Murder and music in the inner city
Published: Sunday, September 9, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 19:11
Poetry. Black Music. Trash. The Black CNN. These monikers all refer to one thing: hip-hop.
At least through the ’80s and ’90s, hip-hop gained quick notoriety for bringing violence, drugs and other similar epidemics to mainstream attention. The grime that was tucked away by Regan’s “War on Drugs” was finally exposed by abrasive rhymes and aggressive samples courtesy of acts like Public Enemy and N.W.A. Hip-hop truly became the CNN for the inner city, a reporter for the voiceless who had no other way to tell their stories.
Eventually, the news flashes turned into a glorification of the same epidemic (police brutality, homicide rates) it sought to criticize.
The thought-provoking tales of guns and the supposed struggle shifted into calling cards to the dance floor. Some fans – including me – became addicted to the thrill of these celebratory live large or die stories. Sure, the trend may have angered many critics and fans. But with beats that catchy, it was here to stay.
This is especially apparent in Chicago’s “Drill” (or Trap) genre, a form of hip-hop which combines aggressive, threatening lyrics with addicting hooks and beats. It started getting national attention when superstar Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music record label remixed 17-year-old Drill artist Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like.”
Some of the lyrics are violent, but who could blame these artists? A lot of them came up from Chicago’s crime-infested South Side. These artists are building something from shams, and of course, the major record labels are buying it up (Keef singed with Interscope over the summer).
It’s twisted, but that is essentially the American Dream: using opportunity to build oneself. The rappers are carving that dream in their own image. As a result, they’re finding a way out of poverty while giving us thrill seekers something to dance to.
But what has changed while the cash is flowing, the dance floor clears and iPods steadily run out of battery? This summer has shown us not much has.
The number of Chicago youths who have been killed this year more than doubled the U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan. Additionally, homicides are up by more than 38 percent from last year, according to The New York Times. Unfortunately, the homicide rate shows no signs of slowing down. Rapper Lil Jojo was shot and killed while riding a bicycle after exchanging insults on Twitter with Chief Keef.
I think a large part of this rising epidemic in Chicago and Drill rap has to do with our apathy. Places like Englewood, Brownsville, N.Y. and Compton, L.A. have been bad for so long that they seem to be doomed – like violence is an accepted way of life around these parts.
We also may’ve been accepting the competitive nature of the genre as well. As one artist rises, especially in Chicago, one has to fall. Someone has to be at the bottom for an artist to be considered at the top of the food chain. In Chicago, verses against the powers that be are traded in for shots at rival gangs or unnamed enemies. Petty insults traded through rap lyrics too often result in violence, as was the case with Lil Jojo.
Is this really how things are supposed to be, especially when this has been going on for so long? I’ve been fortunate enough to never see this violence firsthand, but my closest experience with it was in last year’s excellent documentary, The Interrupters. The film follows a team of ex-delinquents who seek to protect Chicago from violence by directly mediating with the belligerents and victims.
The film shows what the regretful cycle of violence can do to a city. Countless families are torn apart, hopelessness spreads and, worst of all, far too many youths (some innocent bystanders) have their lives taken. If this is how things ought to be, there’s something wrong with the universe.
The Interrupters’ most important aspect is how it shows what the effects of active intervention can do. It sees violence as a disease, and as such, it will ravage the body if nothing is done. Our accepting views have allowed the aggressive Drill scene to spread into the mainstream, and likewise, it’s partially what allows such violence to spread in the cities.
It’s unfortunate that it’s all tied to hip-hop. The genre is at its greatest when it seeks to liberate and empower, not exploit and promote conflict.