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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 08:20 GMT
Is it wrong to blame hip hop?
By Chris Summers
BBC News

Black men are statistically over-represented among gun victims. Is this due to cultural influences, such as hip hop and rap music, which have been accused of using lyrics and images which glamorise guns?

Two of hip hop's most enduring icons - Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls - were victims of gun crime.

Tupac and Biggie
Tupac Shakur (left) and Biggie Smalls were shot dead in the 1990s
Could it be a coincidence - after all John Lennon was also a gun crime victim - or is rap, hip hop and grime music inherently violent?

In recent years the genres have come under increasing flak for the lyrics and the imagery used in many songs.

Last year the Conservative leader David Cameron criticised some of BBC Radio 1's output for "encouraging people to carry guns and knives".

Sinister lyrics

A poster of rapper 50 Cent holding a gun and a baby was also criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority for "glamorising" gun crime.

In May 2004 aspiring rapper David Gaynor shot a man in the head and then penned a song about the incident.

David Gaynor
I'll kill u in front of your family, G, I knock down family and family trees till there's no branches left
David Gaynor's lyrics

When he was asked at his trial if the lyrics were his own, he replied that he had adapted them from a song by 50 Cent. Gaynor was later jailed for 25 years for attempted murder.

Earlier this year campaigners in the US, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, joined relatives of the late James Brown to protest at derogatory lyrics used by some rappers.

But Radio 1Xtra presenter Semtex said: "Hip hop cannot be blamed for gun crime in the UK. The vast majority of sales are generated from people that live in middle class suburbs, whereas the vast majority of gun crime affects inner city areas. Society is to blame more than Scarface the movie or Scarface the rapper."

"Gun crimes could be resolved tomorrow but until society tackles the socio-economic problems instead of pointing the finger at hip hop, it's only going to get worse, and it will spill into the suburbs."

There is no empirical evidence to prove a link between violent lyrics and images and real violence on the streets, but many people in the music industry have accepted they need to do more to address the issue.

Anti-gun songs

Earlier this year many British artists performed on a new album, Don't Trigger, part of a government-supported anti-gun campaign.

Channel U, a digital TV network that shows music videos, has been criticised in the past for showing images that encouraged or glamorised guns and gangs.

Cat Park in Channel U's offices
With the whole gang stuff you have got to be aware of the rivalries and [if you broadcast something] you are going to be stirring it up
Channel U station manager, Cat Park

The channel, which launched in 2003 as a rival to MTV Base, specialises in new music from British artists and most of the videos it broadcasts are sent in by groups who want to follow in the footsteps of 50 Cent or So Solid Crew.

Channel U now employs a head of compliance, Bob Tyler, who spends many hours weeding out videos which break Ofcom regulations.

"During the day 25% of our audience are under-18 so that is why we're ultra-cautious," he said.

He said they never broadcast videos that showed guns and scrutinised lyrics to ensure they were not inciting violence.

Channel U's station manager, Cat Park, said: "A lot of people talk in metaphors so you have got to be well up on urban slang. With the whole gang stuff you have got to be aware of the rivalries and [if you broadcast something] you are going to be stirring it up."

Richard Holmes, who was killed by a rap rival
Richard Holmes was gunned down over a rap song

Competition and rivalry between different MCs and their crews is common, but violence - like that which killed Tupac and Notorious BIG in the 1990s during a feud in the US between West Coast and East Coast rappers - is still quite rare.

In November 2005 Richard Holmes was shot dead on an estate in Chingford, north east London, after a dispute over the lyrics in a song written by his friend Sabar Shah, a budding rapper.

In the song, Over The Years, Shah badmouthed 25-year-old Dwayne Mahorn, a rapper better known as Durrty Goodz.

The lyrics included the line: "Over the years things change in the 'hood. I used to have a lot of respect for Durrty Goodz - either singer or song. Not no more."

Mr Holmes was killed with a Mac-10 submachine gun by two associates of Mr Mahorn who were jailed for life. Mr Mahorn was acquitted.

One of the killers was Carl Dobson, aka Crazy Titch, and some of his videos have been aired on Channel U in the past.

Chanelle Campbell
There is a lot of imitating America, with the gun and gang culture it reminds me of what happens in America
Chanelle Campbell

Ms Park said: "The track in question was never on Channel U. It wouldn't have complied [with our rules]. But it was out there on the streets."

She pointed out that many videos they have chosen not to show, or have asked to be edited, turn up on YouTube or elsewhere on the internet.

Chanelle Campbell, a 20-year-old singer and songwriter from Brixton, south London, said too many of the lyrics and imagery in Britain were negative.

"There is a lot of imitating America, with the gun and gang culture it reminds me of what happens in America," she said.

In May last year one of her friends, Carl Chrisq, another aspiring singer, was shot dead in Detroit after he resisted two muggers.

Patsy McKie (left) and Angela Lawrence
These kids have grown up watching Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger films. How often do they say 'let's talk about this' in those films? They don't.
Angela Lawrence
Mothers Against Violence

She used this painful experience to help her write the lyrics of a song, Testify, which is one of several tracks on this year's Don't Trigger album.

Chanelle is angry at the imagery and lyrics used by many rappers, not just in relation to violence but also when it comes to degrading women with words like "bitch" and "ho".

But Patsy McKie and Angela Lawrence, who run Mothers Against Violence in Manchester, feel the film industry has at least as much to answer for as the music companies.

Mrs Lawrence said: "These kids have grown up watching Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger films. How often do they say 'let's talk about this' in those films? They don't. They use violence to resolve their arguments and that is what too many young people want to do."

Craze 24, a hip hop MC from Brixton, south London, says: "It's wrong to blame the music. You've got to look at films and TV too. You've got Terminator and Lethal Weapon and Mission Impossible, they all glorify guns and the hero has always got a gun."

Positive images

But he says musicians have a responsibility and he believes artists are increasingly keen to write "positive, meaningful" lyrics.

There is no denying the power of music.

At the Don't Trigger launch in London's City Hall tears flowed and the emotion was palpable as the parents of gun crime victims from all over the country listened to a cover version of The Police's Every Breath You Take.

But the question for the music industry is whether the power of music can be harnessed to promote positive images rather than negativity.


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