Thursday, January 27, 2005

Gangster rap catharsis

I edit music features for a Web site called and this morning I got a query e-mail for a piece inspired by the recent arrest of Irv "Gotti," head honcho of the record label Murder, Inc., for laundering money allegedly earned through heroin and cocaine trafficking. In responding to the pitch, I was struck by a few things, things that have probably been said better before, and elsewhere, and probably in a less patronizing manner. Anyway, here goes: 1) If there was no market for vicarious violence, gangster rap wouldn't continue to be made. Why is rap the preferred musical vehicle for getting violent fantasy to the marketplace -- and what happens when the fantasy becomes reality? Is there an authentication in that that makes it more sellable? Is gangster rap akin to violent video games, or is it something else? Heavy metal used to be the suburban American teenaged male's preferred escapist vehicle into the realm of unlimited power, manifested generally as the power to intimidate. You could crank up Armored Saint, or Venom, or what have you, and be assured that you were alienating people, a dubious but distinct power. Rap music channels some of this power today. In some ways its an aggressive musical encapsulation of the feeling of being alienated (i.e. being black) in American society. Disgruntled white teens might not articulate it this way, but when their pubescent urges and their sullen moods make them feel misrecognized by society, when they want to lash out because of their suddenly understanding the ways in which they are circumscribed and the different ways their desires will be perpetually thwarted and how powerless they are in the face of the "system" or the face of a pretty girl who won't talk to them, then they are maybe experiencing a watered-down form of what it feels like to experience racial prejudice. (Rock and roll is born when teenagers recognize the parallel, and attempt to express their angst in black-music form.) If someone crosses the street to avoid you, you've exerted a kind of power over them. Rather than see this as rejection, perhaps it's better to see it as a kind of affirmation of the threat you render, of the power embodied in you. The problem comes from adaptation -- if you get used to that as a kind of validation, eventually you'll have to up the ante, and start exerting more agggressive and overt forms of menace. The vicarious violence and criminality and misogyny in gangster rap plays to this feeling, ups the ante so perhaps you don't have to. The age-old catharsis question then comes up: Does the music serve as impetus to do what it describes, or does it serve as a safety valve, blowing off the steam so that you don't have to do such things.

2) Racism in America has generally made the very fact of being black a kind of crime -- is this what's being reflected in gangster rap? Is racism such that it makes black entrepreneurship into a criminal enterprise, through such systemic interference as loan denials, etc.? Organized crime is arguably a shadow of legitimate business, conducted by those in society (immigrants, typically) who are for whatever reason shut out of that straight-world hierarchy. So does the seed money for independent gangster-rap record labels come from drug lords because of this? Or is it more that it's a ripe territory to launder money (like pizza parlors).

3) Is the real-world criminality associated with gangster rap overreported to perpetuate racist stereotypes? And/or to market its "realness" and reinforce the idea that you can buy a sense of being an outlaw through it? Perhaps there's always money to be made perpetuating stereotypes, and there's not a lot of finacial incentive to undermine them. So there would seem to be strong financial incentives for ganster rap impressarios to perpetuate racist stereotypes about black criminality: they can collect good money from packaging white people's fear and selling it back to them. What is so tragic about gangster rap is that it involves so many white kids in a parody of black culture, a complete distortion -- so they never learn empathy for it, never understand it and an opportunity is lost. This does preserve the privacy of that culture though, protects it from isolating corrosion that afflicts white middle-class culture and that might come with assimilation -- but at the cost of having a culture that is separate and unequal.

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