Gangs, guns and the music of the streets

Submitted by martin on 10 January, 2003 - 6:38

From Solidarity 3/21, 11 January 2003

By Clive Bradley

Discussing the New Year's Day murders in Birmingham, Culture Minister Kim Howells described 'rappers', and by extension hip hop and garage artists in general, as 'boasting macho idiots'. He singled out So Solid Crew, several of whose members have been in trouble with the police - echoing recent comments by London's assistant police commissioner.

Howells was quickly denounced for racism by the editor of the New Musical Express and others. His critics argue that music, and the lyrics even of American so-called 'gangsta-rap', only reflect the reality of inner city deprivation. It's poverty which drives gang culture, not music. They point to the fact that the biggest audience these days for hip hop is middle class white kids, and nobody suggests that these are infected with a macho 'gang culture'. (Though this statistic refers to the United States; I'm not sure it's true in Britain).

It is of course ludicrous to blame music for the deaths in Birmingham of two women caught in crossfire between rival gangs. But it's equally unpersuasive simply to blame poverty, and absolve artists of any responsibility to do anything but 'reflect' what they see.

There has been a growth in gang culture in this country, and in the carrying of guns. Many argue that this is linked to the arrival of 'Yardie' gangs from Jamaica; certainly, it is linked to the huge increase in the trade in hard drugs since the mid 1980s, whether or not that is to blamed on the Yardies. It is also linked, in turn, to the fact that we live in a culture in which the symbols of success are material, and kids in inner cities have few 'legitimate' routes to achieving them.

If you were to read only local newspapers in London, you would think not a day goes by without someone being shot. Of course this image is an exaggeration, but that there has been a growth in a particular kind of gang-related violent crime seems beyond reasonable doubt. In America, famously, several major hip hop artists have themselves been murdered in gang wars.

Many hip hop artists condemn violence, and work towards what they call 'the positive'. This is true especially in the US. (Hip hop - rap - is largely an American art form, and British hip hop remains notoriously unsuccessful, while garage - So Solid and the award-winning Ms Dynamite, for example - has become big business here.)

In America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People launched a campaign some years ago to oppose the violent lyrics of many rappers; they got wide support from hip hop performers - though sharp opposition, too. Here, nobody could accuse Ms Dynamite of toting any guns, and So Solid - whatever their off-stage image - seem to write mainly self-referential stuff about being in studios, making videos, and doing their flows.

But to pretend that the glamorisation of guns, gangsters and street violence which undoubtedly haunts much hip hop is of no consequence - not to mention the sometimes breathtaking sexism and homophobia - seems to me wilfully not to face a problem.

It is true that many of these artists come from poor backgrounds - music has been their escape from it - and they are writing about what they know. But there are, obviously, pressures of marketing, image, fashion: to be an artist in these fields you have to be, or look, tough.

I have a friend who's a hip hop producer, and recently released his first single (it made it to the top forty). In the video, he wasn't made to swagger around with a gun - but he had to act a lot streetier and yo-don't-mess-with-me than he is in life. That's the business. Gangs and guns are 'cool'. Walking down the street as if you are capable of pointless violence at any moment is visibly the rage with the kids in my street.

Clearly, not only music is guilty of this commercialisation of violent imagery. Movies are as guilty. John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991) was banned in some states in America, on the grounds that it glamorises violence. On the face of it, this is an absurd judgement on the film, which depicts the hopelessness of innercity life, and the heroes of which are Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr) who chooses to escape the ghetto and go to college rather than avenge his friend, and his Black nationalist father. Yet many audiences, apparently, cheered the violent act of retribution which Tre renounces. For sure audiences can distinguish reality from fiction (or most of them can), and cheering what happens in a film doesn't tell you anything automatically about what they would do in life. But it reveals the complexity of the issue.

A great deal of hip hop and garage is genuine art from the street, a form of self-expression for still mainly black, though increasingly white youth, many of them highly alienated and otherwise socially powerless. But there's a world of difference between Eminem poignantly responding too late to a stalkerish fan, or Ice Cube gently musing it was 'a good day' because he didn't even need his AKA, and lesser talents simply posing around in hoods and baggy jeans being vile about women.

The critics of Kim Howells are right to say that governments should focus on the terrible conditions which breed violence rather than pontificate about the artists. Investment in inner cities would help. But the regeneration of local communities is not simply a matter of government money - it's a question of the self-organisation of those communities themselves.

Music, and black music perhaps especially, has always had a relationship to social issues. Curtis Mayfield reflected the problems of the street, but in a politically engaged way. That, of course, was because there was more of a movement to engage with. Beyond encouraging government investment, we need to rebuild that kind of movement.

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