior to his murder trial (he also claimed innocence and was acquitted).
My commitment to the hip-hop cause frequently found me caught up in the artist's personal skirmishes. I have wiped mace from the eyes of the Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and Ice Cube (real name O'Shea Jackson) has shown me bullet holes in his living room. His mother Hosea, meanwhile, has shown me his nice college photos and questioned why her son has made millions from rapping about "Fuck Tha' Police". "I don't see my O'Shea saying those curse words. I see him like an actor," she told me. And an actor is what he later became.
As a white female from the Cotswolds, hip-hop, and the promotion of it, may not have seemed like a natural vocation - but it suited me. Rap music and its inherent edginess spoke to my desire to live dangerously.
Racial inequality also motivated me. It seemed hip-hop - and by extension black people - was under attack. In America, the music-censorship lobby the Parent Music Resource Centre raged against rap and rock music and eventually triumphed with the emergence of the Parental Advisory stickers.
NWA (Niggaz with Attitude), arguably the first mainstream gangsta rappers, were investigated by the FBI for incitement to violence. And the subsequent furore over Ice-T's "Cop Killer" - in response to the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991 by the LAPD - resulted in his release from Warner Brothers Records.
It seemed an uneven playing field. Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff" cover didn't outrage the public. And John Lennon's "Happiness is a Warm Gun" could be construed as glorifying guns. Apparently it was OK for white boys.
Today satellite and cable channels show rap videos of young, primarily black men swaggering, pack-like, through grimy estates, pulling imaginary triggers with their fingers. Young men who perceive violence as cool. Marketing executives, who grow rich from the sales of the brand-name hoodies and trainers, the music, the magazines and the satellite subscriptions, well know of this association.
I acknowledge my role in this. Aside from articles endorsing the work of rappers, there are several pieces which fill me unease. Like the article solely about Tupac's transgressions, alleged beating of a video director and accused raping of a fan, for a popular monthly music magazine. The commissioning editor, a white university graduate, was visibly gleeful when he asked me to write the piece. Encouraged that a big-budget, international magazine wanted to promote what had previously been an underground music, I enthusiastically went along with it. I regret that now. The highly salacious piece appeared under the headline: "It's Slammer Time! Shot! Jailed! Album Out!...Latest"
The editor was excited by the perilous adventures of "gangsta rap" and, in this respect, he was similar to others in significant roles within the hip-hop industry. Whether that was me, as a writer, Jerry Heller, the "money" behind NWA, or national DJs like Radio 1's Tim Westwood.
This voyeuristic tendency wasn't restricted to white people. I had a spot on Kiss FM's weekly rap show and the hosts, DJs Max & Dave, two black men, delighted in the exploits that I relayed. The more outrageous (read: dangerous) the better. We were all, misguidedly, passionate in our justification of the music. So when Bel Mooney condemned gangsta rap and called for a Radio 1 ban in the Daily Mail I was outraged and responded with a heartfelt appeal to her that "this would be further suppression of what is already the outpourings of the oppressed".
I wrote that instead of condemning gangsta rap we should instead question the environments that inspired this music.
My views on the dangers of hip-hop began to change in 1997 when the great rapper Notorious BIG, who had overcome a desperate childhood to become a platinum-selling artist, was shot dead in California. I winced again more recently when teenage London rap fan Alex Mulamba was knifed to death in the street, prompting Cameron's comments.
Remorsefully, I accept the role I have played in championing gangsta rap and its attendant lifestyle - but I am not alone. There are DJs, concert promoters, video producers, record company personnel, managers and marketing executives, music outlets and all media who benefit from their association with this lucrative but dangerous genre.
Like basketball and other sports, hip-hop has served as a legitimate route out of the black American ghetto. It has acted as a global conduit that has united people and inspired many other music genres to borrow its beat.
Hip-hop remains hugely relevant, musically and politically; and I still love it. But there is a saturation of one type of rap music that celebrates violence. It's down to economics and the sponsorship deals that many gangsta rappers enjoy, such as 50 Cent's lucrative deal with Reebok, highlight the way many young people are attracted to danger, just as I once was.
As a mother, I fear for them and yearn for the return to prominence of positive rap, such as that made by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Kanye West. But today rap's many young impressionable followers are bombarded by the words and imagery of the "Thug Life" - the two words which Tupac had prophetically tattooed across his abdomen before he was shot dead.
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