Call and Response

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

"Our focus, a lot of the time, is on the more commercial artists, and we expect those artists to come out and make stands," says Hakim, a member of the two-man rap group Channel Live. "But the nature of their position doesn't allow them to make that stand." Hakim bristles at the suggestion that it should be left to "conscious artists" to politicize other rappers, even if it means openly repudiating them. "I'm not necessarily gonna try to make you do something you're not gonna do," he scoffs. "That's not my fight. My fight is in the struggle; it's not with my brother."

Tuffy, Hakim's partner, says that even as society changes, in part because of them, rappers should not be chasing ambulances. "It's time-consuming for rappers to be at certain places," he emphasizes. "You don't have to be at every march."

Hakim suggests that civil rights leaders and fans of hip hop should quit trying to sensitize the garrulous rappers; he maintains that they must not be viewed as saviors of the black community.

"We have a messianic complex," he declares. "We want somebody to come down and save us. Rappers and athletes get the greatest amount of attention, so we expect those people to be the most responsible. [But] anybody who studies any type of struggle knows that the struggle comes from the grass roots; it doesn't come from the bourgeois class. So you can't place that burden on their shoulders; they're not gonna take it. It is not necessarily their responsibility to take it. . . . It's unfair. . . . People will jump on the bandwagon and do what they have to do—if not, the struggle will roll over them. It's simple."

From January until April, while Rah Digga says she was engrossed in a grueling cross-country tour promoting her debut hip hop album, Dirty Harriet, the four white undercover cops who killed Amadou Diallo were acquitted; another undercover cop put a bullet in the back of the head of suspected drug dealer Malcolm Ferguson, who was unarmed; and Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed security guard, was shot to death by a plainclothes officer after he rebuffed an attempt by the cop to entrap him in a buy-and-bust operation. Several other highly publicized cases of alleged police brutality unnerved even the most pro-NYPD African Americans. Yet, Rah Digga stayed in her own world.

"I've been so out of the loop, right now I don't even know what's going on in my own child's life," she says during a phone interview. As her infant daughter, Shativa, bounds into the room, it seems as if Rah could not have staged a better scene to illustrate her point about balancing motherhood and a career.

"Mommy! Mommy!" Shativa beckons.

"Wait a minute, baby, Mommy's talking," Rah answers sternly under the strain of a hacking cough. The baby persists.

"Shativa, stop it!" Rah demands. "Mommy is working on the phone." Finally, the child bares her gripe: The TV had been turned off. "Okay, I'm gonna turn it back on when I get off the phone," Rah offers. "You have to be polite while I'm talking, though. Okay?"

Rah insists that she is not dismissive of the outcry against police brutality. She says she knows firsthand the tactics of ruthless cops, dredging up a 1997 encounter in Irvington, New Jersey. She recalls sitting in a parked Buick Regal with three friends, listening to a demo tape of, as she puts it, "a young up-and-coming Dirty Harriet" and smoking a blunt.

"Quite honestly, we was drinkin'," she admits. "We was smokin' weed." Suddenly a patrol car pulled up. "I guess they smelt that marijuana was present, so like, 'Okay, here goes a nice quick easy arrest.' " The cops, who were white, ordered them out of the vehicle, and one officer and "the rest of his male constituents proceeded to frisk me and my homegirls.

"He patted me down," Rah adds. "He patted my chest. He patted all the areas where he thought a female would be stashing." The rapper says she "kindly and respectfully" protested the fondling. "Excuse me, I know my rights, and you don't have the right to frisk me," she said.

"Shut the fuck up! I can do what I want!" the cop allegedly responded. After a futile search, the cops released Rah and her friends. The experience left her embittered. "Why should we [always] have to 'Yes, Ma'am' and respect cops when they pull us over, and they obviously don't give us respect?"

However, none of the songs on her album directly touch on police brutality or the 1997 incident. "I might have a comment or two saying, 'Fuck the police!' " she says. "I do remember in a freestyle somewhere [talking] about cops pulling me over. You know, ready to cause a ruckus. And then we part with them asking me for my autograph, kinda like making a mockery out of the situation."

Since Rah's confrontation with police, her only political agitation centered around an appearance last summer at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Manhattan after she heard Busta Rhymes's radio plea for all rappers to show up at the event. "I just rolled through with a carload of some of my girlfriends," she recalls. Rah felt she had to compensate for not being present on the frontline of the civil disobedience protests. She was relieved when she was asked to participate in the making of Hip Hop for Respect. "I like to have a hand in as much as I can, but I physically can't take the time to get arrested or anything like that," Rah reiterates. "But I definitely, you know, participated in the music. . . . I think putting together a song like that is just as effective."

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