The recent spate of rap stars making criminal justice news will come as a surprise to no one, especially those of you who equate hip-hop culture with prison culture. Nor will it surprise those of us who have accepted the fact that, in the black public sphere, record sales (or any sales for that matter) are often bolstered by an association with criminality.
Clearly all of hip-hop culture is not about criminality. Most rappers do not have rap sheets. If you consider Akon to be a hip-hop artist, think of the irony inherent in the sensationalism surrounding the recent expose of his criminal career. The fact that he has exaggerated his prison status in order to sell his artistic persona (and millions of records) only begins to hint at the promotional potential of prison sentences in popular culture.
That said, it might be worth revisiting this recent string of cases to understand the issues and what they mean for both the African American community and the Hip-Hop Generation(s).
The rap vocalist known as Nate Dogg recently plead guilty to battery and trespassing in a domestic dispute that actually was not domestic (the sentence: 3 years probation, domestic violence rehab/treatment, and loss of his 2nd Amendment rights).
According to the record, Nate Dogg (nee Nathaniel Hale) forcibly entered his ex-girlfriend's home in Newport Beach, VA. and punched her new boyfriend in the face. This of course occurred before his debilitating stroke (a celestial sentence of sorts) in 2007, but the ironies abound. After all, one of Nate Dogg's most famous hooks is a boast about having "hoes in different area codes." Nate Dogg's rap persona embraces a hypersexualized sense of black masculinity that requires promiscuity and emotionless interaction with women.
The fact that his girlfriend moved to an area code about as far from area code 213 as is possible without leaving the country, and moved on to another paramour is interesting enough. That it incited enough jealousy in him to assault her new boyfriend is a reversal of just about everything Nate Dogg has articulated in the lyrics of his most infectious hooks.
Dogg's plea just doesn't rate in the blogospshere or the public sphere when compared to the coverage of and responses to T.I., Remy Ma, etc. Lost in all of this is that domestic violence is a strikingly under-reported and misunderstood phenomenon in black communities, especially among the younger set of the hip-hop generation.
The music tends to either glorify (consider Biggie's infamous quip: "Kickin the door waving the '44/All you heard was Poppa don't hit me no more") or patently ignore domestic violence. It just doesn't rank high enough on the criminal pantheon largely because crimes against women (rape, assault, and abuse) are generally normalized.
T.I.'s gun trafficking problems, for example, rank higher on the criminality scale and the rapper enjoys the kind of popularity that Nate Dogg knew only briefly in the 90s. Much has been made of T.I.'s intelligence, or lack of it, with respect to his attempt to purchase automatic weapons and silencers (sentence: one year and one day). People wonder how could he be so stupid as to try and buy automatic weapons? Or what in the world does he need an arsenal for? He's a multi-platinum recording artist.
Really good questions, if you are completely unaware of the perils that a rap artist faces. I might concede that trying to purchase silencers was not smart; after all, only the government can legally kill people in silence. But in T.I.'s defense, he and his entourage have been under heavy fire, and not the non-existent sniper-fire type, but heavy artillery fire from real gun-toting thugs from 'hoods in different area codes. One such skirmish in Ohio in 2006 resulted in the death of one of T.I.'s closest friends. So it is not completely idiotic for him to want to arm himself well.
But what's lost in this episode is the steady parade of black-on-black homicides to which even the most successful and/or rich young black men are not immune.
Remy Ma was illegally armed on the night that she shot an associate in the stomach over $3K that Remy believed had been stolen (sentence: 5-25 years). The victim survived, but clearly Remy Ma's career will not. One rule about criminal-case popularity is that you have to actually be around and out of jail in order to cash in on the notoriety. It does not seem as if Remy Ma (nee Remy Smith) will have such an opportunity. Any perusal of her mix-tape appearances; or her notorious turns in various battle-rap competitions reveal a ruthless persona; a figure who is cold-hearted and prone to violence, someone who would . . . well, someone who would shoot her friend in the stomach over $3,000.
If she serves her full sentence, Remy Ma will have plenty of time to reflect on this persona and plenty of opportunities to test her mettle in the ever-growing prison population. In a dramatic twist, a hitherto unconfirmed love interest, an emerging NYC rapper named Paposse, claims that he and Remy will marry (in prison) next month.
Rather than fixating on the tragic love affair, I would hope that Remy's narrative serves as a cautionary tale to all of the young women and girls who subscribe to a new ethos of violence that has led to the murder and incarceration of so many of our young men.
Search for 'girl fights' on YouTube and you will catch an ugly glimpse of an emerging social pandemic that has become prevalent in public schools across the nation. Girls are fighting, sometimes viciously and unfortunately incarceration rates amongst black women have been ramping up accordingly.
Unfortunately there is more: Beanie Sigel (Dwight Grant) was thrown back in jail for probation violations (sentence: 3 months); Beanie failed too many drug tests and claims to be addicted to controlled substances (i.e. legal pharmaceuticals). Maybe the worst news of all was made by people who ought to be reporting it: The Los Angeles Times attempted a media indictment of P-Diddy, Biggie Smalls, and a few others for the 1994 shooting of Tupac (not the one that resulted in his death). Aside from garnering over a million hits on the L.A. Times website, this story, which had to be quickly retracted, did nothing other than finger the open wounds in the hearts of Violetta Wallace, B.I.G.'s mom, and Afeni Shakur, Tupac's mom.
Ms. Wallace and Ms. Shakur (sentence: life) will forever be subject to this kind of shoddy reporting and media-baiting since we are all too eagerly enthralled and entrapped by the most violent narratives of hip-hop's brief history
But maybe instead of focusing on the tragic outcomes of individual artists we can leverage their criminalized spectacle in order to teach (and reach) young people about the real issues behind these flashy cases: black-on-black homicide, domestic violence, and the media and music industry's penchant for exploiting these challenges within our communities.
James Braxton Peterson is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University and the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, Inc.