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Can hip hop be blamed for gun violence in America?

You probably did not know how hip hop’s origins potentially saved hundreds of lives. In fact, if you’re like most Americans, you probably do not know much about hip hop at all. Sorry guys--being able to list all of Drake’s albums in order or knowing all the lyrics to City Girls’ “Act Up” does not make you an expert on hip hop, though it does make you pretty damn respectable.

Hip hop is a multifaceted and diverse American subculture hailing from American inner-city communities. Now, it’s no secret that hip hop music often explores nefarious themes of violence, drugs, and sex. As a result, many judge hip hop by a shallow interpretation of its lyrical (or lack of lyrical) content, denouncing the subculture as destructive to society. In fact, according to a poll published by the Pew Research Center in 2008, more than 70 percent of Americans believed that rap had an overall negative impact on society.

However, in order to understand the true impact of hip hop on violence, we have to take it back...to the old skool (cue DJ scratch and corny 80s hip hop beat).

Following the new found empowerment of the black community stemming from the Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s, street gangs of young men emerged in New York City neighborhoods. According to the FBI UCS Annual Crime Reports, the number of violent crimes in New York City increased from 58,802 in 1965 to 124,613 in 1970. As conscious community members recognized the growing predicament of gang violence, people began to act. In 1972, a young man known as DJ Afrika Bambaata united five infamous street gangs in the Bronx: the Black Spades, Savage Nomads, Seven Immortals, and the Savage Skulls, in order to form the Universal Zulu Nation. This conglomerating organization established a peace treaty between the street gangs and hosted park jams as an alternative to engaging in gang violence. This proved to be highly successful as the number of New York City violent crimes decreased 36% percent in the two years following the creation of the Zulu Nation. Park jams were organized in New York City parks where DJs DJed and break dancers danced drawing crowds of thousands of inner city youth. Later, MCs would spit rhymes over the beats DJs would play, and bam, hip hop was born. While street gangs and violence could have grown to further dominate the lifestyle of inner city youth, hip hop provided a peaceful alternative. Hip hop brought people together. Hip hop encouraged the expression of art to rectify the expression of violence. In its origin, hip hop actually reduced gun violence and revitalized inner city youth.

Inevitably, as hip hop expanded, it changed and formed subgenres. It’s important to recognize that hip hop is not a monolith--often times its censured fringes are what draws the most attention, as they are what critics love to highlight in order to undermine the culture’s positive impact. There is conscious rap, which focuses on creating awareness and imparting knowledge on social and political issues while decrying violence, discrimination, and other ailments of society. There is gospel rap, which focuses on themes from a Christian worldview preaching belief in God and a life free from sin. And yes, there is trap music, or gangsta rap, or drill music, which do explore violent themes. However, the truth is that so much of hip hop music today is focused on condemning and discouraging drug use and gun violence, yet it is drowned out by those who wish to misrepresent the culture. In his 2011 hit, “The Show Goes On”, Lupe Fiasco raps

They say hip hop only destroy, tell them look at me boy, I hope your son don't have a gun and will never be a D-boy (dopeboy)

Nevertheless, the existence of positive rap music does not provide a justification for trap, drill, or gangsta rap which have violent themes. One of my friends, who did not consent to be named, has a brother who is imprisoned for a gun charge and has a cousin who was killed by gang violence in inner-city Chicago. He also owns a gun...illegally. He has never used it but claims he needs it for protection. He also happens to love Chicago drill music, which pretty much always contains themes of violence and gangs. I had the opportunity to ask him about rap music’s influence on violent crime. “It wasn’t no rap music that caused n***** to tote guns, it’s the things that made us have to tote guns that gives us s*** to rap about”, he told me, “N****** really living like this, this ain’t a facade, this ain’t a joke, this is authentically us”.

Hard headed I grew up resilient

It wasn't no hero so we look up to the villains

For generations b**** my side of town been drilling

We been at war ever since them red buildings

It's hard to make peace once blood get to spilling aye

Finer Things by Polo G

Hip hop grew out of a desire for inner city youth to express their narrative, to tell a story of their truths, of their desires, their motivations, their upbringing, and their environment, which is widely ignored by the mainstream. The music is merely a reflection of the condition of the artist. So, if you’re appalled by the state of inner-city America, if you’re appalled by a life of crime and violence, begin by deconstructing the condition, not the art which is a means of expressing the condition. Blame the criminal justice system which disproportionately imprisons inner-city black males for petty crimes leading to the school to prison pipeline, absent fatherhood, and a cycle of crime and poverty. Blame state governments who delineate funding for school districts based on local property taxes, so schools in poor communities have a lack of resources thus causing students to be lured into a life of crime and violence. Blame police departments for over-policing measures and police brutality which creates hostility between law enforcement and inner city communities further causing an inability to effectively reduce crime and violence. Do not blame a bunch of lost kids making music, creating art to express what they go through in a struggling inner city environment.

The influence of hip hop has now become controversial than ever as it’s appeal has expanded beyond the inner city to dominate American popular culture. According to Nielsen Music’s 2017 year end report, hip hop has surpassed rock as America’s most popular genre. Some are concerned that the wide appeal of hip hop to suburbia is a destructive influence on suburban youth. However, previous generations’ pop culture was dominated by the appeal of gangster culture and the Mafia as manifested through films such as Scarface, the Godfather, and Goodfellas, which explored the narrative of urban Italian American and Irish American communities. Today, these films are highly regarded as American treasures. Why are these films regarded higher than today’s trap music? They explore the same themes of violence in urban communities. Perhaps, the claim that hip hop is to blame for gun violence has implicit racial biases which attempt to undermine the influence of black culture in the American mainstream.

Imagine you catch the flu and you head to the nurse to get treated. The nurse sees that your body temperature is too high, since the fever is a symptom of the flu, so she gives you an ice pack to cool down your body temperature hoping that it gets rid of the flu. Now, I’m no doctor but I do know that she’d be a pretty terrible nurse. The high body temperature is likely a symptom of a larger problem which has to be dealt with through treatment or medication. Gun violence is an illness which has plagued inner city communities for generations and, unfortunately, it’s spreading. The solution is not to try and attack the symptom of violent hip hop music, but rather recognize and address the causes of gun violence itself. In fact, the revival of hip hop as an alternative and a discountenance of violence could very well be the cure for gun violence plaguing inner city communities.

Our Safety is committed to partnerships with organizations in Chicago’s inner-city communities to use hip hop and the expression of art as a means of rejecting and ultimately ending gun violence in the inner city.

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