“You ain’t get shot again, so what’s your second album about?”
The MTV News website always has four stories at the top of the page, and today the bottom one is about the Smashing Pumpkins reunion, which I guess someone somewhere cares about. The other three involve rappers and violence: Cassidy talking about being in jail for five months before being acquitted on murder charges, D12’s Swift being sentenced to a jail term after skipping a court hearing to attend Proof’s funeral, and Daddy Yankee talking about the time he got shot. (It might be problematic to call Daddy Yankee a rapper because people haven’t yet recognized reggaeton as a rap subgenre, but he’s someone who got famous rapping, and so that’s what I’m doing.) Here’s what Yankee has to say: “At the time, I didn’t understand it. But right now, I give thanks to that bullet.” That’s a really stupid thing to say.
I don’t want to single Daddy Yankee out too much here; he’s certainly not the first rapper to brag about being shot. 50 Cent certainly owes an enormous chunk of his fame to the night he got shot nine times and lived to tell about it; when his story started hitting magazines at the end of 2002, he looked like a superhero. And Yankee’s story isn’t some glorification-of-violence shit; he didn’t get gunned down by a rival drug-dealer outside his trap-house or anything. He’d been trying out to play major-league baseball when he got caught in some crossfire outside a recording studio, and the bullet that he caught in his hip ended those plans. The next sentence after the two I quoted is this: “The bullet made me be focused in music because I didn’t have any [other] options – it was music or music, you know?” So there are some extenuating circumstances, but what we have here is still a huge rising star giving an interview to an international entertainment conglomerate where he talks about being shot like it’s a good thing. To call this irresponsible would be a vast understatement.
When I was down in Baltimore this weekend, I was talking with two of my oldest friends about the Proof shooting, and they asked me how I can still write about rap every goddam day, how all this stuff doesn’t turn my stomach. I answered that 99% of the violence in rap is theatre, which is true. Rap wouldn’t be nearly as commercially or artistically successful as it is if it didn’t have all those stories of criminals who managed to turn their lives around through music, pulling themselves out of poverty without losing their edge. And the image of Tupac exchanging fire with two off-duty cops in Atlanta, for instance, is a powerful one; it helped make Pac a part of a long continuum of dangerous outlaw heroes, a trope that’s been a huge part of America’s cultural self-image since before the country existed. The joke that a rapper’s fame is directly proportionate to the number of times he’s been shot has been kicking around for a few years now, but it doesn’t quite work out; if it did, MF Grimm would be the biggest star in rap. A few weeks ago, there was a since-dropped Sopranos subplot where a rapper hires Tony’s brother-in-law to shoot him so that he can still become famous. It wasn’t realistic, of course, but it says something that this idea of bullets = fame has entrenched itself in pop culture.
And that’s why it’s so infuriating to read Yankee talking about his shooting like it’s a good thing. In Yankee’s own personal experience, maybe it was a good thing, the one moment that sent him off on another path and eventually made him famous. But he’s a cultural figure now, and he has to watch what he says. Kids love him. I’m not saying a kid is going to run out and get himself shot because Daddy Yankee said it was a great thing for him, but the whole nihilistic death-drive thing in rap can really cross the line sometimes, and this feels like one of those times. Right now, the things rappers say in interviews may actually be more influential than the things they say in songs (especially for Yankee, since a good part of his audience doesn’t speak Spanish). I know I sound like C. Delores Tucker or my dad or something when I saw this, but at a certain point, people should realize that the things they say have actual consequences, that quotes like that one (which MTV helpfully placed in the story’s headline) actually contribute to a climate where life is not respected.
Fuck, I don’t know, rappers have probably been bragging about getting shot since before I was born. Maybe I’m just getting old.