In 2012, an anonymous letter surfaced, supposedly written by a former music executive claiming to be privy to a “meeting that changed rap music forever.” The letter claims that music executives met in LA, were told that their labels had invested in private prisons, and would be pushing violent rap in order to influence people to commit violent crimes (and hence boost the proceeds or private prisons).
The theory was recently evoked when a TikToker deemed SpotemGottem’s breakout “BeatBox” track “slave catcher music.” The original poster criticized the violent lyrics from the song’s hook, which was magnified by the viral #BeatBoxChallenge. He also referenced an article about the alleged meeting, which questioned whether rap is “a tool to turn impressionable listeners into prison-bound degenerates.”
The conspiracy is rap’s version of the Willie Lynch theory, a sourceless document that claims to recount an American slave owner telling other owners how to control slaves by stoking internal division (and preventing a revolt) based on their physical differences. No one knows who wrote either letter, and most people believe they’re both works of fiction, but they’re continuously referenced because of their convenience. In the same way that Black people are indeed divided by internal strife, many people feel like there’s correlation between violent rap music and the disproportionate amount of Black people ensnared in the justice system. But who’s to “blame” for the latter?
From a top-down perspective, many people feel like label owners and their investors use rappers as “pawns” to convey harmful messaging to their communities. And because the investors and owners of music groups are reclusive figures, they get to be a shadowy “they” and avoid personal accountability in the dynamic. Much of the blame for societal ills then falls on the Black artists whose lyrics reflect them. They’re framed as willful pawns in a toxic agenda to create and sustain violent communities. But the headlines show that these artists are just as susceptible to succumbing to the pitfalls they rap about. Why condemn them as cogs of an agenda when they’re falling prey to it as well?
Analyzing the harm in impressionable kids ingesting violent lyrics is an internal discussion that should be had with empathy and nuance, not pointed fingers. Artists didn’t create these issues, they merely amplify their prevalence—in part through their own trials with them. People talk as if rappers are willing conspirators in this “plot,” receiving fat checks and releasing their music from private islands, living a life of no worries as they get everyone else caught up. But they have a bigger target on their back than the average consumer. They’re everyday targets of enemies from their old neighborhoods and would-be robbers, as well as the police system that seeks to make examples of them and hinders their ability to do shows. When they get arrested, very few of them receive legal assistance from their labels. Rappers shouldn’t be considered tools of white supremacy as much as reflections of its by-design flaws.
The past week alone has had enough devastating rap headlines for a year. SpotemGottem was arrested on weapons and assault charges after being found lying next to an AK-47 in a Florida hotel. Lil Durk and his girlfriend India Royale were involved in a shootout after their home was invaded in Georgia. Chicago artists KTS Dre and Lil Kevo 069 were shot and killed—Dre was reportedly shot 64 times while leaving a Chicago jail. A recent FOIA request revealed King Von as a suspect in the killing of Gakirah “K.I.” Barnes. Apparently Instagram messages can be wiretapped, as the most recent development in 9lokkNine’s ongoing legal woes exposed. Brooklyn rappers Sheff G and Eli Fross were arrested on gun posession and attempted murder charges, respectively. Alabama rapper HoneyKomb Brazy had his probation violated in part because of his presence at a shootout and “15 video clips showing Jones with guns or drugs.”
Why condemn them as cogs of an agenda when they’re falling prey to it as well?
Headlines about new music are interspersed with stories about too many artists who’ll never get to create again and, more importantly, are being taken away from their families. It’s to the point that fans on social media are speculating on gun violence and looming indictments as a morbid part of rap fandom. For many artists, modern rap stardom consists of being demonized by peers and racists alike, while tiptoeing through a minefield of would-be robbers and profiling police. They’re also pelted with reductive assertions that they’re the blight on the Black community, shifting the blame away from the powerful people whose negligence creates poverty, and hence violence. If that’s all part of some deal artists conspired on with labels, it seems like a pretty bad one.
Last week, 21 Savage tweeted that he “wishes all the violence would stop,” which seems like a reasonable enough request. But his tweet was derided by fans who surmised that his music contradicts his plea for peace. One tweeter noted, “Then maybe you should stop rapping about killing folks first. And idgaf if that’s how u grew up. U glorify it then wonder why it keeps happening.” But the hordes of people who sought to condemn him knew enough about specific lyrics to imply that they’ve listened to him before. Did they consider their part in the dynamic before getting holier than thou? Fans rarely acknowledge that if they didn’t listen to music they thought was harmful, and the music wasn’t profitable, it wouldn’t be so prevalent. But of course, the violence still would be.
While listeners can have complicated internal discussions about what they engage with, and how they feel about it, artists face constant castigation as their artistic license is stripped and they’re placed in the crosshairs as the reason for the social problems they depict. Mob movie icon Martin Scorsese would have likely faced no such backlash for publicly bemoaning violence.
And even more than movie directors who chronicle the mob but are most likely not made men, artists like 21, who was shot six times in a 2013 attempted robbery and is currently fighting a deportation case with ICE, are victims of systemic racism. Artists who tell harsh stories of life in the streets are born into oppressive structures that predate them. If they don’t have the right to tell their stories, then who does?
But that’s not to say that artists should feel zero accountability for harmful messaging. Artists have released music dissing real-life dead enemies that have riled gang conflicts all over the country. There are very likely people who died behind some of these songs. Impressionable kids all over the country may feel like Tupac, who admitted, “I grew up listening to Ice Cube, Public Enemy, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, all them were my daddy, cause I didn’t have one, so I listened how to get big nuts.” There are even gangs that have taken their names after rap crews. It would be disingenuous to say that the music kids are listening to has no bearing on how they navigate the streets. But the core issue is that they’re in the streets in the first place. And that problem would exist with or without rap. Should we be more mad at drill rappers for reflecting gang violence than we are upset at the factors that create gangs (and the powerful people who conserve them)? If a garden of flowers failed to properly bloom in sweltering heat, would we blame the the environment or blame the flowers?
Perhaps there can be more prominently held discussions about how artists can be more responsible for what kind of messages they put out, specifically when it comes to dissing dead enemies and stirring real-life gang conflict. But how can that discussion be held if it starts out in bad faith, with artists being demeaned as “cancers to the Black race” and every other derogatory phrase they’re lambasted with by conservatives, white and Black alike? And it’s also true that these days, too many young artists are too mired in the streets themselves to have an outsider’s perspective of how their music affects their more vulnerable listeners. Do they really feel like their music is wrong if it reflects how they and those close to them are still living?
During one of his final interviews, King Von was asked if he ever wished to squash the beef behind the gang violence that’s so often depicted in drill music, and he said, “I wish I didn’t grow up in the projects, I wish my mama had money [...] If I could wish for a lot of shit, then a lot of shit would be different.” That’s candor from an artist whose work contained representations of the gun violence that he’s alleged to have inflicted, and ultimately died from. While some try to dehumanize him, he wishes he had been exposed to a better life altogether, in the same way that 21 wants the violence to cease. Their honest sentiment beyond the booth belies the notion that they’re “pawns” with no agency. If they’re part of a conspiracy to fill the jails, word must not have reached them.
The TikToker who made the SpotemGottem clip also called out Ingrooves Music CEO Bob Roback (which released “BeatBox”), acknowledging that he keeps a distance from the violence his artists rap about. But it’s hard for artists to do the same. Polo G’s Hall of Fame topped the Billboard charts a month ago. He was “rewarded” with the Miami police arresting him after allegedly telling him they were surveilling his jet as soon as he landed. He caught five charges after a fight with a cop on South Beach. 9lokkNine, Hotboii, Casanova, YFN Lucci are currently facing RICO charges. Lil Baby was recently pulled over and charged with marijuana possession in Paris.
America has laxed many of its weed laws, but France has not. Lil Baby went to Paris and fell prey to the same kind of car stop that American officers fiend for in order to fill the jails. And there’s evidence of racial bias in their justice system. Just last year France sought to make it illegal to film police following an incident where cops beat a Black music producer. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but passed a law which made it illegal to “maliciously share images that identify police officers in operation by face or name.” So while detractors of artists like Lil Baby speculate that their music creates criminals, it’s more important to note that they’re being criminalized by the same system that oppresses everyone else in some form.
There’s a scene in the Emmy-winning The Corner miniseries, which depicts the true story of a family besieged by the Baltimore drug trade, where a middle-aged Baltimore resident angrily says he’d like to “get rid of all of [the violence]” by taking all the drug dealers to a penitentiary and “run that gas chamber till all this here stops.” Narrator Charles Dutton softly questioned, “You mean that?” The man gives a pained expression of regret, anger, and hopelessness all in one, staying silent as Dutton says, “I didn’t think so.”
Capitalism prioritizes a dollar over a life. When that’s the M.O., there are no backroom meetings necessary to ensure that poor people face perilous conditions.
While people aren’t generally as graphic about their disdain for so-called gangster rappers, there are a slew of people in the Black community who express similar furor. In the midst of never-ending violence that gets propagandized by “tough on crime,” politicians and police departments, many conservative and older Blacks agree with the likes of Black academic Thomas Sowell, who has theorized that the Black community hasn’t been set back by poverty or racism, but “ghetto culture.” There are others in underserved communities who call for more policing even when polls show that they acknowledge that police treat Black people unfairly. Instead of linking that unfair treatment to a larger agenda, they scapegoat rap music and its seemingly rich purveyors, as the negative cloud poisoning our communities. But the headlines show that the cloud covers us all.
There are links between the sustenance of label heads’ riches and the violence that rappers put a mirror to. But there’s no subterfuge involved—it’s about crude economics. Capitalism prioritizes a dollar over a life. When that’s the M.O., there are no backroom meetings necessary to ensure that poor people face perilous conditions. Label owners don’t have to conspire to influence artists to rap about violence. The conditions their greed created did that years before rap started. The four elements of hip-hop were created as an alternative to violence in the ‘70s. The prison industrial complex, and the slave labor it creates, is the most corrosive capitalistic dynamic of them all. And the corporations that benefit from it all have no picks about which Black people get ensnared in the process.
So no, 21 Savage is not the reason young kids are compelled to violence. Drill music isn’t the cause of gang violence in Chicago and Brooklyn. Trap rap isn’t why people enter the drug trade. The fingers can be pointed at the same rich, white upper-class in cahoots with the systems oppressing Black people all over the world. Artists aren’t our enemies. They’re not “slave catching,” or proactively setting traps for the jails and morgues. Sadly, the news shows that they’re fighting the threat of winding up in them themselves.