Taking the Rap

Are Civil Rights Leaders Frontin’ for Hip Hop Gangstas?

Says Sharpton: "He is right. I don't know much about hip hop, which is why we invited him to the summit. But the summit was about racial profiling in hip hop, which I know about. We in the civil rights movement fought against police who racially profiled people like Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, who were members of the hip hop generation." Muhammad says gangsta rappers are piggybacking on the racial profiling bandwagon, sometimes proclaiming that they are the cops' favorite targets.

Sharpton and other civil rights leaders must not be misled, he insists. Prosecutors, according to the New York Post, are threatening to introduce Barrow's lyrics as evidence against him. "I bang . . . and let your fuckin' brains hang, snitches," Barrow signifies in "Bad Boyz," which was produced by Combs for his Bad Boy Records label. "Niggas wanna bang, we could bang out/'Til the clip's done, or your vital arteries hang out."

"When you talk about people who have projected images of themselves as ganstas and find themselves involved in violent incidents, that's not racial profiling," Muhammad maintains. "If you go out and say you are a gangsta and the police trail you, that's not profiling you—you told them you are a gangsta."

Source of the problem? Critics accuse hip hop magazine of promoting thug culture.
Source of the problem? Critics accuse hip hop magazine of promoting thug culture.

After tense negotiations with Sharpton, Muhammad's CHHANGE was selected as a co-sponsor of the Harlem summit. There he remained true to form, lambasting gangsta rappers, calling on them to stop writing raunchy lyrics that denigrate black women and extol violence. "I gave them the benefit of the doubt by co-sponsoring the first forum, but it became obvious to me at the forum that they didn't want to address the hard issues," Muhammad complains. "Puffy and Master P came, but neither of them addressed any of the issues that were on the table: Master P talked about some kind of union, and Puffy just said he was happy to be there. With the exception of speeches by myself, Erica Ford, and James Mtume, they were not challenged."

Muhammad believes he was deliberately left out of the forum that Sharpton participated in at Harvard (where Muhammad is completing a double master's degree in divinity and public administration). "I wasn't notified about it," he claims. He adds that after the Harvard forum, he was "absolutely convinced that Sharpton and David Mays were not interested" in addressing the issue of rappers assuming "personal responsibility" for their often criminal behavior. Sharpton says he did not organize the forum.

"I believe they don't want certain issues raised," Muhammad says of Sharpton and Mays. "The alliance that exists between them is an alliance of convenience because The Source magazine has been, in many respects, one of the main purveyors of thug culture."

Mays, who is white, has been credited in some circles with saving rap music. His monthly glossy "magazine of hip-hop music, culture & politics" gave rappers who were shut out of mainstream publications their own voice, while heralding the advent of so-called hip hop journalism. Counters Muhammad: "I am saying that there are many people in the African American community who are outraged at the fact that The Source, which has played a destabilizing role in black popular culture, can now hypocritically suggest that it wants to address the issue, but in a way that does not call blue-chip rappers into account."

Conrad Muhammad, hip hop avenger, spews most of his fire at Sean "Puffy" Combs and Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, who face lengthy prison terms if convicted. In his opinion, Combs and his henchmen—"who are paying high-priced lawyers to get them out of trouble"—are guilty. "They've already been found guilty in the eyes of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and those who have fought hard to establish the dignity of black people," he declares. "As for me, I'm speaking from the perspective of a black man who is bitterly angry, and is willing to take a strong stand against rappers like Puffy and Shyne. In their lyrics, it's pimps up, whores down, stuff that Minister Farrakhan and myself have fought against."

But Muhammad's voice sinks at the drop of Combs's name. "I've known Puffy for years; I've helped him in many instances," he says disappointedly. He remembers that at the height of the so-called East Coast-West Coast feud between rappers, he assigned scores of Fruit of Islam elite guards to watch over Combs, who was receiving death threats from hoods tied to Marion "Suge" Knight, boss of L.A.-based Death Row Records. "When Suge Knight was blasting through town, I sent soldiers from Mosque No. 7 to do security for Puffy," he says.

After Death Row star Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas in 1996, Combs and rapper Notorious B.I.G.—who was on Combs's Bad Boy label and was Shakur's New York rival—promised Muhammad they would attend a "hip hop day of atonement," which Muhammad had organized to stop the killing. But as the event attracted national attention, Combs, according to Muhammad, suddenly withdrew. Combs allegedly went to Mosque No. 7 and pleaded with Muhammad to take him off a roster of celebrities because his participation in the Day of Atonement could scuttle a huge deal with music mogul Clive Davis. "It's hurting my deal," Combs reportedly said. "Get me outta this."

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