Gangsta Rap and the Modern African-American

by Morgan Shaunette

 

One of the programs currently featured on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim], a block of programming devoted to adult-oriented animation, is The Boondocks. Based on the comic strip by Aaron McGruder (who serves as a writer and producer for the show), The Boondocks is a politically charged series that follows an upper-class black family living in a predominantly white Maryland suburb. The protagonists of the series are two children: Huey Freeman, a solemn, wise-beyond-his-years ten-year-old whose leftist political ideals and Afrocentric revolutionary goals clash with his brother Riley, an eight-year-old enamored with gangsta rap culture, so much so that he forgoes intellectual, artistic, or simply wise pursuits in favor of maintaining his image as a gangsta. In one episode, when pressed about his use of the word ‘bitch’, Riley explains, “I don’t mean bitches in a disrespectful way. I mean it as a general term for women.”

This line is example of the incorporation of negative stereotypes about African-Americans and the reverence of them. In recent years, gangsta rap, an offshoot of the hip-hop, has become a cultural force for it’s depiction of black Americans as violent, drug addicted, misogynistic thugs, and subsequent praise of them. This process of resistance and incorporation with such a controversial topic is as fascinating as it is harmful.

Gangsta rap began in the mid-1980’s. While one of the aspects of hip-hop music at that point was a depiction of life in impoverished areas like the south Bronx, New York, gangsta rap focused more on the criminal aspect; namely, the idea that African-Americans in urban environments survived their dangerous surroundings by mastering gang violence and drug trading, and allowed nobody (especially women) to infringe on their money or power. This depiction of the violent gangsta, popularized by artists like Schoolly D, Ice-T, and NWA, became likened to the modern-day cowboys. Gangsta rap exploded and by the late 80’s was one of the most popular styles of music out there.

Ironically, this popularity became, in some ways, detrimental to gangsta rap. With the music reaching a much larger audience, concerned citizens objected to what was seen as blatant promotion of drug use and violence towards women. Rappers accused of this defend themselves and others by saying that they write material about the truth of urban life, or that they are simply playing a role and don’t necessarily endorse their message. These two explanations create a conflict, as the idea of playing a role clashes with the purported truth of the content.

The popularity of gangsta rap and hip-hop in general has led some to believe that the movement’s commercialization has hurt its content. A single released in 2006 by rapper Nas, appropriately titled ‘Hip Hop is Dead’, claimed that the music’s increasing commercialization was a detriment to it’s content. Indeed, in recent years, the authenticity of hip-hop has come into question, about whether artists writing about struggle and personal experience are true or whether they can remain true after becoming successful. While this can be true for any medium, hip-hop’s strong roots in urban communities are intrinsic to its identity and questioning or losing that authenticity is hurtful to the medium. This process of resistance and incorporation, of taking a form of expression unique to a community and making it commercially viable, in many ways lessens its value as an art.

A byproduct of this resistance and incorporation is the popularity of gangsta rap and its ideologies. African-American youths are taught through the popularity of this music that in order for them to be real men, they must be aggressive, drug-using, violent thugs, and that this is not only cool, but profitable as well.

In The Boondocks, this degradation of the African-American identity by gangsta rap is a recurring theme. Riley Freeman’s obsession with emulating his thuggish, dimwitted, materialistic, homophobic, misogynistic idols invariable leads to self-destruction or harming those around him. If we can take anything from this program, it’s that the idealization of hateful criminals and their perceived representation of all black people in America needs to change.

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