by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Last week, the rapper TI expressed a bit of outrage over the link that the website TMZ made between deceased Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the hip-hop music industry.
Earlier in the week, it was reported that Tsarnaev loved to listen to hip-hop music, and that he was a a member of the site Real-HipHop.com.
TI seems to feel that the connection has no merit and that it’s irresponsible for anyone to connect the violent music we hear on the radio every day to the violence played out in the life of Tsarnaev.
“Hip hop narrates the activity and conditions of our culture,” he said. “It doesn’t create them.”
Of course we know that true hip-hop has little to do with violence. As Minister Louis Farrakhan expressed so eloquently in a recent interview, hip-hop music was designed to empower the people and make us great. But once it was co-opted and dropped onto the corporate plantation, everything changed. We also know that Tsarnaev was his own man, making his own decisions. No one told him to kill innocent people.
But it’s hard to hear TI, arguably the most talented rapper on the radio today, say that he couldn’t possibly understand why people would connect violent behavior with violent music. Hmmmm, let’s think about this for a second, shall we? Tsarnaev was a wanted man. Just last week, two stories have been released about at least two mainstream hip-hop artists (Lil Flip and Lil Scrappy) who’ve had warrants out for their arrests. Even TI went to prison for trying to buy a stockpile of weapons that would make any terrorist blush.
Now, I’m not trying to attack TI or prejudge his reasons for doing whatever he’s done. What I am doing is asking for TI to be man enough to acknowledge the role that hip-hop music is playing in the creation of the conditions in our community, not just the reflection of them. The music we hear on the radio has, sadly, become a one-dimensional (and sometimes brilliant) expression of the kind of pathetic, ignorant, and barbaric behavior that represents the worst that a Black man could ever become. We drown the brains of young Black boys with repetitive messages about getting high and drunk every day, killing other Black men in the street, disrespecting women, wasting your money and being proud of being ignorant.
In other words, hip-hop music is no longer telling the story of the Black community. It is a gospel of self-destruction that is designed to create a generation of urban terrorists who are determined to become food for the prison industrial complex. The mass promotion and glorification of illegal activity brainwashes kids so much that by the time I get to their schools to talk to them, a lot of them aren’t trying to hear what I have to say.
My friends Russell Simmons and Michael Eric Dyson might argue that hip-hop artists are protected by the right to free creative expression. But I’m sorry, I cannot concur. When a man walks into the office of a music label executive and is told “we need more n*ggaz, b*tchez and gangsta sh*t to help your album sell more copies,” freedom of expression just went out the window and was replaced by corporate slavery. There is nothing free or creative about repeating the same message over and over again because some wealthy White man told you to do it.
Here’s a verse that might help make the point (from the song, “We Be Steady Mobbin,” by Lil Wayne, the man who compared Emmett Till’s face to a woman’s v@gina and refused to apologize):
I swear you can’t fukk wit me
But I can fukk yo’ girl and make her nut for me Then slutt for me, then kill for me, then steal for me And of course it’ll be yo’ cash, Then I’ll murder that b*tch and send her body back to yo’ ass
So, I have to ask my brother TI (who I actually believe is a brilliant and conscientious family man deep down): What in the h-ll about that verse reflects “the activity and conditions of our culture”? So, is Black culture built on pimping Black women, taking advantage of their loyalty, forcing them to engage in criminal behavior and then murdering them afterward? Can you hear a verse like this and truly believe that your daughters are safe in a world where millions of little Black boys all across America are reciting this verse over and over again, the way a Muslim recites and memorizes the Quran? Do you realize that, according to every good psychologist in America, when a verse is repeated to yourself over and over again, it sinks so deeply into your subconscious that you don’t even know it’s there?
The key question here is this: Does that verse above represent the actions of a conscientious Black leader or that of a cold-blooded TERRORIST?
Look, I’m not here to attack all the brothers trying to make money by writing rhymes. I get it, we all have to feed our families. But sometimes, we are so caught up in the fact that a person is rich and famous and that we don’t give a rat’s a** about how they made their money. We look up to celebrities as if having a little money in the bank washes away all of the sins they’ve committed against their people. BET brags about how much money it made from the last awards show without calculating the net loss to the Black community that comes from the mass exaltation of unproductive and extremely destructive role models. The little boy watching no longer wants to be Dr. Ben Carson, and instead wants to grow up and become the next 2 Chainz.
The reason I worked with Russell Simmons on our campaign against mass incarceration is so we could bring together the entertainment industry and scholarly community to stand up to the damage that has been done to our families due to the prison industrial complex. I flinched when I heard that Rick Ross and Lil Wayne signed our open letter to the president, but I was convinced by someone I trust that, rather than just critiquing their behavior, I should be open to helping them become educated on how to use their massive platforms to uplift their community. Call me naive, but I truly believe that rather than teaching Black boys how to go to prison, most artists want to help Black children avoid the horrors of the new Jim Crow.
But one thing I CANNOT accept is the “who me?” reaction from the hip-hop music industry when they get mad because some White man compares their music to the promotion of terrorism. Anybody who takes the time to dissect much of the lyrical content that our kids hear on the radio today can see a clear link between the sharing of violent messages and the perpetuation, glorification and acceleration of thug-like culture in our community. The reason that Rick Ross was going to be paid millions of dollars for wearing Reeboks is because his actions and words play a role in shaping the culture of urban America. So, if the shoes he puts on his feet can make a poor kid go out and spend $200 on sneakers, don’t you think that the words in his verses can also impact that same kids’ behavior?
Black men are not meant to gangstaz, pimps, killaz, monsters and r@pists. We are meant to be doctors, scholars, leaders, kings and millionaires. Hip-hop should not be training young boys to emulate Malcolm Little; they should play a role in creating the next Malcolm X. As I write these words, my brain reflects on how I’ve seen up close examples of young Black men being transformed into something they are not, largely because of the culture being promoted on Clear Channel Radio. I remember my older brother (before he died) getting out of prison and telling me, “Hearing C-Bo rap about getting high makes me wanna go smoke weed.” I think about the 20-year old father of three I
know who was murdered this week. I think about the 3-year old boy my daughter knew, who got shot in the head by his next door neighbor who thought that the code of the street meant that he needed to express his outrage with a gun. I think about all of the tragic, sloppy, sick, sad and disgusting things that are happening in the Black community, all because our brains are being sprinkled with weaponized seeds of psychological genocide every single day of the week.
It’s sad that if someone tells me about a young brother dying, I almost always know exactly how he died, I can guess the race of the person who killed him, I can guess that he probably died violently, and I can even guess the type of weapon that was used in his death. In other words, ”hood sh*t” is the leading cause of death among young Black men, and we are the only group of people in America who have been trained to sing and dance to the beat of our own self-destruction.
I hope that TI will take a good look in the mirror and study the industry he loves, and ask if we are empowering young men to help them survive for the future, or encouraging them to fill a pre-arranged grave site or prison cell. It’s not too late for hip-hop to turn the corner. But in order for that to happen, we are going to need a revolution.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and author of the lecture series, “Commercialized Hip-Hop: The Gospel of Self-Destruction”.