Keepin' It Unreal

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

"Gangsta rap was a critique of ghetto life. So much of it was about turning the cameras on crime and violence and the police," says Kelley. "It wasn't meant to be any kind of uplift narrative. It was a form of reportage—turning the mirror back on the black community."

But as the '90s wore on, and MTV noticed the big dollars generated by gangsta rappers and their associates, the mirror began to crack. Ice Cube faded into Mack 10, Biggie was replaced by the LOX, and Nas gave way to Nastradamus. As the music became more popular, it became more of a cartoon—eventually, the only cartoon in town. Despite an occasional hit by the Roots or Talib Kweli, the popular face of rap has been defined by acts in the mold of Biggie or Tupac, but with less talent and almost no perspective.

Perhaps worse, the music has devolved into a misleading caricature of the world it claims as inspiration—the streets. Crack isn't nearly the force that it was in the late '80s and early '90s. "Very few people have started using crack in the last 15 years," says Reuter. "Now you have older, sadder crack buyers, less violent, unable to hold a job, and involved with a lot of property crime."

illustration: Eddie Guy

The consequences of crack's rampage still haunt the communities it once infested. But the epidemic is over. "Basically you can think of this like a regular epidemic," says Reuter. "At first people want to try it. Some go and use it regularly, and become negative role models. After two or three years it was clear that crack was a very nasty drug, and all you are left with are the people who first started using it."

The decline of crack has brought an attendant decline in the murder rate among the population at large, and African Americans in particular. In 1991, 50.4 African Americans per 100,000 were killed. By 2000, that number had halved itself. Actual murders committed by young black males dropped from 244.1 per 100,000 youths in 1993 to 67.3 in 1999.

The sunset looks beautiful over the projects/What a shame, it ain't the same where we stand at/If you look close you can see the bricks chipped off/Sometimes niggas miss when they lick off.
—Mobb Deep, "Streets Raised Me"

None of this means urban black America is experiencing a renaissance. During the '90s the fortunes of almost every segment of society were buoyed by the surging economy. Welfare reform, a frequent and sometimes deserving target of criticism from the left, sent poor women back into the job market in droves. At the same time, Clinton-era programs, such as the expansion of the earned income tax credit, lightened the load of the country's working poor. Only one group seemed to miss the gravy train—young black men, gangsta rap's original constituency.

Over the past two decades, black America made impressive gains in the job and education sector—or anyway, half of black America did. In a study of young, "less educated" African Americans with only a high school diploma, Holzer and his partner Paul Offner discovered that the employment rate for women rose from 37 percent in 1989 to 52 percent in 2000. The rate actually fell for men, from 62 percent to 52 percent. According to Holzer, in the 16-24 age range there is actually a higher percentage of black women employed than black men—a stunning statistic, given that many black women in this demographic are also unwed mothers.

Why hasn't gangsta rap morphed to address the new reality of African American men? In short, because the narrative of today's black man makes a lousy cowboy flick. A central element of gangsta rap was the lionizing of drug dealers as cool, smooth black males fighting their way out the ghetto. Although the portrayal was highly exaggerated, it definitely wasn't a complete fantasy—the drug trade did produce a few legitimate entrepreneurs. But no amount of hyperbole could salvage the current narrative of the black male—that of the habitual loser.

Gangsta rappers and their advocates argue that they are simply doing what other artists do in emphasizing certain elements of their world. "It's drama, and in drama you take the mundane elements of life and you infuse them at times with hyperbolic meaning," says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California. "When people look at Scarface they don't criticize the film because it overly dramatizes Tony Montana's cocaine use. In reality, if anyone snorted that much cocaine, they would be dead in five minutes, but nobody applies that same standard to hip-hop. That doesn't make it any less authentic. It's not reality, it's a representation of reality from one individual's perspective."

Increasingly, that perspective is skewed. It sounds more like mythology cobbled together from a few shreds of personal experience and a lot of Donald Goines, Biggie Smalls, and GoodFellas. For sure, the violence that rappers love to harp on still happens—the murder rate among black men remains several times higher than that of white men. But MCs conveniently ignore less glamorous forms of violence that exert as much, if not greater, influence on their lives.

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