Hip-hop tries to break image of violence
NEW YORK — With the kind of in-your-face boast common to the hard-edge beats of hip-hop, rapper Jay-Z rhymes out in a recent video: "No matter how much money I got, I'm still gonna sell rock, on the block."
Translated, he's still going to deal drugs in the neighborhood.
But youth activist Pee Wee Kirkland is determined that young kids see the truth in that artistic invention.
"You got to tell them selling drugs is against the law. Selling drugs, there's a consequence," he says. "And then you got to explain to them that Jay-Z ain't in Brooklyn selling drugs. He's in the [mostly white, exclusive] Hamptons."
Mr. Kirkland, himself a former gangster and drug dealer, is part of a nascent reform movement spearheaded by some of the biggest names in rap. Called Hip-Hop 4 Peace, it's determined to use the power of the industry to reduce the violence and change the face of the controversial genre. It was launched this week in New York by LL Cool J's former manager Charles Fisher and Grammy award-winning artist Chuck D.
At the core of their campaign is a conviction that amounts to heresy in some quarters of the rap world: that artistic images do influence behavior, especially when it comes to young people, and that the industry has a responsibility to counter the glorification of guns and street hustling with a realistic message that empowers kids, rather than landing them in jail.
The campaign is part of a larger transformation under way in the hip-hop world, which emerged from the ghetto in New York more than a quarter century ago. While the media has focused primarily on the violent lyrics and images, particularly in so-called "gangsta rap," many other artists have been developing a social critique and nurturing hip-hop's potential political power to deal with issues from education funding to gun control.
It's called "raptivism," and some analysts believe it has the potential of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s to transform America's political landscape.
"The potential is there, but it's still in its infant stage," says Carl Taylor of Michigan State University in East Lansing. "In one sense, they're much more powerful. [The earlier civil rights leaders] didn't have the avenue to parade the rage the rappers do."
The latent power of the movement became evident in June when almost 100,000 young people descended on New York's City Hall, joining teachers and labor activists to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed $358 million cut in education funding. They came because rap entrepreneur Russell Simmons put out the call. But he also enticed them with a lineup of the industry's hottest hip-hop stars, such as Jay-Z and Chuck D.
Mr. Simmons, who founded Def Jam records, argues that hip-hop has always been the outlet for poor people's frustration, and if it parlays that energy into a political grass-roots movement, it can transform the nation. He founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network to fund community groups, arts programs, and political candidates. It's working with the Urban League on a literacy program and with the NAACP on a get-out-the-vote campaign.
But some of rap's elder statesmen, like Mr. Fisher, say the $5 billion industry needs to transform from within to become a more powerful and positive social force. Despite earlier efforts to stem the violence in some rap, heated verbal disputes between rappers have continued, sometimes resulting in killings - such as the still-unsolved deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. several years ago.
The National Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council, which grew out of Simmons' work, has been developing a "peace project" to address such issues. The group had planned on launching it in 2003. But last month's execution-style slaying of rap icon Jason Mizell, known as Jam Master Jay, prompted the artists and activists to dedicate their movement to him and roll out their agenda early.
"It took the death of a positive brother for all of us to wake up and say we have to put our foot forward now to make change," says Fisher, founder and chairman of the National Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council.
The project has several components: a code of principles designed to be used as a self-policing mechanism for the industry; an artist's mediation board to help resolve disputes between artists; a media complaint board; and a task force on gun, prison, and drug-law reform.
Chuck D, the frontman for Public Enemy, says the goal is not to censor or dictate artistic direction, but to ensure there's "balance." Too often, rap artists focus on the "gangsta fairy tale" without mentioning the repercussions, he says.
"I speak in jails, and everybody there says to me, 'Yo, what's going on with these rappers? They ain't never going to jail, talking about some fairy-tale gangsta life while we up here doing 10 to 15 years. Nobody's telling our story,' " says Chuck D. "Kids needs to know the whole story."
But the proposed code is already generating controversy within the hip-hop community. Simmons, who's worked with Fisher over years, has made it clear he believes any kind of code amounts to censorship and is opposed to it.
Some academics also caution against condemning rap's fury-filled lyrics without looking at the societal context from which they come. Murray Forman of Boston's Northeastern University argues that those lyrics give voice to violent, desperate experiences in the inner city that many in America don't want to admit exist.
"It's far too easy for the media to paint hip-hop as a problem," he says. "The other piece of it is that it's never been proven that representational violence leads to actual violence. There is desensitization, perhaps, and acceptance of a discourse of aggressiveness, but how that translates into actual aggressiveness is much more problematic."
Guy Ramsey of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia also argues that rap is far more multifaceted than the media gives it credit for. "You can have a hip-hop artist like Mos Def who has a searing political critique, but it will never be talked about in the same way as some guy who's talking about whopping somebody," says Professor Ramsey.
Youth activist Kirkland doesn't disagree, but he argues that the growth of gangsta rap has had a clear impact on kids in the community.
"The hip-hop world and the gangsta world are about to collide, and we have to stop the body count," says Mr. Kirkland. "This is a life-and-death matter."