Does Violent Music Beget Violence? Spelman College professor William Jelani Cobb and Loyola Marymount University visiting professor Michael Datcher discuss whether the violence in rap simply mirrors a mean-street reality or if it helped create it.
NPR logo Does Violent Music Beget Violence?
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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Hip-hop and violence have long walked hand-in-hand. The ghost of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. have inspired a generation of young rappers for better and for worse. Both men were consummate artists in the prime of their careers, but they also helped change the game, infusing it with a deadly mystique.

Just two weeks ago, in fact, up-and-coming rapper Rayquon Elliot aka Stack Bundles was murdered outside his home in New York. Then late last week, a suspect in the murder was also found dead - his name, Charles White; his vocation, aspiring rapper. As part of our monthlong series on hip-hop, today, we look at the way hip-hop and violence are intertwined. In a few minutes we'll be talking with rap icon Master P in studio here about his conversion from gangsta rapper to good guy

But, let's start with the look at the history and back-story of hip-hop. William Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history at Spelman College and the author of "To Break of Dawn" - "To the Break of Dawn." And also with us, is professor Michael Datcher. He teaches English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University here in California and is the author of The New York Times best seller "Raising Fences."

Gentlemen, nice to have you on the show.

Professor MICHAEL DITCHER (English and Journalism, Loyola Marymount University; Author, "Raising Fences"): It's a pleasure to be here.

Professor WILLIAM JELANI COBB (History, Spelman College; Author, "To the Break of Dawn"): Glad to be here.

COX: First, I'd like to play something for you. It's a clip from rapper The Game's single "Scream On 'Em". A note to listeners, now, while we are going to keep this as clean as we possibly can, we may still hear a word or even an idea that you personally may, perhaps, find offensive. Though, with that said, let's hear the clip.

(Soundbite of song, "Scream On 'Em")

THE GAME (Rapper): (Singing) Clean, mean, rapping machine. Red rag hanging low in the back my jeans. I black out like February, back I was necessary. Oh-seven Bugatti with Jimmy Iovine's secretary. I'm runnin the building, don't make me run in the building. No this ain't the first time I had my gun in the buildin.

(Singing) Walking past officers I see my son in the building. Last album on the wall I'm number one in the buildin. They should build me an office…

COX: So, Michael, is it, let me start with you, is it too simplistic to say that the rise of violent lyrics - oh by the way, again, that was popular West Coast rapper The Game, rapping "Scream On "Em" from last year's album "Doctor's Advocate."

Now, back to you Michael, is it too simplistic to say that the rise of violent lyrics in rap music began on the West Coast 20 years ago with groups like Compton's N.W.A. And that it was a direct response, by that I mean in competition with a very different style among East Coast rappers?

Prof. DATCHER: Well, I think, first of all you have to look at the fact that violence is quintessentially American even a cursory look at popular culture today and any type of manifestation whether be film - the current "Saw" series, for example. I mean one could examine any type of cultural production and look at the violence at any given subject matter.

Certainly, the West Coast had a different style of hip-hop. It popularizes kind of an urban or gangster rap style, which seemed to give the young black men, primarily, a chance to talk about what was happening in their neighborhoods. But too often, I think, people are quick to label gangster rap as this - as the one meaning where violence is dominant. Where actually - in our culture, pretty much every major cultural production that we have in America has a certain strain of violence.

COX: Yeah. That's true. We want to pursue that more. Let me bring Jelani into the conversation. Perhaps we should define terms here.

Prof. COBB: Indeed.

COX: Gangster rap and hip-hop are not one and the same. And if you think of hip-hop, let say as a wide-open umbrella, then underneath it you'll find all sorts of musical styles including gangster rap, dirty south, many more that have different names. But gangster rap is the one - is one of the oldest styles and it seems to generate the most controversy, not in any small way, Michael, because of what you just said. But, Jelani, what continues to drive gangster rap's popularity?

Prof. COBB: Well, there are number of things that continue to drive it. Mainly being, I agree with Michael's point here, the American fascination with violence. It's also the same reason that gangster movies have been so popular for so long. When you look at two most predominant staples in American popular culture, you know, written largely they are the gangster movie and the Western. And both of them - both of those genres center on individuals who can use violence as a means of negotiating situations and negotiating life.

And so, hip-hop is part of that same tradition. And so we see that, it's not so much being driven by, you know, what the participants in the culture are seeking after or admiring in the music, but it's being driven by the larger public. And so when they did the survey, (unintelligible) and also some people at the University of Illinois in Chicago, did a survey a few months back where they polled all these thousands of black youth. And they found that they actually were turned off by the amount of violence in hip-hop. And so it's not something that's solely internal. It's much more about the broader public, as well as the industry that produces the music.

COX: Let me follow up on that point with you, Jelani. And Michael, feel free to jump in on this also because you made an interesting point. Violence in this country did not begin with rap music. Although rap gets blamed for a lot of the behavior of young people, suggesting here, as I see it, that there's a presumption that the people who follow this music are in some way more susceptible to acting out what is meant to be entertainment. What about that? How much do fans of rap music actually mimic what they see and hear and not just in their clothing, Jelani?

Mr. COBB: Well, I think what you see is, kind of, a chicken-and-egg effect. We - it's simplistic to say that hip-hop is the reason for violence in the community and with the most (unintelligible), you know, points about that is that when gangster rap is at its zenith, when it was at its most, you know, popular point in the mid-1990s, black youth violence rates were plummeting and so, it's not clear one-to-one correlation.

That said, we do know that the music probably does influence people's behavior on some level. But it's much more important to look at, you know, the background. What are the educational opportunities? What are the employment opportunities? What's going on within the social fabric of the community itself? And so we've been, as a pollster, looking at those difficult and possibly intractable issues. We just turn around and say, well, it's the music. If they just stop talking about these things in the music, we won't have this problem.

COX: So, Michael, the music really does have an effect?

Prof. DATCHER: I think it does have an effect. But if you look at the West Coast, in particular, those are thriving underground hip-hop scene here on the West Coast. Here in L.A., for example, where young men are talking about politics, progressive issues, but those particular types of songs, those artists can't get signed by larger labels. And most rappers, indeed, are artists in a way. They want to also, kind of, fulfill their dreams. They want to get the major deal.

But right now, the gangster rype(ph) - the gangster rap particular idiom, is what's making money. It's the safer bet for larger corporate labels. And so, folks who are progressive have a harder time getting signed. Isn't that folks in urban communities aren't talking about politics, culture, family, health, love, but those stories aren't getting through because they are less of a homerun in terms of signing an act, which is going to make a gold record.

COX: Well, explain this for me, either you guys are both scholars and you studied this area. Why is it okay that the "The Sopranos" was one of the most popular television shows ever? People are getting popped on that show several times a night every week. But when 50 Cent poses on a billboard with the gun, there's this uproar. Explain that.

Prof. DATCHER: Well, it's because of the…

Mr. COBB: Well, the reason…

COX: Go ahead, Jelani. You first and then Michael.

Mr. COBB: Oh I was going to say. I think the people don't get scared of James Gandolfini when they see him walking down the street. And that's what is at stake here. When you see 50 Cent on the billboard with the gun, you actually believe - well, 50 Cent that's a different example - but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COBB: …when you see the average rapper on a billboard, he actually does conjure up this long history of intimidation, and all the things that are written on the black male body. Whereas with James Gandolfini is just a role that he's playing and it…

Prof. DATCHER: But also, I mean, most folks who are non-black folk, for example, don't really have a lot of African-American folk in their lives in the intimate real way, and their experience with black people happens to be through pop culture. So they may know black people only through 50 Cent, through Snoop Dog. We're seeing black men with their arms tied behind their back on some cop show. However, there have many in a much more broader interaction with white folk, for example, so they can see a gangster who is a mafioso on TV, who can be a bad guy, but also know 45 other Italians who are progressive or positive figures as well.

COX: Well, you know, that's an interesting point because you mentioned James Gandelfini, the star of "The Sopranos." And people know that he's an actor playing a role and yet, when it comes to gangster rappers, oftentimes people don't see them playing a role. They see them being who they portray themselves to be. How much of that is actually, sort of, false bravado would you say on the part of the rappers who hold themselves out to be gangsters when in reality, they're not that at all?

Prof. DATCHER: Well, these guys are trying to find, and sent to a very narrow definition of manhood and (unintelligible) with depressed economies that the avenues to, quote, unquote, "manhood" are much more limited. So historically, a man is defined as being able to provide for one's family, protect one's family, own a home, be a breadwinner. But in many urban, depressed economic neighborhoods, those avenues aren't as easily accessible. And so being a man gets narrowed down to being able to dominate someone physically or being a sex symbol or a sexually adventurous person. And hip-hop, at least gangster rap, allows men to approach that particular avenue and they do.

COX: You know, that's a good segue. Let me first say that you're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Farai Chideya. This is another episode of our monthlong series on hip-hop and joining me for discussion about violence and about role-playing and gender issues, which we're going to get to in just a second - is Professor Michael Datcher. He teaches English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University here in California. He's the author of The New York Times best seller "Raising Fences." And we are also joined by Jelani Cobb, who is - William Jelani Cobb, is an associate professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta and the author of "To the Break of Dawn."

So, Jelani, because you're on a campus of all females, let's talk about hip-hop and the females. And we know that there was some incident. I don't know, in fact, how long ago involving Nelly and some of the women on your campus who felt that they didn't like the way they were being portrayed, and attempted to have a dialogue with him and it sort of fell apart. What happened?

Prof. COBB: Right. That was three years ago, but there've been ongoing efforts and sort of things I've most proud of as a faculty member, that the students have continually raised the issue of how black women are represented within this culture.

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