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.

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.

"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."

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."

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."

A dejected Muhammad tried to convince Combs that "it was a critical time for him and Biggie to show that they were absolutely remorseful" over the slaying. (Six months later Biggie was killed in Los Angeles, allegedly at the behest of Knight. Detectives previously had identified Knight as a suspect in Biggie's killing, alleging that he may have ordered it while in jail on a parole violation. Knight's attorney denied he ordered the killing, and Knight has not been charged. He is serving nine years for a 1992 attack on two rappers in a recording studio.) During the ceremony, Muhammad held his tongue, simply telling the rappers' fans they couldn't make it. Today, Muhammad feels that Combs backed out because some people did not want him to be associated with the Nation of Islam.

Muhammad has a message for awestruck Combs fans who mobbed the superstar last week after a hearing delaying the start of his trial: "Our support right now should be for the single mother who was shot in the face" in the Club New York shooting. "That's gangsta?" asks Muhammad, scowling at a line in Shyne's lyrics. "It was a cowardly act. So don't run back to the community of hard-working black folk and ask us to use the civil rights movement to protect you."


Peter Noel is a former contributor to The Source.

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