This year has been one of the most violent years in hip-hop history to date. There’s been multiple shootings in the hip-hop community, including Obie Trice, Cam’ron, Gravy, Proof, Big Hawk, Israel Ramirez, Philant Johnson, and Slick Pulla. And it’s only July.
Surprisingly, this string of incidents has garnered little attention in the American mainstream. There’s been little public debate about it—certainly nothing on par with the public outrage that erupted during the Death Row era, and the subsequent congressional hearings.
What attention the issue has received has tended to focus on metaphoric violence as opposed to literal violence. Conservatives use gangsta rappers in general—and 50 Cent in particular—as convenient whipping boys. They remain fixated on the hypothetical question of rappers’ influence over youths’ behavior. Few actually want to explore concrete reasons why real, live violence within the hip-hop community is on the rise. In the States, the dialogue seems to be polarized between hysterical conservatives that attempt to pin a range of social ills on hip-hop, and staunch hip-hop defenders that aren’t willing to acknowledge that violence is an element of hip-hop.
A more nuanced debate has already been sparked in other countries around the world.
In France, right wing politicians tried (and failed) to link the French riots to hip-hop. Media coverage was quick to point to the conditions in the suburbs of Paris: the poverty, the disenfranchisement and the alienation.
In Canada, Conservative MP Dan McTeague attempted to have 50 Cent blocked from entering Canada last year. But here too, the debate took complexities into account. Toronto filmmaker Richard Budman made a film probing hip-hop’s influence on T-Dot’s exploding gun culture called The Toronto Rap Project. The film dispelled a lot of myths surrounding the topic (without being uncritical) and involved much of the Toronto hip-hop community. My editor Rodrigo Bascunan at Pound, Canada’s hip-hop magazine, is about to release his book on gun culture. He made some crucial comments on the 50 Cent controversy to Dose newspaper last year. When asked: “why do people blame rap for youth violence?” he replied:
For some, it’s a really easy way to garner publicity, because they know it’s going to be a controversial statement. Then there are people ignorant enough to believe that [of] the tons of factors that go into creating an individual, music is the one that turns them from being good citizens to sociopaths. In conjunction with that, there are people who use hip-hop to distract from the real problems [creating] disenfranchised people: bad schooling, bad health, bad social assistance.
Now a debate about whether hip-hop perpetuates violence is sweeping the UK as well. Conservative leader David Cameron recently blasted BBC radio DJ Tim Westwood for playing music that “encourages people to carry guns and knives.” Observer music critic Neil Spencer and author Patrick Neate (who wrote the thoroughly unreadable Where You’re At) debated the issue in The Guardian newspaper. Spencer’s conservative rant still manages to make some reasonable points, admitting that inner-city violence involves multiple factors, many of which are the negative results of conservative domestic policy. He also notes that many within hip-hop take issue with the morbid fascination with guns and death that pervades the music right now. ”Let’s not turn this into a moral panic, Spencer concludes. “But also let’s not just turn the other way.”
Similarly, Neate concedes more than a few points to the other side. He notes:
The majority of hip hop is aggressive, oversexualised and materialistic ad absurdum; but so is the culture that spawned it. This is not to say that hip hop artists bear no responsibility for recreating this culture; but their responsibility is no greater (and surely, indeed, much less) than that borne by, for example, politicians.
Obviously, there’s a lot of factors at play when it comes to violence in hip-hop. It’s time for a more complex dialogue on the issue.