Imagination Under Arrest
I listen to music that a lot of people would consider vile. For that matter, I read and watch a lot of vile things, too. If what they say is true that we are what we consume, does this make me a vile person, or, as I believe to be the case, someone with a fascination for the darker aspects of life? If I were to write down a fraction of the darker thoughts and images that pass through my mind, or worse yet, sublimate these thoughts and images into a work of fiction or extended exercise of the imagination, would that make me in any way guilty of a crime? What if that work happened to inspire someone else to commit a crime that I would be incapable of committing myself? This is actually an extremely troubling development that is happening in the hip hop community, where certain rappers are being charged with murder on the basis of lyrics depicting the gang violence that comes part and parcel with the War on Drugs and life in the inner city. It’s one thing to commit a crime and then recount that incident in explicit detail in lyrics written for a song, which amounts to a confession, but quite another to depict realistically the various aspects of crime and violence that are an everyday fact of life on the streets in our inner cities. It’s not enough that our institutional racism and increasing income inequality in America tends to perpetuate and worsen these conditions, but convicting rappers for their lyrics is the equivalent of killing the messenger, which does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Such convictions demonstrate how scarily prescient sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick was when he envisioned a future where a person could be arrested for merely thinking of a crime before actually committing it.
According to an article in The Huffington Post on the use of hip hop lyrics to prosecute crimes, “Prosecutors have introduced lyrics both as evidence of an actual crime, and of a suspect’s supposed capacity to commit a crime.” I’ll let you mull over that phrase “supposed capacity” for a little bit. Indeed, from the very beginning hip hop has been nearly indistinguishable from the drug culture and crime for the simple reason that the music developed around the same time and spoke to the same conditions that gave rise to crack and the gang violence that seemingly exploded in our inner cities in the 1980s. You won’t find too many white people of a certain age who enjoy and appreciate the content and propulsive beats of rap music, not to mention the trappings of behaviors and clothing styles that go along with it. Those who snub their noses at this afro-centric genre (“ghetto music”) must also find it particularly galling to see it become so commercially successful and entrenched in the mainstream.
We’ve heard this tune before: alarms of panic were raised at the thought of our virginal white daughters being corrupted by blues and jazz in the 20s and 30s, and again in the 50s when some white dude from Memphis sang race music with a uniquely driving beat and a lascivious swing of his hip. The phrase rock and roll itself originated in the jazz lexicon as a reference to sex. Law enforcement, oftentimes carrying out the wishes of the Powers That Be, can’t very well arrest people for the color of their skin, so they devise ways to prosecute certain behaviors associated with people of a certain color, and they use the media to gin up the problem in order to convince the general public that it’s more prevalent than it really is. This also tends to deflect attention from the real underlying issues such as poverty and unemployment that are much more difficult to solve and don’t score near as many political points. Inflammatory music genres such as rap are tolerated as long as that racket and the behavior it inspires stays contained within the confines of the ghetto and urban radio stations, but once it spills over into mainstream culture, as well as the lives, speech and mall stores frequented by suburban white kids, it’s clamp-down time. As always, the human tendency is to try to stamp out or stifle what we fear rather than take time to listen and attempt to understand what a new mode of musical expression may be telling us. To attribute a causal link between rap music and drugs and violence is to distort the role and function of art in our culture. To say that hip hop begets, or even exacerbates, crime is no truer than saying that listening to reggae begets ganja smoking. The purpose of art, after all, is to hold a mirror to our society. We may not like what the mirror reflects back at us, but smashing it to pieces does not make the problem go away.
With popular music, especially after the advent of artists like the Beatles who wrote their own songs, there’s always been the temptation to equate the artist with the contents of the song. It doesn’t matter how many times over the years Dylan has described himself as a “song and dance man,” people have always combed his lyrics as a way to gain insight into the man known as the “voice of his generation.” This armchair psychologizing fails to recognize that songs are fiction. By the time an artist crafts lyrics into a song, filtering their experience through meter and rhyme among other tropes, even the most autobiographical songs are already several steps removed from reality. Once the song reaches the audience’s ear, its content has more to do with the listener’s reality, for who among us knows for certain the songwriter’s intentions or emotional state at the time of composition, when most artists will tell you (Dylan especially) they barely know these things themselves? There’s perhaps more of an inclination to equate rap lyrics with the rapper because the music appears to be more immediate when conveyed in the first person and dealing with hot-off-the-presses situations and topics. It is for this reason that I’ve always perceived rap lyrics more as journalistic in approach and intent, both as a way to serve as a witness to conditions of life on the streets as well as to provide a release for the daily frustrations that, if they go unexpressed for too long, might lead the artist to resort to more unlawful courses of action.
There is no crime in rapping, nor is it against the law to apply one’s imagination and creativity in recounting specific details of an actual crime. Of course, it becomes a bit more complicated if the person recounting those details was at the scene or participated in the crime, but these things still must be proven in a court of law through evidence and eyewitness testimony, not gleaned secondhand from details that happen to show up in rap lyrics or Facebook postings. The Huffington Post article cites a case where the rapper McKinley “Mac” Phipps was convicted when his lyrics were altered, taken out of context and combined from different songs. The actual context of one of the lyrics used – “Ya fuck with me, he’ll give you a bullet to the brain” – is a reference to Phipps’ father’s experience in Vietnam. To go a step further and attempt to use these lyrics or social media postings as ways to identify likely criminals or ferret out criminal acts before they occur is the stuff of science fiction and, furthermore, sends a clear message that this chosen mode of self-expression, and by extension the individual using it, is less than. Welcome to our brave new world where technology and information are weaponized and turned against the citizenry. This apparently has become such standard practice in police forces across the country that cops assigned to task forces investigating crimes via rap lyrics and social media get their own culturally savvy sobriquet of “hip hop cops.” That cute name alone should tell you that their efforts are focused around a specific community, namely African-Americans.
Another recent article in The Atlantic Monthly illustrates how problematic this approach is. “Hip hop cops” scour social media to identify known drug dealers, gang members or any person known to associate with these. Once individuals are identified in this manner, their names are entered into a database (IBM’s CopLink being one platform in wide use across the country). This is troubling for two reasons. One is due to the permanency of information on the internet. Once these databases are created, it is rare for police forces to take the next step and routinely clean them up or update them. This information permanency (as opposed to relevancy, in which the value of information changes with context) reinforces the cultural and values-based belief many of us have in society that “once a drug dealer/gang member always a drug dealer/gang member,” when the human reality is much different. As is the case with all of us who lived through adolescence, we may have become involved with some kind of rebellious activity – drugs and/or gangs being extreme examples – for a myriad of reasons, but many of us grew out of that involvement. There is such a thing as youthful indiscretion, and for many young people growing up in inner city environments plagued by poverty and crime, it’s easy to see how drugs and gangs exert a strong pull and offer reinforcements that may not be available otherwise. This preemptive approach to law enforcement, however, precludes the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption, which reinforces the notion that inner city lives are not valued.
The other problem with social media surveillance is that the police do not always have a full appreciation for the nuances of connections on this platform. The Atlantic article points out that “likes” and connections on Facebook provide information that’s limited and faulty at best. Facebook only provides the “like” mechanism as a way to indicate your interest in or support for someone or their comment or posting. To use the example cited in the article, if you “like” someone’s post about the death of a family member, for instance, does that mean you’re glad the person is dead, or that you are showing moral support to the person who’s grieving? Conversely, if someone in the inner city connects with or “likes” something said by a known criminal, are they supporting that person’s actions or statements, or are they possibly saving face – “fronting” – among their friends by showing nominal support? Anyone with a teenager knows only too well the superficial and fluid nature of their friend connections on social media, a realm where quantity trumps quality. I shudder to think what someone might make of my own Google searches. No one has an issue with using data to do better policing, but the article makes a strong case for how we need to create data systems that “have human values embedded in them,” as opposed to reducing human connections, as well as the complex host of reasons and needs for those connections, to 1’s and 0’s of computer code. As it stands now, the police are taking short cuts that ultimately exact long-term damage and harm to our society by marginalizing a segment of its population. After all, it’s not difficult to imagine that through six degrees of separation we could all be found to have a connection to some crime or other.
My concern over this practice, however, has more to do with its ramifications for art and creativity. When I hear great examples of hip hop (Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels are but two recent examples), I hear amazingly talented individuals who have chosen to devote considerable time and energy to express themselves through powerful pieces of music instead of picking up a gun or slinging some rock. But that was not always the case. It took me a while to appreciate hip hop because I’m a rock and roll guy, and I couldn’t relate to a genre of music that seemed to consist primarily of spewing ignorant lyrics about bling, bitches and hos over slick beats. Where was the guitar? And how could you call what sounded like words recited over samplings of other recordings music? Coming up as I did in the punk era, I quickly recognized that punk and hip hop shared a reviling of the same institutions and authority figures that showed little to no interest in improving odds that seemed overwhelmingly stacked against them from the time they were born. Also, the way hip hop was able to create its music guerilla-style with a minimum of two turntables and a microphone, and thereby completely bypass the music industry’s gatekeepers, was as punk as it gets. For many of the kids growing up in these conditions, a unique manner of self-expression and use of language may be all they have to distinguish themselves and measure their self-worth.
To be sure, a lot of rap music, as with any other genre of popular music, is crass and off-putting for some of the reasons stated above. Suffice it to say, the genre’s not for everyone. Occasionally the beat might be so undeniably wicked as to cause me to overlook the ignorant lyrics spouted over it, but typically I had a hard time relating to the typical rap that used the lingua franca of baser desires (smoking blunts and staying high all the time, handling fat stacks of money, driving fancy cars and demeaning women). Nevertheless, my philosophy has always been to each his own, and far be it for me to tell anyone the proper way to express their inner selves. Besides, there’s no accounting for taste. I find mainstream radio with its saccharine sentiments and sanitized sound much more offensive. Once I heard examples of hip hop that were more socially conscious and protested, not glorified, a life on the streets consisting of drugs, sex, violence and money, with lyrics recited in a flow of diction, meter and rhyme that would make Shakespeare’s head spin, I became more interested and recognized this genre to be as moving and meaningful as anything else I listened to.
We all have a deep-rooted and fundamental need to know that we are heard, valued and treated with respect, and it is our artists who devise ways of expressing themselves that can both inspire and challenge us. To incriminate hip hoppers’ very attempts to carve this meaning out of horrific conditions is to take away their last shred of humanity. Once that happens, the police have a much bigger problem on their hands at a time when they can ill afford to make their community relations any worse. Indeed, hip hop has been one of the things that has done more to enlighten me about the plight of our fellow inner city citizens, as well as the unrealistic goals of and inordinate harm caused by the War on Drugs. As Gabor Mate says in the preface to his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, “one cannot make war on inanimate objects, only on human beings.” Prosecuting these dual wars on drugs and hip hop culture undoubtedly has a dehumanizing effect. Hip hop, in other words, is but a reflection, a manifestation, of the symptom of a much larger problem, and we can no sooner or more effectively arrest our way out of this problem than we can stop people from communicating with each other.
As I said earlier, I listen to a lot of music people would consider vile. It’s interesting to me that hip hop catches so much hell when a genre like extreme metal that traffics in images of supernatural horror, apocalyptic death, gore, Satanic worship and so forth garners no attention whatsoever. (Again, there’s no accounting for taste, and for my money this genre, like hip hop, has social value because it happens to be where the most exciting and innovative musicianship in rock is happening right now.) Is it because extreme metal musicians are predominantly white or don’t live in concentrated areas of crime and violence? As a society, we consume all kinds of artistic renderings of the human horror show. What are we to make of those among us who spend all their available time immersed in the salacious details of true crime and crime fiction? To go after anyone for lyrics in a song, without a shred of evidence connecting them to any real crime, is the definition of a slippery slope. To focus this interdiction almost exclusively on a single community of people is enough to make anyone “wanna holler,” and denying them the ability to holler over conditions that many of us can’t possibly imagine is, let’s face it, a form of fascism. If we would but listen to and study hip hop as the street poetry (or even cry for help and change) it is, we would soon learn that the people who use hip hop as a means to express themselves have lives as authentic and valuable as the rest of us. Also, and perhaps more importantly, an America that devalues any of its citizens by attacking their culture is one that cuts itself off from the diversity of experience and First Amendment-protected right to free speech that makes us such a great nation to begin with.