Violence in Hip Hop is Trending: An Inquiry into the Relationship between Rap and Gun Violence in America
Hip hop has a violent history; there’s no getting around that. The genre’s “Golden Age” came in conjunction with the fallout from the War on Drugs and the uncertainty of post-Reagan America. With crack came the burning of the Bronx and Watts Riots, which then conceived gangster rap acts like Wu-Tang and N.W.A. Throughout the 90s, the hip hop subgenre found itself cornered by accusations of immorality, suggestiveness, and causing gang brutality. A statement conservative State Senator Chris McDaniel made earlier this month is symbolic of prevailing attitudes towards hip hop throughout its history:
“It’s a problem of a culture that values prison more than college. A culture that values rap and destruction of community values more than it does poetry; a culture that can’t stand education. It’s that culture that can’t get control of itself.”
Of course, what does a Southern old white politician know or understand about hip hop? Not much. Nonetheless, its lyrics have come under fire by prominent African Americans like Oprah Winfrey, who attacked the culture for its glorification of violence and misogynistic views. So ensued a six year feud been Oprah and rapper 50 Cent, who insists that his lyrics are a reflection of his life rather than celebrating the gangster lifestyle. To this Oprah retorted, “if you’re drawing from something from your actual experience, isn’t art imitating life?”
It’s true, hip hop’s message isn’t necessarily pretty, sometimes quite the opposite. Nonetheless, like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chuck Philips said, “- they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum.” Take Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, for instance. The whole album is all drugs, chains, and chicks, but it was a substantive social commentary as well, and the poetry of it is unparalleled; it’s like Fyodor Dostoevsky over a beat. It can be accepted rap has a violent nature and history, but is there any correlation between the music and America’s obsession with killing each other?
Philip Bump penned an articulate piece for The Wire, “As Hip-Hop Became More Popular, Crime Dropped. Thanks, Hip-Hop!” With the intention of disproving the correlation between violent rap and violence in the United States, he compared the violent crime rate, citing the FBI crime data list, with hip hop’s popularity of the years, as indexed by the Whitburn Project. His findings show the number of violent crimes to have dropped in concurrence with hip hop’s rising success, falling as much as 30 percent after the 1991 spike in violent crime.
Whether or not hip hop can alter the state of our communities is up to discussion. Following Rick Ross’ controversial date rape bars, the Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Bodega got down with Black Moon’s Buckshot and DJ Evil Dee to discuss the importance of hip hop’s message to youth. They discussed the shoe industry as a metaphor for the music industry: “A lot of kids don’t realize this, but there’s only four to five major shoe companies out there — they’re charging enormous prices just for a hoodie with a piece of rubber on it,” Buckshot said. “We’re a threat to these companies who brainwash our youth.” According to the Black Moon emcee, Nike was seen as “evil.” He goes on to say how hip hop is about education, independence, and justice. With the parent companies of major record labels also owning prisons, the current state of hip hop feeds the same system it’s designed to rebel against.
There are other root elements to the question why Americans are so weaponized and quick to violence that require examination, like how America is the most violent industrialized nation in the world. But is that a reflection of the sometimes-violent brutal nature of hip hop? Craig S. Jenkins, writer and blogger for The Boombox, addressed the question in his exploration of “Rappers and Gun Violence: Exploring Hip Hop’s Love of Fire Arms.” “We waste so much time mulling over how to react to violent rap when we should be combating the circumstances that create it.” Although the ongoing violence in Chicago is not a new development, it’s taken a sensationalized presence in the media – exacerbated by the gangster glorification of Chief Keef & fam.
Despite having some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, Chicago also retains the title of America’s murder capital (it surpassed New York in 2012). Owning a gun in Chicago requires a permit, a background check and $100 fee. In a recent court decision, the City’s tight regulations have been repealed due to allegations of ineffectiveness. As of January 2014, citizens can now transport concealed firearms. Many congressional leaders argue that gun control laws are unable to work, using Chicago as a testament to the failed system. But as of 2012, the city had approximately 507 homicides, a significant decrease from the 943 homicides Chicago faced twenty years prior. Furthermore, considering that most of the violence is relegated to smaller, poorer sections of Chicago, the issue seems to be just as much of a poverty issue as it is a gun control issue. Gun violence rates are worst in the South, the statistically poorest and least educated region of America. Much of inner city violence is a result of young adults unable to break a cycle of despair, destitution, and street violence. These statistics reflect a general trend prevalent in America, but poverty, unemployment, and inequality rates are very high.
When I began my “BANG! BANG!” research, I was adamantly pro-gun control, but considering 90% of the media we consume is regulated by six corporations, I felt compelled to inspect the flip side of the coin. Beneath all the bipartisan reactionary propaganda, why do so many Americans refuse to give up their gun rights? It’s a paradox that in the aftermath of numerous massacres, the NRA’s swanks swell manifold.
One life cut short senselessly is a tragedy, one too many already, but the Second Amendment is there for a reason. In their track, “Who Protects Us From You”, KRS-One questions the legitimacy of the police and the government. He makes a great point: an entire nation stripped of its arms would be a lot more easily coerced into oppression if it couldn’t defend itself. This is essentially the NRA’s argument for their rhetoric. Look at what’s currently happening in Ukraine, where gun ownership is on the lower end of the spectrum: weapons are a lot more effective in defending personal freedoms than sticks, stones, and molotov cocktails.
Ultimately, I believe Russell Simmons explained the correlation between violence and hip hop best: “I think each individual artist has a responsibility to say what’s on their hearts. And some of it is not pretty. So I think that there are reflections of our reality and some cases sad reality.” Instead of perceiving hip hop as a symptom of evil, it should be heeded as the paramount voice of the voiceless. Even Chief Keef, whether he meant to or not, has galvanized examination into the circumstances that conceive people like him. It’s not about the guns, it’s about making this earth a better place for future generations. A place where there isn’t gangster rap because there’s no violence to be reflected, and families aren’t suffering at the hands of hopeless circumstances.
This article is a collaboration between writer Cheshire Cat aka Megan Guard and CL’s editor-in-chief koffee brown.