Rap Doesn't Kill People... Governments Do

Rap Doesn't Kill People... Governments Do

Hip-hop fans knew what was coming in the wake of Derrion Albert's death in Chicago this past September. Here was the ultimate urban tragedy: a sixteen-year-old kid beaten to death in a blighted, neglected community. It's close to certain that the media wouldn't have caused such a stir had his death not been caught on tape. Alas, it was, and it was only a matter of time until the theatre of the absurd took root. 

The "blame hip-hop" refrain has been a minority of the aftermath, but it's still worth noting. Several parents groups' have pointed the finger at our "violent culture" (thinly veiled code for rap music nowadays), and many journalists have followed suit. Most shocking of all was when Lupe Fiasco went on Chicago radio station WGCI and declared that the music must "take some of the fault" for Albert's death. 

Meanwhile, none of the "national task force" charged with investigating the incident have offered any real solutions. Security cameras and more cops are the most trotted-out band-aids. That Albert was killed right outside Fenger High School, one of the most over-crowded, under-resourced in the city, doesn't seem to have any relevancy. But then, one of the task force's most visible members is Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan--who as CEO of Chicago schools oversaw the kind of closures and privatizations of schools that led to Fenger being neglected in the first place.

With Duncan and his ilk unwilling to address any of the underlying causes of community crime (doing so would be to tacitly admit complicity), the blame is only more likely to follow the same individual lines of personal responsibility (as opposed to social responsibility) from rappers to the kids who listen to them to the community itself. 

Of course, times like these can also give a resilient hip-hop the chance to shine. In the weeks following Albert's death, NaS wrote an "open letter" that expressed his condolences for the young man's family, and urging kids to not fall into the trap of "the game." He also, crucially, took the time to defend hip-hop. Showing up on CNN, where his 1999 song "Shoot 'Em Up" was accused of glorifyin violence, NaS shot back "I feel like it's the obvious thing for the media to kinda point out one of the most violent lyrical records that I made... I've made records about children, about struggle, and those are never the songs that are talked about. There's no love for those songs. There's only attention put on the songs where there's violence in it. But the reality is I'm only speaking about reality"

Few understand this reality better than David Banner, an artist who has blended his music with philanthropy and activism every chance he's gotten. Banner certainly sees things differently than most of the talking heads and politicians willing to blame these tragedies on the kids:

"The one thing I hate about politics and politicians is that they try to point the finger at children. They never talk about the lack of jobs, the lack of recreation, the poor school systems and the environment that is conducive to violence. Who would I be to come out of that environment and point fingers at kids who are only responding to their environment? Innocent children are bystanders affected by the byproducts of the neighborhoods."

To this end, Banner, a native of Mississippi, has teamed up with a veritable powerhouse team to produce "Something Is Wrong." Co-produced by 9th Wonder, "Something Is Wrong" is meant to set the record straight. It's a song with real urgency; the sampled R&B loop sung by Lisa Ivey gives it the feel of a modern "Inner City Blues." And while the original features only Banner and veers into rather quizzical lyrical territory by the end, the recent extended remixpacks a punch.

Banner has included some of Chicago's best for the remix: Twista, Naledge of Kidz in the Hall, Skooda Chose and Rhymefest. Each holds their own on the track. Banner delivers his brand of "what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you?" lyrics. Naledge's chill swagger gives the track an air of assuredness even as he asks some tough questions, and Twista's rhythmic, rapid-fire wordplay wraps it all up on a strong note. The whole track is an urgent plea to young folks, begging them to turn the guns away from each other without drifting into finger-wagging. 

But it's definitely 'Fest who steals the show, pointing out some of the most poignant connections between urban neglect, racism and violent crime. If Chicago politicans are ready to point the finger, Rhymefest is ready to expose the other three pointing back at them:

"They raise a hundred million dollars for an Olympics that we ain't even get
But you starvin' on the streets and you can't even get a hundred thou?"

'Fest goes on to ask how it is that the cops only show up to poor neighborhoods to terrorize them but can still manage to guard Barack Obama's Chicago residence when the prez isn't even there!

These are the kinds of hard truths that none in power seem comfortable asking. They're more than ready to shirk the blame, pass it on to artists and emcees--and by proxy, the kids who listen to them. It's a tired formula that few actually buy nowadays. It's not a coincidence that crime is on the rise at the same time as unemployment and foreclosures climb to their highest in decades. And it's about time that the ones in charge have that connection rubbed in their face until they do something about it. For that reason, we shouldn't be blaming hip-hop. On the contrary, it's moments like these that we should be damn glad it's here.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, Z Magazine, CounterPunch, Razorcake.org and PopMatters.com among others.

He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.