Hip-Hop Has Been Rapping About Reform For Years Through Music, Why Haven’t We Been Listening?
A comprehensive guide to the bigger problem poisoning our nation
The rapper, Ice-T was quoted in 1992 famously saying, “Here we are yelling on a rap record, but no one will listen”, referring to Black on Black crime and police brutality in the 1990's. Almost 28 years later, and the message remains the same and ‘defund the police’ has become a social media hashtag, giving scope to a much bigger issue that doesn’t begin with George Floyd.
Broken Record is a podcast created by Rick Rubin that interviews artists across space and time. Mostly, his podcasts center around artist’s processes and how they came to be the famed artists we know and love today. In an episode aired recently, Rubin focused on Tupac and Biggie, and the tensions between rappers and police during the 1990’s. In listening to the episode, also detailed on Slate.com, the message is clear:
Something is broken, and we’re just not listening.
Hip Hop’s historical feud with police isn’t new, in fact, it blew up in the 1990’s with Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls confrontation on their records, that left an imprint on the climate around law enforcement. The 90’s is often heralded as the Golden Era, and looked on with nostalgia, yet, in the Hip-Hop world? Gangsta Rap was at war with society, police faced backlash from the nation, and music was being dissected for a moment to prove that America needed reform. It is important to trace the hostilities between rappers and law enforcement at this time and the mirage of civility during the 1990’s between the feud that birthed Gangsta Rap. It alludes to a similar climate that exists today, the question still remains: Why haven’t we been listening?
Broken Record’s podcast, begins telling the story of a man named Ronald Ray Howard, “He grew up in South Park, a tough neighborhood in Houston. He described it as a war zone. Howard attended nine different elementary schools and was held back three times. When he was 16, he dropped out of high school”(Source: Slate.com). Broken Record introduces Howard’s life in fragments, painting the picture of what would later become a nation-wide story for many reasons,
“Howard ended up selling drugs in the town of Port Lavaca, two hours down the Gulf Coast from Houston. That’s where he was headed the night of April 11, 1992, when a Texas Highway Patrol officer pulled him over”(Source: Slate.com).
Howard had a lot to worry about that night, when the state trooper pulled him over, not only was he a drug dealer, but he was driving a stolen car,
“The patrolman who pulled Howard over was Trooper, his name was Bill Davidson. He’d been on the force for about 20 years. As Davidson approached the car, Howard shot him in the neck with a 9 mm pistol. Davidson died three days later”(Source:Slate.com).
Howard was arrested and later, confessed to the crime, yet, it became a national story for many reasons. Howard’s music choice the night of the murder featured:
Tupac’s 2Pacalypse Now, solo album, which focused on police brutality. This case is famously argued for hip-hop’s negative influence on its listeners. Tupac’s lyrics were even used in court to build Howard’s defense case in order to persuade the court that he felt compelled to shoot the state trooper from Tupac’s message. As you can imagine, this case built a villainous image around Gangsta rap and sparked a nation-wide debate on hip-hop’s merits. It can be argued that this case changed society’s view of hip-hop forever.
It wasn’t too long before Howard’s case that N.W.A had received nation-wide criticism after recording their famous song, “Fuck Tha Police”, and the case of Rodney King,
“Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted on almost all charges, setting off one of the biggest race riots in American history, another song about police brutality became the focus of protests: Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.”(Source: Slate.com).
Not foreign to today’s climate, this was a tense time in America’s history that can be correlated with the current climate. In the 90’s, hip-hop music was dubbed a bad influence that brainwashed young people into hating law enforcement. An outcry stemmed from law enforcement warning hip-hop listeners that songs focused on killer cops could cause more violence in the future and a much greater divide. With the birth of Gangsta rap, the feud between rappers and society remained tense. Rappers wanted to be heard, law enforcement wanted to be safe, society wanted justice, especially after Howard’s court case testimony, when he stated:
“The music was up as loud as it could go with gunshots and siren noises on it, and my heart was pounding hard,” he told a reporter. “I was so hyped up, I just snapped.”(Source: Slate.com).
Howard’s case could be a whole conversation in itself, but to keep the conversation current, Howard’s testimony begs the question that if the concern for safety is boiled down to lyrics in a hip-hop song, why haven’t we been listening to the message and asking for reform much earlier?
This moment in history became national news, and may have been the reason hip-hop received criticism from listeners around the country. I believe blaming hip-hop for Howard’s murder was irresponsible. While Howard had a right to build a defense against the crime he committed, hip-hop may have aided his motivation, but it certainly wasn’t the first domino to fall before he shot and killed the state trooper that night.
The argument relates today with the move to outlaw violent video games for kids because many parents believe that it breeds learned bad habits, and violent dispositions. As stated in a recent Harvard study on violent video games, Harvard argued that while the topic remains controversial that violent video games are nothing to be worried about,
“Although adults tend to view video games as isolating and antisocial, other studies found that most young respondents described the games as fun, exciting, something to counter boredom, and something to do with friends. For many youths, violent content is not the main draw. Boys in particular are motivated to play video games in order to compete and win. Seen in this context, use of violent video games may be similar to the type of rough-housing play that boys engage in as part of normal development. Video games offer one more outlet for the competition for status or to establish a pecking order”(Source: Harvard study; violent video games and young people).
To take this study one step further, Harvard argues that violent video games did not have a violent correlation effect on the majority of its users and that those affected had previous mental/emotional distress and trauma that contributed to their violent behavior,
“Two psychologists, Dr. Patrick Markey of Villanova University and Dr. Charlotte Markey of Rutgers University, have presented evidence that some children may become more aggressive as a result of watching and playing violent video games, but that most are not affected. After reviewing the research, they concluded that the combination of three personality traits might be most likely to make an individual act and think aggressively after playing a violent video game. The three traits they identified were high neuroticism (prone to anger and depression, highly emotional, and easily upset), disagreeableness (cold, indifferent to other people), and low levels of conscientiousness (prone to acting without thinking, failing to deliver on promises, breaking rules)”(Source: Harvard study; violent video games and young people).
To relate this video game study back to hip-hop, it would seem that even the most violent lyrics against police officers wouldn’t effect the majority of its listeners, except if it is listened to through the ears of youth experiencing neroticisim, disagreeableness, and low levels of conscientiousness. Studies have shown that these experiences are influenced by genetics, but also by environmental factors that often make-up high-crime rate urban areas, to use L.A. as an example,
“According to publicly available LAPD crime data, there is a trend of rising crime involving the mentally ill in the City of Los Angeles. Crimes involving the mentally ill have increased 338% from 2010 to 2018 (the most recent year for which we have complete data)”(Source: xtown.la-statitics).
If hip-hop songs that carry messages about killing law enforcement are being distributed among a population that suffers from the highest rates of mental illness, than, it is easy to conclude that it will most likely have a negative effect on violent crimes and violent actions towards law enforcement, generally speaking. In the case of Tupac, his focus remained on police in his music, especially after Rodney King:
“He(Tupac) explained his relentless focus on police violence in some situations that show us having the power and other situations that show more has to happen with the police or with the power structure.”(Source: Slate.com).
The power structure is key here. The years of having a broken power structure in our most populated and high-crime cities can lead to disastrous results. While rappers like Biggie and Tupac have voiced their opinions about law enforcement, for years, hip-hop artists have narrated a reality that they’ve been burdened to grow up in, with a goal to escape and never return. The trust that the high-crime neighborhoods will resolve and rebuild on their own is naive, and the argument to defund the police, remains open-ended as we’re left wondering:
What about the communities that can’t stand on their own? What about the support that is needed in these cities to create a safer and more reliable future?
Rappers such as Mos Def in his songs: Mr. Nigga, and Mathematics, both tell a narrative of these communities:
From ‘Mathematics’ by: Mos Def:
Like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex
Broken glass wall better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing
Say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream
But you chain cats get they CHA-POW, who dead now
Killing fields need blood to graze the cash cow
It’s a number game, but shit don’t add up somehow
Like I got, sixteen to thirty-two bars to rock it
But only 15% of profits, ever see my pockets like
To reveal ‘nationwide projects’, and the symbolism that exists through his lyrics, should be a reason to listen, a reason to understand, a reason to change this pertinent issue that stems from nation-wide unrest. Another stanza from his song reads:
Full of hard niggas, large niggas, dice tumblers
Young teens and prison greens facing life numbers
Crack mothers, crack babies and AIDS patients
Young bloods can’t spell but they could rock you in PlayStation
This new math is whipping motherfuckers ass
You wanna know how to rhyme you better learn how to add
The symbolism behind Mos Def’s plea to understand mathematics isn’t to call for police reform or school reform, he serves his audience lines of data that exist in a city he grew up in to exploit the piles of problems stacked against him. He isn’t the only artist to come from grim and violent beginnings,
Jay-Z came out with his song 99 problems in 2003 talking about 1994,
The year’s ’94 and my trunk is raw
In my rearview mirror is the motherfucking law
I got two choices y’all, pull over the car or
Bounce on the devil, put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with Jake
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I, pull over to the side of the road
I heard, “Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
“Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low”
Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?
“Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four” (uh huh)
“License and registration and step out of the car”
“Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are”
I ain’t stepping out of shit, all my papers legit
“Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back
And I know my rights so you goin’ need a warrant for that
He continues to rap about an experience with a police officer and how unfairly the man in the song was being treated during this narrative because of the color of his skin. This song received 6 awards, yet, no movement on nation-wide reform.
The last hip-hop example I will use also comes from Jay-Z called: Hard-Knock Life which came out in 1998. This song arguably made Jay-Z famous, and is coined the Ghetto Anthem,
From standin’ on the corners boppin’
To drivin’ some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen
For droppin’ some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard
From the dope spot, with the smoke Glock
Fleein’ the murder scene, you know me well
Using the chorus from the musical Annie, Jay-Z encapsulates life in New York city growing up in the projects, repeating in chorus: It is a hard knock life for us,
I’m from the school of the hard knocks, we must not
Let outsiders violate our blocks, and my plot
Let’s stick up the world and split it fifty/fifty, uh-huh
Let’s take the dough and stay real jiggy, uh-huh
And sip the Cris’ and get pissy-pissy
Flow infinitely like the memory of my nigga Biggie, baby!
You know it’s hell when I come through
The life and times of Shawn Carter
The fact that Jay-Z writes about this experience at all, reveals the problems that have yet to be solved. I could write pages detailing hip-hop lyrics that discuss the exact same message, but I’ll spare you the reading. One thing remains crystal clear: hip-hop has been telling us through song what these communities have needed for a while, we just haven’t been listening, and it doesn’t start with police reform. Shortly after Rodney King, Ice-T stated:
“Nineteen ninety two and Los Angeles is ignited by the fires of riots sparking a war of words over justice in America. I feel that the jury in Simi Valley gave the OK to continue to abuse an oppressed and suppress black people in this country”(Source: Slate.com).
It sounds a lot like today’s climate, so what about the continuation of abusing and oppressing Black people in this country, was there reform after the Rodney King case?
According to Bloomberg City Lab that details police reform in 1992 after the beating of Rodney King,
“The commission’s findings did result in the end of the LAPD’s lifetime-term policy for chiefs. That allowed the department to force its notoriously aggressive, divisive leader, Daryl Gates, to resign, and to begin hiring chiefs on five-year terms instead”(Source: Bloomberg City Lab: LAPD REFORMS FOLLOWING Rodney King).
While this reform didn’t solve all of the problems stemming from King, it wouldn’t be until 2000 when LAPD reform would really hit the ground running after corruption jaded law enforcement that would grant much-needed change in the LAPD(you can find out more about this from the link below).
To give credit, police officers generally join the force to save lives and save the world, the corruption between community and law enforcement can get blurry through the reality that still exists today. While reform for police is a step in the right direction nation wide, I also wonder if we are listening to the rest of hip hop’s repetitive themes such as no support for quality education, no support for mental health, no access to healthy food, no opportunities to make a decent living that turn a lot of community members to take drugs or become drug dealers, that has caused a nation-wide domino effect for impoverished communities. The distrust stems from a life that most impoverished communities are forced to lead — with no opportunities to get out and succeed, most citizens turn to drugs, violence, crime that create a negative feedback loop to the citizens that live there. Hip-hop gives a unique perspective into communities that are left haunted by the fight, flight or flee reality.
If we keep failing to support these communities in the places they need dyer help in, we fail to follow through on the reform we promise to uphold. While rappers hold the perspective that a lot of citizens in impoverished communities feel: police are corrupt, and they can’t be free in their own neighborhoods, police often join the force generally, to save the world and are confronted with a society that is held back by crime, poverty and daily illegal activity. While the police generally do their jobs well, the citizens that make-up this community want their neighborhoods to be safe, yet, also, want their freedoms back. In the documentary entitled: Charm City, that depicts the police relationships with inner city Baltimore, the citizens explain that they want police officers around for safety, but when a crime is committed, the police are often blamed for their inaction. It is a system that is broken, a trust that is broken, maybe police reform comes in the form of being more involved in the communities they work in full-time.
The majority of Americans are not listening to rapper’s lyrics for a lot of reasons, but those reasons continue to take our nation away from a real problem that plagues an already vulnerable population. We can’t blame the police officers who whole-heartedly join the force to save lives, and we can’t blame the citizens who feel victimized in high-crime areas, both populations are products of their environments, and we need to find a way for those populations to work together towards a common goal. Reform can’t be a one-sided fight, it must address the epicenter in which all of these problems stem from. Hip-hop included.
If we can’t listen to the rappers from the 90’s whose main goal was to choose to protest through their music, we fail to acknowledge the war that has poisoned our cities that continue to stay in stagnant state of emergencies for far too long.
a.99 Problems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z-xP7E_zMU&list=TLPQMTAwNzIwMjA7q20tXNfWZw&index=1
b. Hard Knock Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I97GSE5d0VI
5. Mos Def’s Songs On Youtube:
a. Mathematics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5vw4ajnWGA
6. Charm City Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcAIGdPJ5yc
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