Taking the Rap

Are Civil Rights Leaders Frontin’ for Hip Hop Gangstas?

Hip hop troublemakers such as reputed gunslinging duo Sean "Puffy" Combs and Jamal "Shyne" Barrow are scampering to the civil rights movement for political cover as their gangsta personas and alleged criminal conduct come under increasing attack. But a bitter behind-the-scenes feud over this "shameful alliance"—which for several months has pitted a hard-edged anti-gangsta rap crusader against prominent black leaders and music industry bigs—could erupt around Combs's and Barrow's upcoming trial in Manhattan. Barrow is charged with attempted murder and Combs with illegal gun possession.

Poised for a showdown is Conrad Muhammad, the self-appointed moral conscience of hip hop, who heads the conservative group CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment). Muhammad, the 36-year-old former chief minister of Nation of Islam Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, has been seething with outrage since Reverend Al Sharpton allegedly usurped his idea for a hip hop summit attacking rap music's violent and sexually explicit lyrics. He claims that Sharpton, leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network, is conspiring with David Mays, founder and publisher of The Source magazine (the bible of hip hop culture), to "use the moral cover of the civil rights movement" to deflect criticism that gangsta rap crosses the lines of good taste, dignity, and decency. Sharpton and nine top rappers, including Shyne, Master P, and Queen Latifah, are featured on the cover of The Source's February issue.

The Baptist minister hosted the first summit, held in October at his headquarters, and participated in a second forum, on racial profiling in hip hop, at Harvard University last month. Muhammad was infuriated because Sharpton and other black leaders did not single out Combs and Barrow as symbols of gangsta rap's stranglehold on the mindset of young African Americans. Muhammad, who is known as "the hip hop minister," contends that the summit and the forum were shams that allowed Combs and Barrow to solicit the support of high-profile black leaders who might be called as character witnesses at their trial.

"That may be the rappers' intent, but we have not been to one of their trials," says Sharpton. "I will not be misused, and I don't see how, by inviting these artists to a summit, we're giving them political and moral cover." Mays did not return a Voice call for comment.

On January 17, Combs and Barrow, along with Anthony "Wolf" Jones, Combs's bodyguard, go on trial in state supreme court in Manhattan for a shooting at Club New York on West 43rd Street in December 1999. Prosecutors say Barrow fired shots that struck three people, seriously injuring one woman. Combs is charged with possession of one of two guns police say they found after they stopped his fleeing Lincoln Navigator. Combs and Jones also are charged with bribery.

"I'm challenging the civil rights establishment, who essentially have become hired guns," says Muhammad, who hosts Sunday Night Live, a talk show on WBLS-FM. "I'm going to put the spotlight on the hypocrisy of civil rights leaders who may line up like ducks to testify for two people they haven't had a longstanding relationship with. Two years ago, Puffy wouldn't return none of their phone calls. So the question I am asking is, "Is the civil rights movement for rent, for sale, to the highest bidder?"


After learning about the summit last September, Conrad Muhammad called Al Sharpton and the two activists began to quarrel. Muhammad and Sharpton had a rocky relationship during Muhammad's tenure at Mosque No. 7. Muhammad has "cussed out" Sharpton and Sharpton has "cussed out" Muhammad. But Muhammad claims that in recent months Sharpton knew he had been trying to organize a similar gathering of hip hop's biggest stars to chastise them. He says that during their phone conversation, he chided Sharpton for trying to shut him out of the summit. "We had a big, big fight," Muhammad recalls. "I told him, 'If you screw me this time, it's on between us. Don't screw me on this.' We are supposed to be brothers.' "

Sharpton, he says, had lined up his civil rights buddies, such as Martin Luther King III of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume, and Hugh Price of the National Urban League to participate. "I told him that this is my area of expertise," Muhammad says. "I saw him as someone trying to use young people to gain further stature in the civil rights establishment. He would say, 'Look, I can deliver these young people.' But I challenged him. I said, 'If the Urban League, the NAACP, and groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had done their job, we wouldn't even be talking about gangsta rap. If they failed so miserably to address the issues of urban America, how you gonna bring them to address young people?' " Sharpton says the majority of the activists who planned the summit did not object to inviting the civil rights stalwarts.

Muhammad feels Sharpton is in way over his head and might unwittingly derail attempts by him and others to curb, if not eradicate, the scourge of gangsta rap. "You have to understand the subtleties of hip hop, which many of our older leaders do not," he asserts. "If you're gonna work with rappers, you gotta understand that you're not dealing with people who have been projecting positive images of themselves or other blacks. Sharpton himself said he does not know anything about hip hop. He said he thought Usher was an usher in somebody's church. He was serious. You think he knows something about what these guys are saying in rap? No, he doesn't know this stuff."

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