Title:  Rap music and the demonization of young black males. (The United
          States of Violence: A Special Section) (Cover Story)
Source:  USA Today (Magazine), May 1994 v122 n2588 p35(2).

Author:  Tricia Rose

Abstract:  The media focuses public attention on the sensational aspects of
street crime, especially in the African American community, but ignores the
social conditions that contribute to street violence. Rap music is unfairly
scapegoated as contributing to criminal behavior.

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1994 Society for the Advancement of Education

Condemning hip hop and gangsta rap is empty moral grandstanding by politicians
unable and unwilling to tackle the real problems that plague America's cities
and their poorest black children.

IN THESE TIMES, when media-crafted frenzies are the bread and butter of
television news, entertainment programming, and tabloid journalism, street
crime has become the coal that fires the crisis boiler. The notion that
violent crime has swung out of control in this country is less a matter of
fact and more a matter of perception constructed by law-and-order budget
managers and ratings-hungry media executives. In fact, according to the FBI'S
National Crime Survey, burglary, homicides, and other violent crimes have
decreased steadily since the mid 1970s.

Crime and violence have become the central focus of popular attention not
because more and more people are the victims of crime, but because more
Americans vicariously experience more violence through repetition of tabloid,
televised news, and other reality-based programming. Street crime is sexy copy
because, more than other equally pressing and even more urgent crises in
American urban communities, it can be fitted into presentational formats
crucial for mass media news consumption.

First, street crime lends itself to personal portraits of loss and horror;
second, unlike corporate or economic crimes against people, it has clearly
identifiable victims and villains, even when no villain is caught; third, it
takes just one or two gruesome acts to terrorize viewers; and fourth, most
street crime is committed by the least powerful members of society, those most
easily villified. Other violent criminals with greater economic resources are
less vulnerable to categorical public censure. Since reporting these sorts of
crime appears to be a matter of public service, it creates the illusion that
the terms of the discussion automatically are in the best interests of the
public.

In this whirlwind of produced, heightened, and repeated anxieties, it is
essential to take a step back and distinguish between criminal acts and the
social language used to talk about crime and to define criminals. it is
important not to lose sight of the fact that these are not one in the same. In
other words, crimes taking place are not the same thing as the perception of
these crimes nor are they equivalent to the process of counting, naming,
categorizing, and labeling criminal activity and ultimately criminalizing
populations. (Think for a moment about the media explosion of child abuse
cases and its relationship to the history of child abuse.)

These distinctions are not merely a matter of semantics. Understanding them
allows people to see how the way they talk about a problem determines the
solutions they deem logical and necessary. In other words, the terms of the
discussion on crime in the public arena are helping set the direction of
public policy.

In a still profoundly segregated and racially hierarchical society, popular
public images and descriptions of poor black and Latino communities as hotbeds
of crime, drugs, and violent behavior appear to be mere descriptions" of the
people and environments where crime takes place. These stories and pictures
are not simply descriptive, however. They describe some elements of life in
poor communities with a particular set of assumptions and consistently leave
out and obscure descriptions of other parts.

The stories that frame violent street crimes deliberately omit information
that would draw attention away from the sense of crisis produced by the
depiction of an overwhelmingly horrible incident. What," the stories often cry
out, "would make a young person do such a thing?" Answers that might focus on
the larger social picture - not flawed causal responses like poverty causes
crime or there are more criminals so we need more prisons, but relational
answers such as street crime is linked closely with unemployment and poverty -
are deemed "excuses" by the logic of the story that surrounds it, not
explanations.

The pity is that more information is not set forth about the conditions that
foster such behaviors - the active municipal and corporate decisions that have
exacerbated poverty, homelessness, and community instability. Relevant
discourse could discourage current widespread public feelings of helplessness,
bridge communities that do not currently see the similarities between them,
and begin to lay the groundwork for a real examination of the vast and
interdependent social forces and structures that have produced and transformed
the face of street crime and destabilized the most fragile communities.

For all the public hue and cry about some categories of crime, rarely are
Americans exposed to an informed exploration of the relationship between some
kinds of crime and the extraordinary institutional violence done to the
nation's poorest children of color. These include massive unemployment for
them, their parents, and relatives; constant police harassment and violence
against their peers, coupled with limited police efficacy against and in some
cases complicity with the drug trade; routine arrests for "suspicious"
behavior (anyone who is black and/or has lived in a poor black community knows
that cops often equate suspicious behavior and black male bodies); appalling
housing or none at all; limited access to legal or political redress; and
dehumanizing state aid bureaucracies (such as demanding that welfare parents
continually scour the listings for affordable apartments in order to keep
their monthly rent coupons when the lowest market rentals cost two and three
times more than their coupons can cover). This is topped off by economic
shifts that have transformed the already bleak labor landscape in black urban
communities into tenuous, low-pay, and dead-end service jobs.

Imagine how differently the same acts of violent street crime would read if
they were coupled with stories that labeled these government-orchestrated
institutional actions and neglects as acts of violence. What if these social
policies that support the interests of the wealthy at the cruel expense of
everyone else - specially the poor - were labeled acts of social violence? How
then would Americans respond to the crime crisis? What policies would these
criminal activities encourage?

Even more provocatively, what if we took a look at all crime (e.g., domestic
violence, embezzlement, the savings and loan scandal, serial killers, real
estate fraud, murder, arson, rape, etc.) and high-lighted the most consistent
common denominator - men - and decided that, to solve the problem, it was
necessary somehow to change the behavior of men as a group regardless of race
and class. How would this alter our understanding of the crime dilemma?
Instead of exploring these relationships, we are treated to disproportionately
high visibility of a relatively small number of violent offenders who are
intended to inspire fear in us. Without any relationship between these aspects
of so-called social order and behavior of society's least powerful, the "real"
answer implied by the constructed irrationality of street crime or
participation in the drug trade is already present in the story: These are not
people; they are monsters.

Media villification

The demonization of young black males in the popular media, by black and white
leaders, and among law enforcement officials has been well-documented by a
range of scholars and others. This portrayal of young black men as unhuman -
or dangerously superhuman, like the police fantasies of Rodney King - is an
important part of creating a moral justification for the perpetuation of
brutal and dehumanizing state policies. The white American public, many of
whom only tangentially know any young black men personally, has been inundated
with images of young black men who appear fully invested in a life of violent
crime, who have participated in drug-related gang shoot-outs and other acts of
violence for "no apparent reason."

This last representation is crucial to the fear that current crime reporting
encourages and to the work of demonizing. Such people are violent for no
apparent reason; they are not like us. Isn't it reasonable to treat an animal
like an animal? What rights and social obligations are extended to monsters?

Demonization is hard work. Making monsters out of a multitude of young people
who struggle to survive under immense pressures involves drawing attention
away from the difficulties they face, minimizing the abuses they suffer, and
making their cultural activity seem a product or example of their status as
dangerous creatures. "Representing" young black inner city males and "their
ways" without considering black cultural literacy (especially hip hop) or
devoting sufficient attention to larger structural forces and historical
contextualization paves the way for readings of rap as the black monster's
music. Adolescent and vernacular cultures always have tested the boundaries of
acceptable speech, frequently exploring taboo and transgressive subjects. This
is true of 18th-century English and Irish folk practices, the blues of the
early 20th century, and rap today.

Most attacks on rap music offer profoundly shallow readings of its use of
violent and sexist imagery and rely on a handful of provocative and clearly
troubling songs or lyrics. Rarely is the genre described in ways that
encompass the range of passionate, horrifying, and powerful storytelling in
rap and gangsta rap. Few critics in the popular realm - there are some
exceptions such as Robin D.G. Kelley, Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), George
Lipsitz, and Michael Dyson - have responded to rap's disturbing elements in a
way that attempts to understand the logic and motivations behind these facets
of its expressions.

The aesthetic complexity of some of the lyrics by prominent hardcore (some say
gangsta) rappers such as Snoop Doggy Dog, Scarface from the Geto Boys, and Ice
Cube and the genius of the best music that accompanies it almost always are
overlooked completely in the attacks on rap, in part out of genuine ignorance
(similar dismissals have clung to the reception of all black American music,
jazz included), and in part because exploring these facets of rap's lure would
damage the process of creating easily identifiable villains.

Basically, reality is more complicated than the current crime debate allows.
Who would we blame, if not rappers and their fans? Rap music has become a
lightning rod for those politicians and law and order officials who are
hell-bent on scapegoating it as a major source of violence instead of
attending to the much more difficult and complicated work of transforming the
brutally unjust institutions that shape the lives of poor people. Attacking
rap during this so-called crisis of crime and violence is a facile smokescreen
that protects the real culprits and deludes the public into believing that
public officials are taking a bite out of crime. In the face of daunting
economic and social conditions that are felt most severely by the young people
they represent, rappers are cast as the perpetrators.

Some hardcore rap no doubt is producing images and ideas that 1, among many
others, find troubling and saddening. This is not to be interpreted as a
denial or defense of rap's problematic elements. At the same time and in equal
amounts, many rappers are able to codify the everyday experiences of demonized
young black men and bear witness to the experiences they face, never see
explained from their perspective, but know are true. Many a gangsta rap tale
chronicles the experience of wandering around all day, trying to make order
out of a horizon of unemployment, gang cultural occupation, the threat of
violence from police and rival teens, and fragile home relationships.

Given this complexity in rap's storytelling, how is it that most Americans
only know about the most extremely violent passages? What does it mean to
villify rap in the face of the profound social and economic dispossession that
consumes poor communities today? How can a black leader like Rev. Calvin Butts
make his media name on attacking a cultural form he exhibits so little
knowledge about? How can black representatives, such as Rep. Cardiss Collins
D.-Ill.) and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun D.-Ill.), hold a series of Congressional
and Senatorial hearings on gangsta rap under the Sub-committees on Commerce
and Consumer Protection and Youth and Urban Crime, respectively, when life and
death matters of social and political justice that face Chicago's black teens
remain unscheduled for public scrutiny? These hearings are a form of empty
moral grandstanding, a shameful attempt by politicians to earn political
favors and ride the wave of public frenzy about crime while at the same time
remaining unable and often unwilling to tackle the real problems that plague
America's cities and their poorest black children.

Hip hop culture and rap music have become the cultural emblem for America's
young black city kids, only a small percentage of which participate in street
crimes. The more public opinion, political leaders, and policymakers
criminalize hip hop as the cultural example of a criminal way of thinking, the
more imaginary black monsters will surface. In this fearful fantasy, hip hop
style (or whatever style young black men create and adopt) becomes a code for
criminal behavior, and censuring the music begins to look more and more like
fighting crime.
 

InfoTrac Web: Expanded Academic ASAP.

Full content for this article includes photograph and illustration.
 

 Subjects:  African American youth - Crime
               Crime - Causes of
               Rap music - Social aspects

Magazine Collection:  73L0718
Electronic Collection:  A15282517
                   RN:  A15282517

                                -- End --