It was only a matter of time. A violent convergence of domestic and international events has us all feeling as if the world is falling off its axis. Headlines telling of rioters rocking Ferguson, Mo., are intersected with constant flashes of black-masked Islamic State marauders leaving bloody trails of decapitated heads as they pillage the Middle Eastern desert. And in the inevitable reach to explain the Four Horsemen chaos of assorted colored folk shaking it up, the best dissertation the mainstream media can find is that it must be hip-hop’s fault.
Some of us saw this coming: the re-emergence of a failed, freshly bigoted and intellectually bankrupt narrative about the influence of hip-hop on all things violent. Hip-hop, let the critics tell it, is at the root of every modern apocalypse. Bad enough that we get tortured with the same incessant, horn-blaring beat or uncreative sample being rotated 20 times a day on top 40 radio despite the better content that’s out there. Now we’re getting doused with a magnificently woven Harry Potter tale of mic-cracking rap ratchedness shoulder-leaning us into a 28 Days Later sequel.
Washington Post foreign affairs writer Ishaan Tharoor can’t stay away from the bubbling fiction of hip-hop playing a central role in the ISIL scourge overtaking parts of Iraq and Syria. Editors oblige with the headline “The Strange Role of Rappers in the Islamic State’s Jihad” in a leading notion that it’s not, in fact, self-centered, violent psychopaths beheading American journalists. No, it’s not that—instead it’s some Ebolish two-stepping viral infestation of ghetto lyricism making them do it.
Hip-hop’s fingerprints are all over Christopher Dickey’s Daily Beast piece about “ISIS, Hip-Hop Jihadists and the Man Who Killed James Foley.” Conservative blogger Stephen Nemo at Communities Digital News just goes there with “Jihadi Cool: Hip Hop Earns Its Bad Rap,” while book-pimping racial Frankenstein Dinesh D’Souza, worried that Ferguson cop Darren Wilson will get little justice, makes a viperous 6,500-mile link between Ferguson protesters and ISIL terrorists. All this after D’Souza just pleaded guilty to a $20,000 campaign-finance felony conviction—for which he might not serve jail time. Yet many Ferguson residents end up in jail for an average $275 traffic ticket, according to a recent ArchCity Defenders study (pdf).
John Eligon’s hip-hop-strafing New York Times eulogy of Michael Brown brings it all full senseless circle. Eager to poke “he was no angel” holes in the slain teen’s biography that are sure to give legal leeway to Wilson’s defense, Eligon grabs for hip-hop as the smoking gun that shot Brown.
So when it all falls apart, people blame hip-hop. Hip-hop is the culprit that held the knife that tragically sliced journalist James Foley’s neck. Hip-hop, according to authoritative news voices, apparently compelled Brown to somehow force Wilson—innocent-bystander cop, of course—to pull the trigger six times … on Brown. Then hip-hop unleashed its master plan of doom, dispatching legions of baseball-cap-wearing rap clones who wrecked the otherwise idyllic St. Louis suburb. Racial-fantasy spinmeisters looking to create silly blame vacuums love turning the art form and ancient expression of dissent into a sort of psychosocial parasite.
But the truth here is that hip-hop is easier to blame than the real structural social, political and economic issues that still need attention in Ferguson and elsewhere. The protests have stopped for the moment, a grumbling public unwilling to empathize or make distinctions between protesters and a few knuckleheaded bad apples. With media attention now focused on the long phase of grand jury probes, a possible or not-so-possible murder trial, and the outrage over police militarization, few are going to get into a raw and solutions-based discussion about the institutional racism, neo-poverty and brutal economic suppression afflicting communities like Ferguson.
Hence, hip-hop is the easy, defenseless scapegoat. Lazy analysis breeds a vicious idiocy that blames the music black kids listen to rather than the entrenched racist society they live in. It hurts the head less to say that hip-hop is the war drumbeat pushing ISIL on a genocidal killing spree rather than admit that maybe the previous U.S. president or the 1916 British-French treaty that sliced up the Middle East had something to do with it. Few brave white souls dare venture into these uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Perhaps leave it to the hip-hop-listening black president to sort it all out.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.