LOS ANGELES — The acquittal of rap star-tycoon Sean "Puffy" Combs on gun charges has left unanswered questions: Why do a handful of influential rap entrepreneurs - a group that at times has included Mr. Combs - brand themselves with a criminal image? And why are the victims of these thug-acting rappers usually other young blacks?
In the past couple of years, the rap landscape has been littered with the likes of Tupac Shakur, Nate Dogg, Naughty by Nature, the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, Heltah Skeltah, and Cocoa Brovaz, who have been assaulted or murdered or run afoul of the law. They exult in the bad-actor lifestyle and play hard on the us-versus- them volcanic rage of many young blacks. They reap a king's ransom from exploiting the violent, outlaw image of black life.
Legions of rebellious young blacks and nonblacks happily cough up megadollars to revel in this image. But in the process, these entrepreneurs encourage the vilest of stereotypes about young black males.
Even before his trial, Combs was well on his way to becoming the poster boy for bad rap behavior. He brazenly named his company Bad Boy Records. He was hit with a blizzard of lawsuits stemming from a 1991 basketball game he promoted, in which nine people died. He was accused of assaulting a record company exec in 1999 (and settled out of court). His label's top artist, Notorious B.I.G., was murdered. This triggered much speculation that B.I.G. was caught in the cross-fire of the turf war that raged between Combs's New York-based company and Death Row Records, a rival West Coast label.
The feud kindled even more suspicions among authorities that Combs hasn't been completely innocent in the battles between the two companies. That conflict has also triggered a Justice Department probe of possible ties between rap artists affiliated with Combs's record company and gang-related criminal activities. Even though he was acquitted last week of gun and bribery charges, his sidekick was convicted on assault and gun charges for his part in the Manhattan nightclub shooting in 1999.
When the media try to explain the self-destructive violence of some young blacks, they reflexively point fingers at the tumultuous and self-indulgent world of rap music. This is much too simple. During two centuries of slavery and a century of legal segregation, blacks were forbidden, often under pain of death, to vent their anger at whites. So they lashed out at other blacks. Black-on-black violence was often ignored or lightly punished by the authorities, which left deep psychic scars on many black men. The internalized anger was transformed into still more violence against other blacks.
The consequences have been deadly. In the last two decades murder has been at or near the top of the leading causes of death of black males under age 25. Their assailants were not white racist cops or Klan nightriders, but other black males. Far too many Americans still don't get too excited about black violence as long as it doesn't spill into their suburbs.
Pent-up anger is only one cause of the cycle of black-on-black violence. Many black males are engaged in a seemingly eternal, desperate search for identity. Their tough talk, swagger, and mannerisms are defense mechanisms they use to boost their self-esteem. They measure their status by demonstrating their proficiency in physical fights or abuse of black women. An accidental bump, an insult, personal challenge, criticism, or rejection on the street, in a record executive's office, or in a Manhattan night club is often taken by insecure black males as an ego challenge or an affront to their manhood. That perceived challenge often spirals into violence.
What is just as galling is that some thug-acting rap entrepreneurs cite a litany of reasons - poverty, broken homes, abuse - to excuse their violence. These explanations are phony and self-serving. Combs is the best example. He can hardly be classified as someone fresh off the ghetto streets. He went to Catholic school, grew up in the suburbs of New York, attended Howard University, a prestigious black college, and built an empire that includes restaurants, a men's clothing line, and concert promotions. He is worth a reported $300 million.
Many of the other rappers who have landed hard in a court docket are also anything but hard-core, dysfunctional poverty cases. Yet the internal rage that propels them to commit thuggish acts still lies dangerously close to the surface.
When men such as Combs commit violent acts, or surround themselves with those who do, they leave a long trail of victims, cast disgrace on themselves, and, worst of all, reinforce the notion that young black males are indeed menaces to society. In an unguarded moment before the start of his trial, Combs seemed to grasp that disastrous fact. He told a reporter that the hardest thing to get over is "people feeling you're a thug." He's right.
Unfortunately, with much of the public it's more than a feeling. They are convinced rappers are thugs. And despite Combs's protests that he is being unfairly savaged, as long as thug notoriety can be converted into monster sales, he will continue to reap rich rewards from that image.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of 'The Disappearance of Black Leadership' (Middle Passage Press).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor