'They're poisoning our kids'

Is gansta rap all a white conspiracy? Daniel Jeffreys reports on the US's black liberal backlash, while in the UK Lloyd Bradley wonders why only white kids need protecting
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The Independent Online
Dolores Tucker is beyond angry: "The white music executives who promote gangsta rap are killing our children." Tucker is one of the most prominent politicians in America's black community. She is a civil- rights activist, an architect of America's affirmative-action programmes and now president of the National Political Congress of Black Women. In Washington her voice is listened to, and right now it's getting louder.

In her cramped office, Tucker picks up a lyric sheet from rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. "This is filth, it's poison." She reads: "Her body is beautiful, I'm thinking rape./She should not have her curtains open, that's her fate." A scowl crosses her face. "Who could sell this material without feeling some conscience? I have a letter here, from a mother in Dayton, Ohio. She says her 11-year-old son called her a 'ho' [whore] repeatedly. Last week the boy shot his five-year-old sister. He told the police he wanted to be like Snoop Doggy Dogg." Snoop Doggy Dogg is currently awaiting trial for murder in a gang-related drive-by shooting.

Last year rap-music sales in the United States exceeded $400m. Time Warner, whose Warner Music has more rap artists than any other US record label, considers rap so valuable that it paid $80m for a 10 per cent stake in Interscope Records, the leading US rap label. According to Billboard magazine, rap accounts for one in five records sold in the US, while Time Warner's own figures show that rap makes up one in three of all CDs and cassettes sold to blacks.

The attack on rap began several years ago, and first came from the white right wing. By 1993 conservative Republican congressmen were up in arms against rappers Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur after both rapped about shooting police officers. But rap's new opponents are different. They are black and they are liberals.

Tucker is one of a growing number of black Americans who argue that gangsta rap promotes a lifestyle of guns, drugs and misogynistic sex. Tucker has powerful allies in the black community, including singer Dionne Warwick, film star Lawrence Fishburne, film director Spike Lee and basketball stars Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Oloujawan. They see gangsta rap as part of a deliberate attempt by whites to demoralise and oppress black people. For Tucker, gangsta rappers like Dr Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Pistol and Mack 10 are blacks who have turned against their own community.

Friday night outside the 4DNA club in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York. Guns are de rigueur in "Bed-Sty" and the housing projects around 4DNA have seen plenty of shootings. Friday is a favourite night with local "gangbangers" - black kids who wear gold jewellery and mimic the gangsta rapper swagger. Inside, speakers thunder with the sounds of MCEiht.

"These are the kids who step up first in a beat-down," says my guide, Brooklyn rapper Tiny-X, who often DJs this club. "They throw the first blows and are always eager to unload the clip. Bands like MCEiht are their inspiration." MCEiht lay down a tune called "One Less Nigga": "So call me a devil/'Cause I kill more niggas than the KKK ... This ain't the Malcolm and Martin days/'Cause I'm a nigga on the muthafuckin' street/And I've got to get my rent paid/So I pop you and I drop you/And I figure to myself, one less nigga." The song is available on MCA, one of America's largest record companies.

"Our young people are being exploited," says Dolores Tucker. "They are being forced to glorify rape and murder and drugs. Young black rappers will not get a contract unless they use lyrics that are pornographic and violent."

Bakari Kiwana agrees. He's 28 and the author of The Rap on Gangsta Rap. "Rapping is part of the black oral tradition. At first it offered a raw everyday sound. When the big corporations got involved, they pushed gangsta rap and excluded rappers with a progressive political theme."

Kiwana gives plenty of space to gangsta rap in his music magazine, The Source, but it doesn't make him happy. "Gangsta rap is a way to position what whites see as 'authentic blacks' without that image becoming a threat. On the surface, a gangsta rapper is threatening, but white society knows what to do with that stereotype: throw his ass in jail. Rap that carried a positive image of blacks along with a progressive political message would be extremely threatening to white society. In that way gangsta rappers are just another generation of black people participating in their own degradation."

Tucker goes further: "The white music industry has always denigrated the black community. White corporate America has always feared the black male. It wants to suggest black males are inhuman thugs. That way they can justify their oppression."

Earlier this year, Tucker bought shares in Time Warner. This gave her access to the Time Warner shareholders' meeting. "I charged them with poisoning our youth." By her side was an unlikely supporter, William Bennett, the US Education Secretary under Ronald Reagan, who now runs the conservative pressure group Empower America. Two weeks later, in early June, presidential candidate Bob Dole made his now famous attack on the "depravity" of the entertainment business and he singled out Time Warner's promotion of gangsta rap.

"Involvement with Bennett has hurt me in the black community," says Tucker. "But we could not get this message across before. The mainstream media would not listen until Bennett and Dole stood up as well." No matter that Bennett and Dole do not share Tucker's view of a white conspiracy to annihilate black youth. Their alliance got Tucker a private meeting with the men who run Time Warner.

The meeting was led by Time Warner chairman Gerry Levin and Michael Fuchs, who now runs Warner Music. "It was a violent meeting, just short of actual blows," says Tucker. "I asked Michael Fuchs to read some gangsta rap lyrics out loud. He would not do it. He would not read those lyrics aloud, although he will sell them to our children and force our youth to sing more and more filth."

The lyrics came from Tupac Shakur's "Strictly 4 MY Niggaz". Shakur is now serving two to four years in jail for sexual assault. Tucker sees that as all part of a plan. "They want black people to kill each other on the streets. If they don't die, they get thrown in jail and there they catch Aids. Gunshot wounds and Aids are now the number one and two killers for black males aged 15 to 24. Aids is growing fastest amongst young black women."

"That's way too extreme," says Edward Archer, also known as Special Ed, a successful hip-hop artist. "The real issue is lack of opportunities for education, for work. Gangsta rap is just another means of making money. Sure, it's now mostly promoted by white music executives, but they ain't interested in politics. They just want the loot." He believes gangsta would have little influence if blacks had more access to capital to build their own businesses.

At 4DNA, Tupac Shakur is playing. Black men stand in groups, away from the women. The men talk of 'ho's and bitches.

Half a mile and a world away is the boardroom where Michael Fuchs met Dolores Tucker. The chairman of Warner Music is surrounded by the trappings of corporate power. Three white PR men scurry about fetching water. An assistant talks to a limousine driver by phone about when Fuchs will leave. That's after he has been photographed for a feature in Time magazine - another Time Warner property.

"Gangsta rap is street poetry," Fuchs says. "Rap talks about some of the social issues in this country." He fidgets in his seat. What about the meeting with Bennett and Tucker? "Bennett behaved like a pig." More fidgeting. "Tucker was just not interested in hearing our point of view."

Fuchs has now instituted a review of gangsta rap lyrics. For the next few months Interscope will see more "grey beards" from corporate HQ, though Warner Music insiders say it's cosmetic. Rival companies that sell gangsta rap are watching Time Warner carefully. If it backs off from gangsta rap, many will probably follow.

At WZAK 93.1 in Cleveland they don't play gangsta rap any more. "We felt a lot of pressure," says Lynn Toliver, a successful black businessman who is one of WZAK's owners. "We had letters of protest from every significant group in the black community." Toliver is offended by Michael Fuchs. "Saying gangsta rap is 'urban poetry' is insulting. Fuchs is implying that misogyny and violence are endemic to black culture."

Bizzy Bone is also from Cleveland. He's part of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and is an up-and-coming gangsta star. "We're gonna show motherfuckas that Cleveland got some real niggas," he says. Bizzy is 18 and has three children; a fourth is on the way. "The biggest thing wrong now is that niggas ain't got no daddies," he says. "If there were some niggas like 20 years old telling them to go to school and checking 'em, then shit would be all good."

"Bizzy Bone is right," says Dolores Tucker. "Children do need their fathers, but America is killing off the black male and gangsta rap is one of the weapons. Gangsta rap says black-on-black violence is OK. Many black children don't have their daddies because they're dead or in jail."

Bakari Kitwana says all the rappers he knows have felt pressure to "juice up" their lyrics. Special Ed says that was the big issue that forced a split between him and his first record label, Profile: "They wanted me to put that 'ho' and bitch stuff all over the place and sing about 'my nine millimetres'."

Black people in America know their young people are dying in alarming numbers and they are determined to identify the killers. For some influential blacks, white music executives are now on the most-wanted list.

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