Gangsta rap crap

Music doesn't turn kids into killers - nor can it make them all saints.

Rap music doesn’t kill people - Hollywood does! Films don’t kill people - video games do! Games don’t kill people - guns do! Guns don’t kill people - culture does!

That the tragic death of two Birmingham teenagers, in a hail of bullets after a New Year’s party, led to an opportunistic UK Home Secretary demanding further bans on guns was possibly predictable. The discussion about everything else we should be blaming and banning is just ridiculous.

Culture minister Kim ‘Rentaquote’ Howells came out with some profound sociological insights on the link between music and murder. The deaths of Latisha Shakespear and Charlene Ellis were, he said, ‘symptomatic’ of developments in rap and garage music; garage acts, like So Solid Crew, are responsible for ‘glorifying gun culture and violence’, and people should stand up to ‘idiot macho rappers’ (1).

As culture minister, no doubt Howells can be expected to have an inflated idea of the impact of culture upon people’s actions - and a fogeyish disdain for the kind of music that attracts kids in Birmingham. But the idea that young people go around shooting because they listen to ‘macho’ CDs? Time for a reality check, surely.

Or not. Because while apparent representatives of the garage community were rallied to a reaction, surprisingly little piss was taken. It was tentatively suggested that Howell’s comments were racist, and more forcibly asserted that the real problem is not music, but films and computer games.

‘Films and computer games glorify guns far more than music and have a wider impact than music’, huffed BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Iyare, to BBC News. ‘But Kim Howells is not prepared to take on Hollywood, or Sony and Microsoft.’ (2) Except that plenty of people are - and especially in the USA, have done so with some success. The ‘rap kills’ line is no different to the concerns aired about violent films, or violent computer games, at every opportunity.

Today’s young people are credited with so little independence of thought or spirit that they are constantly deemed at risk from cultural influences - as though somebody says ‘gun’ and they shoot; somebody says ‘bitch’ and they rape, somebody says ‘behave like a man’ and they become all-powerful promoters of an oppressive patriarchy. Why are today’s teenagers seen like this? And why don’t their self-styled advocates and icons just tell the Kim Howells of this world to sod off?

Youth culture has always been viewed as distasteful and disturbing by those at the more adult end of society. From Teddy Boys to mods and rockers to the psychedelic Sixties to punk, older generations saw music as heralding moral permissiveness, social decline and all-round bad behaviour. But today’s reaction goes beyond what used to be backwoods concerns. There is now a mainstream view that youth culture is not just a problem, but one of the key problems with society today; that dodgy music is not just a bad influence on kids, but a key influence in shaping the future.

The problems with society are increasing seen as cultural ones, which music such as gangsta rap not only reflects, but creates. If Eminem has homophobic lyrics, he is responsible for homophobia; if So Solid Crew so much as look at a gun, they are responsible for a ‘gun culture’.

There is little sense that violence and prejudice stem from social problems and require social and political solutions - because looking at the policy pronouncements on offer today, social and political solutions seem in very short supply. Instead, the problems of the world are transplanted into the realm of attitude and behaviour; as though, if people only think right, that will make all be right with the world.

Culture is seen as both the cause, and the cure, of what used to be understood as social problems. And so just as Eminem and So Solid Crew are demonised for promoting badness and delinquency, the search is on for alternative, ‘positive’ role models who can show kids just how good it is to be good.

Black singers from the ghetto are sent around inner-city schools to raise children’s horizons (as though the problem was that kids don’t want to be pop stars, rather than the fact that many of them will end up doing something rather less high-paid and glamorous). And youthful up-and-comings like Ms Dynamite are fawned over by the establishment - no doubt because, as one news article summarised her work, ‘She has denounced the violence of the UK garage scene, and her lyrics include messages against drugs, bad relationships and unsafe sex’ (3). Go, girl.

It’s not only that today’s elite overreacts to ‘bad’ cultural messages. It is falling over itself to find new ways of promoting ‘positive’ messages to the nation’s youth via youth culture. Because if society’s problems, and its solutions, are all seen at the level of attitudes, and if young people are viewed as nothing more than unthinking receptacles for these attitudes, it follows that the unacceptable must be repressed, and the acceptable aggressively promoted. No matter that song lyrics really have nothing to do with solving gun crime, or transforming any other aspect of young people’s lives. Among a solution-free, imagination-lite establishment, it’s the thought that counts.

And it wouldn’t be so bad if those who really are part of today’s youth culture - the ones who write the lyrics, make the records, perform the gigs without a government grant or official approval - were more prepared to stand up to the idiots trying to turn them into social workers.

But the semi-respectable rappers brought on to earnest Radio Four news debates about guns and music don’t even demand to know whether Kim Howells, the newscaster or any other worthy currently debating this issue has ever listened to gangsta rap, let alone thought about it hard enough to form any sensible opinion. All they can say, in their defence, is that the music is harmless because it is about creativity and self-expression and all that jazz, and that rap doesn’t kill people, guns do.

The Sex Pistols were banned for saying ‘Fuck off’. Frankie Goes to Hollywood were banned for saying ‘Relax’. The gangsta-rap debate could usefully take both messages to heart.

Read on:

Blunkett: shooting first, asking questions later, by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 6 January 2003

(1) Garage scene denies glorifying guns, BBC News, 6 January 2003

(2) Garage scene denies glorifying guns, BBC News, 6 January 2003

(3) Ms Dynamite attacks politicians, BBC News, 19 December 2002

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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