Rapper Nas attends the Time Is IllmaticĀ premiere during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre April 16, 2014, in New York City.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival

During the 20th-anniversary celebration of Illmatic, Nas has been described asĀ the hip-hop generationā€™s Angela Davis. Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson declared that Nasā€™ debut album should be studied alongside Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway, and in recognition of his 20-year career, Harvard University established the Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellowship at the prestigious W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. Despite being only 39 minutes long and a commercial dud by 1994 standards, Illmatic even received a symphonic remix by the National Symphonic Orchestra.

Not bad for a kid from New York Cityā€™s Queensbridge housing projects who dropped out of the eighth grade.

Nas is a thought-provoking artist, and he said something during a recent appearance on HBOā€™s Real Time With Bill Maher thatā€™s worth further examination: When asked whether daily life in impoverished communities has improved during the 20 years since he began exploring the issue in Illmatic, he responded, ā€œHell no. Things have changed, but not for the better ā€¦ the influx of guns is worse than it was in 1994.ā€

And heā€™s correct. The pathology of American gun culture has worsened. In the wake of the second shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, President Barack Obama underscored the need for the troops to be safe from gunfire while on American soil. Unfortunately, skyrocketing gun and ammunition sales and ā€œStand your groundā€ laws place all Americans in the line of fire.

Increasingly, gun advocates call for everyone to carry guns everywhere while doing everything. New legislation in Georgia may soon allow individuals to carry firearms at bars, churches, schools and airportsā€”but does sipping a latte at Starbucks or reading a book at the public library really require packing heat?


Guns may make Americans feel safe, but research demonstrates that people with access to guns are three times more likely to shoot themselves and twice as likely to be the victims of gun violence. According to the American Bar Association, children are safer in homes without guns, and using the best global data available, the American Journal of Medicine concluded that countries with fewer guns are safer.

Fascination with guns, though, is an American problem that has a disproportionately negative effect on African Americans, the poor and children. Back when Nas dropped Illmatic, high levels of gun violence earned young black males the unfortunate title of ā€œendangered species.ā€ And the gun epidemic continues today. As theĀ NAACP social media campaign against gun violence highlights, we should be outraged that 54 percent of those murdered by guns between 2000 and 2010 were black.

On an average day in America, three black kidsā€”and two white kidsā€”will be gunned down. Black youths (under the age of 20) are 10 times more likely than white youths to be admitted to the hospital for a gunshot wound, and the No. 1 cause of death for young black men (ages 15-34) is still homicideĀ (pdf).


The intro track on Illmatic featured Nas, the self-described verbal assassin, postulating his delivery of intelligent rhymes as an alternative to gunplay, but regrettably, too many rappers have ditched the anti-violence metaphors in favor of glorifying real gun violence.

After promising that his new mixtape, Bang 3, would ā€œraise the murder rate upā€ in Chicago, Chief Keef posed on Instagram with AK-47s, prompting rapper Lil Jojoā€™s mother to blame him for her sonā€™s killing. Just last week, rapper Big Glo was gunned down. Hours after the Southern rap trio Migos traded gunfire with occupants of another car while in traffic in Miami, they bragged about it on Twitter. On track after track on the album Mastermind,Ā Rick Ross mocks the gunmen who peppered his Rolls Royce with bullets last year.

Clearly, rappers arenā€™t responsible for all the gun violence in America, despite what Mississippi GOP Senate candidate Chris McDaniel recently claimed. But many are culpable for perpetuatingā€”and getting rich fromā€”the destruction and misery caused by guns. To get a cut of the money, aspiring rappers are flooding YouTube with music videos that simply involve black teens pointing guns at the camera and threatening to kill other black teens.


Three Virginia teens calling themselves the Stain GangĀ were recently arrested after posting their gun-infused video, and teen rapper RondoNumbaNine posed with an anti-tank missile launcherā€”now heā€™s awaitingĀ trial for murder.

Using hip-hop to market guns as cool, authentically black and macho is plainly irresponsible. As the now 40-year-old Nas told a packed auditoriumĀ of college students, a lack of social and artistic consciousness has overshadowed the positive aspects of hip-hop.

But itā€™s going to take more than wise words from a rapper to challenge the entrenchment of guns in American culture. It may require the courage, as former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens argues in his new book, to add five littleā€”but crucialā€”words to the end of the Second Amendment in order to better define the right to bear arms: ā€œ ā€¦ when serving in the militia.ā€


Nasā€™ Illmatic needed a reissue after 20 years. After 225 years, the debate about constitutional rights regarding guns could use a fresh new remix, too. It would save 88 lives every day.

Travis L. Gosa, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, where his research focuses on racial inequality and African-American youths. He has written for Ebony, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fox News and a number of academic journals.

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