Keepin' It Unreal

$elling the Myth of Bla¢k Male Violen¢e, Long Past Its Expiration Date

 Yeah, they want reality, but you will hear none/They'd rather exaggerate a little fiction. —N.W.A, "Express Yourself"

The promotion of 50 Cent from bootleg king to god of the streets was PR genius. His handlers have played the angle magnificently. The attempts on his life come up repeatedly in interviews, and 50 is happy to provide embellishment. Even critics have bought into the mystique—review after review of 50's Get Rich or Die Tryin' cites his battle scars as evidence of his true-to-life depiction of the streets. On the cover of Rolling Stone, he posed with his back to the camera, exposing one of his wounds. Who knew nine bullet holes could be such a boon?

illustration: Eddie Guy

Now the banners are unfurling: "2003: the year hip-hop returned to the streets." You can thank 50 for that. Get Rich has been hyped as the most realistic representation of the ghetto since the heyday of Biggie. To its credit, the album turns down the bling factor considerably. 50 could care less about what whip you're pushing or the cut of your Armani. All that concerns him is your (preferably violent) downfall. Add in 50's work history in the narcotics trade and his random swipes at supposed wanksta Ja Rule and you have the makings of the most legitimate gangsta rapper since Jay-Z.

But not much more. At its core the hubbub around Get Rich and the return of gangsta rap is crack-era nostalgia taken to the extreme. Imagine—articulate young black men pining for the heyday of black-on-black crime. Like all nostalgia, neo-gangsta is stuck in history rather than rooted in current reality. The sobering fact is that the streets as 50 presents them, brimming with shoot-outs and crack fiends, do not exist. Of course, drugs are still a plague on America's house, and America's gun violence is a black mark on the developed world. But millennial black America is hardly the Wild West scene it was during gangsta rap's prime. Gangsta could once fairly claim to reflect a brutal present. Now it mythicizes a past that would fade away much faster without it.

In the late '80s, young black men—gangsta rap's creators, and its primary constituency—became their own worst enemies. Drug dealing was becoming a legitimate, if deadly, life option, and with it came an arms race that turned Anyghetto, U.S.A., into Saigon. The Harlem Renaissance drew its power from the optimism of the New Negro, the Black Arts movement pulled from Black Power, gangsta rap tapped the crack age. If Motown and Stax were the joyful noise of us unshackling ourselves into the dream ("Are you ready for a brand-new beat?"), gangsta rap was the sound of us crashing back into the desert of the real ("Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money").

The crash is complete, and in any black community you can find the rubble—uneducated, unemployable young black men. Their narrative no longer rings with the romance of a Nino Brown. Crack is played, and so, apparently, is fratricide—murder rates in the black community have been dropping since the mid '90s. The way of the gun still takes its toll, but Saigon has been pacified. Mundane afflictions like unpaid child support and industrial flight have once again come to the fore.

The streets that gangsta rappers claim as their source are no longer as angry as they are sad. For that reason alone, gangsta rap should be dead by now. But still it lingers, fueled by America's myth of the menacing black man. Gangsta rap today is about as reflective of reality as, well, a reality show. And yet still it lumbers across the landscape of pop, shouting "I'm Real."

Step away with your fistfight ways/Muthafucka this ain't back in the days.
—the Notorious B.I.G., "Things Done Changed"

Some 17 years ago, I was ambling past a local 7-Eleven on my way home from school. There in front of the store where I frequently leafed through copies of X-Men, I met gangsta rap in its most tangible form. It was 1986—the year Schoolly D birthed the genre with his single "PSK (What Does It Mean?)"—and the old order of Afro-America was coming apart. Black fathers were going M.I.A., guns were flooding the streets, and crackheads were multiplying. I was young and too obsessed with Transformers and Galaxy Rangers to notice the walls caving in around me.

And then at that 7-Eleven I watched a kid unveil the biggest, blackest handgun I'd ever seen. He and his friends had been arguing with another clique when the one kid dropped the trump card. It was like something out of the dollar flicks, scored by my heart pounding like a timpani. No cars pulled into the parking lot. No one ducked or screamed. I did not move. With his point made, the kid returned his tool to his jacket and walked away laughing with his friends, taking my innocence with him.

Whatever I had left was beaten out of me during my first year of middle school. I got jumped so often that I spent that year searching for alternate paths home, some of them integrating bus routes even though I lived around the corner. A new road map might save me from a critical beatdown. But as the gangsta rap era geared up, the bumrush became the least of my worries.

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