Call and Response

Targeting Silent Rappers: A Street Fight for Justice or Hip Hop McCarthyism?

Rap artists—the self-described "conscious MCs" as well as the "keep-it-real gangstas"—are coming under attack from forces inside New York City's black activist community for shunning civil disobedience protests in response to rampant police brutality. Rappers like hip hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jay Z, DMX, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, KRS One, Snoop Doggy Dog, Lauryn Hill, and Rah Digga are being closely watched by groups such as CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), which is led by former Nation of Islam minister Conrad Muhammad.

None of the rappers was among the 1166 celebrities, politicians, and other people arrested during 15 days of protests last year over the police slaying of Amadou Diallo. Four white undercover cops looking for a rapist gunned down the unarmed street vendor outside his Bronx apartment in a barrage of 41 bullets. Among those arrested during the demonstrations outside police headquarters were civil rights leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, former mayor David Dinkins, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, and actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Susan Sarandon.

While Muhammad is pursuing "the big-money niggas" and "modern-day minstrel men" he believes are hiding behind their "hectic schedules" and "pit-bull agents," other activists are conducting roll calls to ferret out those rappers more inclined to "woofin' and shadowboxing" than to throwing down in a street fight for justice.

"You have people like Jay-Z and Master P and others who are very outspoken on a number of other issues but hear nothing from them on police brutality," charges Muhammad. "Puff Daddy is literally the toast of New York high society, but when he has the ear of these people, does he raise the issue pertinent to his people?" The "Movement," some say, is "mad upset" with the "Hip Hop Nation." (An article in the August issue of Vibe magazine, "Bring the Noise," cranks up the boom box on "Hip Hop's quiet riot.")

"I didn't realize alla this was going on because . . . my schedule being what it is, I don't even have the time or the luxury to watch TV or tune in," says New Jersey-based rapper Rah Digga about the anti-police-brutality protests sweeping the nation. "But I do know this [police brutality] is a crisis. . . . I just haven't physically been able to be a part of [the demonstrations]," adds the entertainer, who projects a "Harriet Thugman" image when she wants to be taken seriously. "I'm there in spirit. I'm there in essence. My role in this industry right now is delivering music and delivering words, and that is just as powerful as my physical body being placed in any sort of physical danger."

Rah's response to the "crisis" is typical of scores of rap artists who can't find the time to participate in civil disobedience protests around an issue they constantly rant against. Some ghetto griots—Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kool G Rap, Sporty Thievz, Common—are trying to repair the breach with the activists by issuing Hip Hop for Respect, a CD of songs critical of abusive cops. In May, they dedicated the CD to Amadou Diallo, presenting it to his parents, Kadiatou and Saikou, during a ceremony at Sharpton's House of Justice in Harlem. Wyclef Jean of the Fugees also has written a song called "Diallo." Errant rappers will get the chance to join the Movement by participating in an August 26 march in Washington, D.C., to call for economic justice and an end to racial profiling and police brutality.

But just how the activists intend to corral the rappers has caused some Movement infighting. When one teen organizer of last year's civil disobedience protests at One Police Plaza contended during a strategy meeting in Harlem recently that the notion of rappers getting arrested and going to jail to protest police misconduct would be the ultimate political statement, a colleague shouted him down.

"They don't have to get arrested!" he pointed out. "They can come forward and show support—and not from behind police barricades."

Another organizer noted that rappers like Puffy and Jay-Z—under indictment in separate high-profile incidents—avoid getting involved in civil disobedience protests because of their criminal history.

"Bullshit!" snapped another activist. "A criminal record is a badge of honor for them. You are not considered a legitimate rap artist until you trade war stories about your incarceration for hanging around with drug dealers and other armed criminals who entice you to participate in crime. It's part of the rap persona. You give a high five or the middle finger before your hands are wrenched behind your back by some cracker cop and you're led off to jail. It's almost like a Mafia rite of passage; you feel like you took a hit for your Gs. When you come out, you're a made man. It's the gangsta life, son."

Other activists are demanding that the rappers be punished for betraying the modern civil rights movement. One ideologue suggests painting caricatures of targeted rappers next to their larger-than-life photographs that adorn billboards in black neighborhoods. But not everyone wants to participate in what some fear would give rise to hip hop McCarthyism.

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