During the 20th-anniversary celebration of Illmatic, Nas has been described as the hip-hop generation’s Angela Davis. Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson declared that Nas’ 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 City’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 HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher that’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, “Hell no. Things have changed, but not for the better … the influx of guns is worse than it was in 1994.”
And he’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 “Stand your ground” 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 airports—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 “endangered species.” And the gun epidemic continues today. As the 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 kids—and two white kids—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 homicide (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 “raise the murder rate up” in Chicago, Chief Keef posed on Instagram with AK-47s, prompting rapper Lil Jojo’s mother to blame him for her son’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, Rick Ross mocks the gunmen who peppered his Rolls Royce with bullets last year.
Clearly, rappers aren’t responsible for all the gun violence in America, despite what Mississippi GOP Senate candidate Chris McDaniel recently claimed. But many are culpable for perpetuating—and getting rich from—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 Gang were recently arrested after posting their gun-infused video, and teen rapper RondoNumbaNine posed with an anti-tank missile launcher—now he’s awaiting 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 auditorium of college students, a lack of social and artistic consciousness has overshadowed the positive aspects of hip-hop.
But it’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 little—but crucial—words to the end of the Second Amendment in order to better define the right to bear arms: “ … when serving in the militia.”
Nas’ 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.