So You Think You’re A Gangsta

“I love you like a fat kid love cake . You know my style I say anything to make you smile” – 50 Cent

I was stuck in traffic the other day and decided to listen to some music to pass the time while inching along the snail’s pace of parkway.  When I turned on the radio I realized each station had been pre-programmed by my children to hip hop stations with loud lyrics and thumping bass, a swirling pulse of sound that felt like I was receiving angry CPR.  My car moved rhythmically up and down and for a moment I felt compelled to lose my tie, throw on dark glasses and “stick it to the man.”  I then remembered that, I am the man.

I recognize the messages conveyed in today’s rap and hip hop are hardly respectful in how they depict women or personal and social responsibility.  I find myself torn between the relentlessly creative and militant expression of a new generation of artists and their misanthropic, misogynist words and lifestyles.  The music claws at you.  My own children fashion themselves as suburban “gangstas” and have gotten me hooked on performers like The Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake and Eminem (personally, I feel Outkast should have won a Grammy simply for the lyrics, “Ladies, lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor”. My iPod has been invaded by the likes of Big Boi, Snoop Dog, Akon, Ne-Yo, Ludacris, Dr Dre, Fat Joe (a man after my own heart), Gorillaz, Jay Z (he married Beyonce; enough said), and older, building block reliables like House of Pain and Arrested Development (a term people often use to describe me).

The genesis of rap and hip hop is social expression.  Some artists distort their lyrics, glorifying violence, gratuitous sex and drugs.  They obscure with verbal graffiti the beauty of music that tugs at our consciences with bitter honesty to describe social injustices and the consequences of inequality.  As US hip hop and rap splinters, the rest of the world is carrying the torch, using them to offer young adults an outlet for coping with the hatreds that dangle like poisoned snakes above their heads. As the artist Common puts it, ” real rappers are hard to find, just like the TV remote.”

In November 2003, USA Today profiled the Israeli rapper, Subliminal, and his side kick, Yoav Elasi (The Shadow).  With songs like “Snake Fish” and “Fingers on the Trigger” the artists form a release and graphic honesty around the terrors that plague their land: “The Country is rolling around like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth.  Everyone running and with a lighter.  The blood flows to the sea….a stunted reality.”

And from Palestinian Arab rappers, Wahad and Chakaki: “To think the olive branch symbolizes peace.  Sorry, it does not live here anymore.  It’s been kidnapped, murdered.  There was peace my friend.  Handshakes, fake smiles, treaties signed in blood.  Where is God?  Domination from another nation.  We used to be brothers of Cain and now we’re under occupation.”

Rapper Disiz La Peste, of both Sengalese and French heritage, raps against the headwinds of racism.  “For France it matters nothing what I do.  In its mind, I will always be just a youth from Banlieve.

There are Bosnian Herzegovian rappers Edo Maajka, Frenkie and Hamza.  Turkish rapper, GurkanKan often jams with Sirgee and Kaisoze.  Each culture wrestles with its own heritage and chafes against the social reins that restrain a generation itching to burst out and run from the problems they inherited but did not create.  This highly charged music and lyrics can cause social fissures and generational stress fractures that shift the status quo, causing cultural upheaval and change.  These artistic quakes both relieve and build pressure.  Rap and hip hop are a confluence of musical artistry that can range from poetic genius to sociopathic nihilism.  It’s a lyrical dark alley with seductive whispers and scabrous, dancing shadows.

I admit it captivates me.  I even tried to master some of the lexicon.  For example, the other day, I was feeling “all flush, raw and bustin’ and decided to blow some cabbage at Brooks Brothers when I got a little skirby cause a Bama Buster Keaton started sidebustin’ my choices.  It turned out the guy was pervin’ and 5150.”  (Translation: I was feeling rich and very good and decided to spend some money at Brooks Brothers when I got a little freaked out because this guy who did not even know how to dress himself started sticking his nose into my business and didn’t know what he was talking about.  It turned out he was intoxicated and crazy.)  Hip hop slang can be useful in social situations.  Let’s say a friend has an infant with a “fragrant” soiled diaper and you want to gently tip them off to the situation.  Just say, “I think lil’ Johnny’s ridin’ dirty.”

Whether some like it or not, rap and hip hop have become as American as apple pie; as with all Western phenomena, the cultural pollution has penetrated the institutional defenses of other societies.  The graphic messages may offend some listeners, causing discomfort and resentment.  However, music offers an outlet and expression to adolescents trapped between childhood and adulthood – too young to rationalize the consequences of a chaotic world and too old to forget what they have seen.  Generations have always had to suffer the hand dealt by the preceding generation.  Whether the fact that old men make wars and young men fight them or a world polarized by the few who have so much and the many that have so little.  Adolescence, idealism and iconoclasm combine with inequity, injustice and anger to create a highly combustible form of expression.

My car throbs – pumping like an iron lung along Elm Street as I drive to pick up my teenaged daughter.  She is embarrassed, as usual, thinking that somehow I’m trying to pass myself off as someone who has a clue about music, her music.  I retaliate by cranking the volume and mouthing the words to a song by Young Money , ” Call me Mr Flinstone, I can make your bed rock. ” – all the while moving my head back and forth, with a smiling overbite worthy of Eddie Van Halen in mid-solo.  What she fails to realize is my appreciation of her music is not a disingenuous gesture to bridge a generational chasm.  I actually like hip hop and readily accept it as my generation’s urban burden to bear.

I say “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Or, as Snoop Dog might say, ” if the music is fly, than you should try.”

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