Yesterday we received a comment from a reader via Facebook asking how the community can prevent upstart Chicago rapper Chief Keef and others from making music that is damaging to our community.
The commenter asked:
“Can you guys talk about how we as a community need to shame and boycott rapers like chief keef and kanye for being enemies to the communities they come from.”
On the merits, I agree with the commenter’s argument; rappers should be more responsible with their platforms.
As a community, if we told record companies—like Interscope, Chief Keef’s label—that we weren’t going to support music that profits off of glorifying black death then they may just stop giving multi-million-dollar contracts to 17-year-old suspected gangbangers who talk about guns, girls, and killing more black men.
But, it’s deeper than that.
While the face of hip-hop is dominated by black folks, those behind the scenes and those who buy the albums are overwhelmingly white.
Writer and hip-hop journalist Matthew Birkhold broke down the racial dynamics of rap’s main audience in his essay “Get Rich and Die Trying:”
S. Craig Watkins correctly remarks that the extraordinary success of The Chronic signaled the incorporation of hip hop into mainstream America. Following in the footsteps of The Chronic, the years 1993-94 saw the release of debut records by Nas, the Wu Tang Clan, and the Notorious B.I.G.
All three albums, which all contained descriptive stories about selling drugs were largely hailed as classics as soon as they were released and, with the exception of Nas, had tremendous crossover appeal. However what Watkins does not point out is that the incorporation of hip hop into mainstream America was made possible by white consumption of black men celebrating black on black murder, selling crack, capitalism, misogyny, homophobia and a rejection of cultural nationalism. Importantly, during this era, hip hop was not yet overwhelmingly saturated with drug raps and many rappers took cultural nationalist positions.
For example, artists such as Brand Nubian, A Tribe called Quest and De La Soul all released albums that were hailed as classics during this era. However, these groups did not cause hip hop to crossover. Because the purchasing power of young whites created the success of The Chronic and a lack of crossover success for Brand Nubian, The Chronic was emulated by artists and labels around the country.
While African-American consumers are most affected by the stereotypes and negative imagery created in hip-hop (and often times drive what’s “cool”), the power to change these images lie with the artists and the (mostly white) consumers.
Because record companies are businesses concerned with their bottom-line, what sells is what continues to get promoted. And for many, what’s been popular for the last 20 years is aggressive, violent, and misogynistic rap.
Although the public outcry over Chief Keef’s reaction to the murder of his rap rival have prompted many to demand Interscope drop the teen from its label, the company has adopted a wait-and-see policy.
Chicago police are currently investigating whether or not Keef was connected to 18-year-old Joseph ‘Lil JoJo’ Coleman’s death. If so, a source close to Interscope told the Chicago Sun Times: “If the reported behavior is accurate, that is not something the label will tolerate and they will take appropriate action. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
So as long as Keef didn’t actually kill anyone he can continue making records that encourage others in his city—which is currently dealing with an exploding murder rate–to do so.
But let’s just say that somehow we were able to get white consumers on board to boycott artists like Chief Keef; that still wouldn’t solve the issues that created Keef in the first place.
Keith Cozart grew up on the South Side of Chicago in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. After going virtually unknown in the rap world, Cozart was reborn as Chief Keef, and turned into a viral sensation after he was arrested and jailed for unlawful use of a gun. In January he was released from house arrest and a video of a young fan going apesh*t over his favorite rapper’s freedom hit the web. Many wondered “who the f—k is Chief Keef,” but the video quickly spread, causing people to find out for themselves.
These days, the rapper is in demand, scoring interviews with magazines and respected music blogs who have seemed to eat up his hyper-violent lyrics in spite of Chicago’s alarming murder rate. It is as if Keef’s brush with the law, and his suspected gang ties, have made him more authentic. While he raps about guns, killing, and selling drugs, young men in his city–many of whom look like him–are killed, almost nightly.
Even if we were to prevent Keef from making music, that wouldn’t prevent him or others in his neighborhood from falling into the same destructive cycles that claim so many lives today.
Kids in Chicago aren’t killing themselves for no reason; their violence is a symptom of a larger problem. Racism, generational poverty, inadequate education, lack of role models, familial breakdown, the prison pipeline all contribute to the horrible cycle that continues to destroy many of our youth (I mean, how can you watch this video and think these kids are mentally sound? All I see are vacant eyes).
So while a boycott of Chief Keef’s violent music may get his record company’s attention, it won’t actually solve the problem that turned Keith Cozart, the 17-year-old troubled kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, into Chief Keef, the rapper who seems solely focused on guns, violence, and getting paid.