Targeting Silent Rappers: A Street Fight for Justice or Hip Hop McCarthyism?
Rap artists -- the self-described "conscious MCs" as well as the "keep-it-real gangstas" -- are coming under attack from forces inside the black activist community for shunning civil disobedience protests in response to rampant police brutality. Rappers like hip hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jay Z, DMX, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, KRS One, Snoop Doggy Dog, Lauryn Hill, and Rah Digga are being closely watched by groups such as CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), which is led by former Nation of Islam minister Conrad Muhammad.
None of the rappers was among the 1166 celebrities, politicians, and other people arrested during 15 days of protests last year over the police slaying of Amadou Diallo. Four white undercover cops looking for a rapist gunned down the unarmed street vendor outside his Bronx apartment in a barrage of 41 bullets. Among those arrested during the demonstrations outside police headquarters were civil rights leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, former mayor David Dinkins, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, and actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Susan Sarandon.
While Muhammad is pursuing "the big-money niggas" and "modern-day minstrel men" he believes are hiding behind their "hectic schedules" and "pit-bull agents," other activists are conducting roll calls to ferret out those rappers more inclined to "woofin' and shadowboxing" than to throwing down in a street fight for justice.
"You have people like Jay-Z and Master P and others who are very outspoken on a number of other issues but hear nothing from them on police brutality," charges Muhammad. "Puff Daddy is literally the toast of New York high society, but when he has the ear of these people, does he raise the issue pertinent to his people?" The "Movement," some say, is "mad upset" with the "Hip Hop Nation." (An article in the August issue of Vibe magazine, "Bring the Noise," cranks up the boom box on "Hip Hop's quiet riot.")
"I didn't realize alla this was going on because ... my schedule being what it is, I don't even have the time or the luxury to watch TV or tune in," says rapper Rah Digga about the anti-police-brutality protests sweeping the nation. "But I do know this [police brutality] is a crisis ... I just haven't physically been able to be a part of [the demonstrations]," adds the entertainer, who projects a "Harriet Thugman" image when she wants to be taken seriously. "I'm there in spirit. I'm there in essence. My role in this industry right now is delivering music and delivering words, and that is just as powerful as my physical body being placed in any sort of physical danger."
Rah's response to the "crisis" is typical of scores of rap artists who can't find the time to participate in civil disobedience protests around an issue they constantly rant against. Some ghetto griots -- Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kool G Rap, Sporty Thievz, Common -- are trying to repair the breach with the activists by issuing Hip Hop for Respect, a CD of songs critical of abusive cops. In May, they dedicated the CD to Amadou Diallo, presenting it to his parents, Kadiatou and Saikou, during a ceremony at Sharpton's House of Justice in Harlem. Wyclef Jean of the Fugees also has written a song called "Diallo." Errant rappers will get the chance to join the Movement by participating in an August 26 march in Washington, D.C., to call for economic justice and an end to racial profiling and police brutality.
But just how the activists intend to corral the rappers has caused some Movement infighting. When one teen organizer of last year's civil disobedience protests contended during a strategy meeting recently that the notion of rappers getting arrested and going to jail to protest police misconduct would be the ultimate political statement, a colleague shouted him down.
"They don't have to get arrested!" he pointed out. "They can come forward and show support -- and not from behind police barricades."
Another organizer noted that rappers like Puffy and Jay-Z -- under indictment in separate high-profile incidents -- avoid getting involved in civil disobedience protests because of their criminal history.
"Bullshit!" snapped another activist. "A criminal record is a badge of honor for them. You are not considered a legitimate rap artist until you trade war stories about your incarceration for hanging around with drug dealers and other armed criminals who entice you to participate in crime. It's part of the rap persona. You give a high five or the middle finger before your hands are wrenched behind your back by some cracker cop and you're led off to jail. It's almost like a Mafia rite of passage; you feel like you took a hit for your Gs. When you come out, you're a made man. It's the gangsta life, son."
Other activists are demanding that the rappers be punished for betraying the modern civil rights movement. One ideologue suggests painting caricatures of targeted rappers next to their larger-than-life photographs that adorn billboards in black neighborhoods. But not everyone wants to participate in what some fear would give rise to hip hop McCarthyism.
"Our focus, a lot of the time, is on the more commercial artists, and we expect those artists to come out and make stands," says Hakim, a member of the two-man rap group Channel Live. "But the nature of their position doesn't allow them to make that stand." Hakim bristles at the suggestion that it should be left to "conscious artists" to politicize other rappers, even if it means openly repudiating them. "I'm not necessarily gonna try to make you do something you're not gonna do," he scoffs. "That's not my fight. My fight is in the struggle; it's not with my brother."
Tuffy, Hakim's partner, says that even as society changes, in part because of them, rappers should not be chasing ambulances. "It's time-consuming for rappers to be at certain places," he emphasizes. "You don't have to be at every march."
Hakim suggests that civil rights leaders and fans of hip hop should quit trying to sensitize the garrulous rappers; he maintains that they must not be viewed as saviors of the black community.
"We have a messianic complex," he declares. "We want somebody to come down and save us. Rappers and athletes get the greatest amount of attention, so we expect those people to be the most responsible. [But] anybody who studies any type of struggle knows that the struggle comes from the grass roots; it doesn't come from the bourgeois class. So you can't place that burden on their shoulders; they're not gonna take it. It is not necessarily their responsibility to take it ... It's unfair ... People will jump on the bandwagon and do what they have to do -- if not, the struggle will roll over them. It's simple."
From January until April, while Rah Digga says she was engrossed in a grueling cross-country tour promoting her debut hip hop album, Dirty Harriet, the four white undercover cops who killed Amadou Diallo were acquitted; another undercover cop put a bullet in the back of the head of suspected drug dealer Malcolm Ferguson, who was unarmed; and Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed security guard, was shot to death by a plainclothes officer after he rebuffed an attempt by the cop to entrap him in a buy-and-bust operation. Several other highly publicized cases of alleged police brutality unnerved even the most pro-NYPD African Americans. Yet, Rah Digga stayed in her own world.
"I've been so out of the loop, right now I don't even know what's going on in my own child's life," she says during a phone interview. As her infant daughter, Shativa, bounds into the room, it seems as if Rah could not have staged a better scene to illustrate her point about balancing motherhood and a career.
"Mommy! Mommy!" Shativa beckons.
"Wait a minute, baby, Mommy's talking," Rah answers sternly under the strain of a hacking cough. The baby persists.
"Shativa, stop it!" Rah demands. "Mommy is working on the phone." Finally, the child bares her gripe: The TV had been turned off. "Okay, I'm gonna turn it back on when I get off the phone," Rah offers. "You have to be polite while I'm talking, though. Okay?"
Rah insists that she is not dismissive of the outcry against police brutality. She says she knows firsthand the tactics of ruthless cops, dredging up a 1997 encounter in Irvington, New Jersey. She recalls sitting in a parked Buick Regal with three friends, listening to a demo tape of, as she puts it, "a young up-and-coming Dirty Harriet" and smoking a blunt.
"Quite honestly, we was drinkin'," she admits. "We was smokin' weed." Suddenly a patrol car pulled up. "I guess they smelt that marijuana was present, so like, 'Okay, here goes a nice quick easy arrest.' " The cops, who were white, ordered them out of the vehicle, and one officer and "the rest of his male constituents proceeded to frisk me and my homegirls.
"He patted me down," Rah adds. "He patted my chest. He patted all the areas where he thought a female would be stashing." The rapper says she "kindly and respectfully" protested the fondling. "Excuse me, I know my rights, and you don't have the right to frisk me," she said.
"Shut the fuck up! I can do what I want!" the cop allegedly responded. After a futile search, the cops released Rah and her friends. The experience left her embittered. "Why should we [always] have to 'Yes, Ma'am' and respect cops when they pull us over, and they obviously don't give us respect?"
However, none of the songs on her album directly touch on police brutality or the 1997 incident. "I might have a comment or two saying, 'Fuck the police!' " she says. "I do remember in a freestyle somewhere [talking] about cops pulling me over. You know, ready to cause a ruckus. And then we part with them asking me for my autograph, kinda like making a mockery out of the situation."
Since Rah's confrontation with police, her only political agitation centered around an appearance last summer at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Manhattan after she heard Busta Rhymes's radio plea for all rappers to show up at the event. "I just rolled through with a carload of some of my girlfriends," she recalls. Rah felt she had to compensate for not being present on the frontline of the civil disobedience protests. She was relieved when she was asked to participate in the making of Hip Hop for Respect. "I like to have a hand in as much as I can, but I physically can't take the time to get arrested or anything like that," Rah reiterates. "But I definitely, you know, participated in the music ... I think putting together a song like that is just as effective."
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. realized that not all blacks were united around the struggle for civil rights during the '60s, he lashed out. "Negroes are human, not superhuman," King said in The Sword that Heals. "Like all people, they have differing personalities, diverse financial interests, and varied aspirations. There are Negroes who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will cooperate with their oppressors. These facts should distress no one. Every minority and every people has its share of opportunists, profiteers, free-loaders and escapists."
Additional reporting: Amanda Ward