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 Monday, 13 January, 2003, 14:28 GMT
Rap music and gun culture
Machine pistol
Newsnight Review discussed the Culture Minister's assertion that rappers should be blamed for glorifying gun culture.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)

I don't often think that Government intervention in culture is helpful. But Kim Howells made a good remark about the Turner Prize, the words "idiotic and macho" Most of the rap artists I have heard of are either dead because they've been shot with guns or have been had up on gun offences. So I think there is a link. I don't think it's particularly crass of the Government ministers to point this out. It may be passing the buck, saying, "Let's blame the music because we're not doing anything about it". But it's reasonably fair to point out that glamorised images of guns do have been effect on people. In the US they said this thing about gangsters wanting to be rappers and rappers wanting to be gangsters, so the two did meet. There was a lot of unpleasant lyrics about killing policemen, how to kill hookers and beating up your bitch. They may have grown out of it, but I think that a lot of that stuff is still being listened to and the images that run on MTV seem to be me to be ghastly. Tom Wolve called the rappers the illiterate troubadours of misogyny and hate.

It feels strange that there is somehow this sect of a population in America or Britain peddling evil, filth, violence, crime and degradation therefore I don't know. God knows, are they somehow responsible for all the bad things that happen to young people in the world? I have been listening to hip-hop for the last 20 years or so. As far as I can tell it has not made me a gun-toting maniac. There are a number of things to consider. One is that hip-hop is actually pop music. A lot of hip-hop acts that we talk about as dangerous and violent they are bought by 14-year-old kids. Those songs really aren't very much about guns. Most of the time, in fact, the really difficult thing about them is that they celebrate materialism, money, cars, but to be honest so does Pop Idol, so does Heat magazine, so does the iconisation of Posh and Becks. It seems strange to me to isolate young black people, as if there is a link between cause and crime, as if those young people exist in a world outside the rest of culture and the rest of society.

Hip-hop sometimes likes to assume it's a reflection of the street. But it's not all about authenticity. Rappers tell stories, they are entertainers. They are artists. The reason why Tupac sells millions of records after his death is because he can tell more than one story. He can discuss the morality of guns the psychology of people who live on the street.

But he ended up getting shot, didn't he.

But he didn't shoot himself, did he?

No, but the other rapper, his great rival, also ended up getting shot.

That's because they have a resonance in the culture. Because they can speak, coherently, artistically and profoundly about what happens in that culture. Hence they become a magnate for things that happen around them. It doesn't mean they cause them.

What Kim Howells has done, he is a repeat offender. We would like a more complex more interesting response than to call the Turner Prize bullshit or to say that this is a problem. Millions of people around the world listen to rap. Lots of pop music has an effect. The whole point about pop music is to scare grown ups. Take a lyric like
I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down.
That lyric was sung by Johnny Cash, a country and western singer in 58.

What it comes down to is a fundamental misunderstanding about who black people are, about how they live their lives. Historically in western culture there's been an idea that goes back to the 18th, 19th century, that black people are different, are savage and wild, somehow their desires are uncontrolled desires and hence if someone flashes a gun in front of them, what happens next? They pick up a gun as they are child like and in Kim Howells's words they are idiots.

When white people kill other white people, Dunblane and Hungerford for example, people do not call it white on white violence. This is seen as violence, but when black people are killed it's black on black violence.

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07 Jan 03 | Archive

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