Ever heard of the Willie Lynch Letter? The infamous letter that began circulation starting around the mid 1970s that was claimed to been written by a white slave master in the end of the 17th Century. The letter would describe different ways for slave masters to keep their slaves in check and divided. Willie Lynch in this letter told slave masters if they instituted these forms of separation amongst slaves that it will hold up for hundreds of years. This letter has been debated over the last 30+ years from academia to arguments at the barbershop. Many historians agree that there is no evidence that Willie Lynch or this letter ever existed and is a form of fiction. The question I always ask is: Does the fiction/hyperbole of the letter not have themes that have truth in black culture?
Last week many popular hip hop sites were sent an anonymous letter supposedly from a music industry insider that described a secret meeting he attended with many music label executives. The man in the letter claims that during this meeting many of these music executives were made aware that the companies they work for had invested heavily into the privatization of the prison system. The music executives were told to promote more gangster rap and negative in rap music. They felt that if the idea of going to prison was promoted in music more that they could profit more of the bodies of men (particularly men of color) going to prison. There are people who have addressed the validity of this letter and if it is just another of many black urban legends and conspiracy theories. The question begs to be asked though is not if the events in the letter happened but is it true that gangster rap has affected our culture that much to bring upon the conditions that are present in ghettos all across the country.
I am not going to front I am torn on this issue because I can see it from a multitude of angles. Hip Hop/Rap music isn’t the sole reason that the prison industrial complex is omniscient in our society but at the same time has it not? I spoke on my podcast last week (Hear Here) about how as African American’s we are cultural more intertwined to music. Historically speaking music was used in Africa for movements of people, in slavery it helped us speaking in the fields and move during the Underground Railroad, and even in the present songs helped us through the Civil Rights movement. I don’t think we can ever dismiss the notion that music CAN affect people. Certain music can put you in certain moods and in certain places. The glorification of crime and proliferation of the prison system cannot be denied as being a part of gangster rap. Ask any of the kids who are in jail what they listen to I bet its gangster rap. So, can we question the idea of gangster rap music’s influence having some validity?
Like I said I am torn on the issue of gangsta rap and the prison system because we cannot neglect that personal accountability and societal situations are serious factors that contribute to the new prison industrial complex. Gangster rap didn’t put crack into the communities, gangster rap didn’t give insufficient education, gangster rap didn’t hand out unequal prison sentences (crack vs. cocaine possession), and gangster rap didn’t snatch jobs industrial jobs from urban areas. Gangster rap can’t be solely responsible for the influx of black men in the prison system as the letter says the “powers that be” wished to us it as. The conditions around America have just as much to do with it as well. Rap music and Hip Hop has been an easy scapegoat and a sugar-coating all the irresponsibility of parents, elders, and leaders. Would these things even exist if the many people who fought for integration passed along those ideals and notions to the kids below them?
I feel if you want to blame a situation on hip hop I will put in the idea that the balance that was in hip hop isn’t there anymore. In the years past you would hear music on the radio and see music videos from a diverse amount of Hip Hop artists. You could go from hearing DJ Quik’s ”Born and Raised in Compton” to hearing Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘Em Down” then turn around and hear A Tribe called Quest and Leaders of the New School’s classic “Scenario” to bumping The Geto Boys’ “My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me”. There was a very high push of black consciousness coming from hip hop in the late 80s and early 90s. Remember the Kente cloth, black fist medallions, and Malcolm X hats? Gangsta Rap also had a leg to stand on proclaiming that they were showing the realities of where they come from or as some would call it “reality rap”. Remember how many LA rappers such as Ice T, Ice Cube, and Tupac were predicting the LA Riots to happen? That was all good for a time but the problem is now that most of rappers now aren’t telling the story of the hood but just telling fanatical tales to sell records. I am not saying there weren’t any studio gangsters in the past but it’s a totally different vibe now. Gangsta rap had more of a street conscience then and its violent nature was offset by social conscious rap.
Has Hip Hop particularly gangster rap been the reason for the prison industrial complex in Black Culture? The answer to that question isn’t something that can’t be really quantified. We can’t put the idea of the prison and crime problem on gangster rap music but at the same time we can’t sit here and look at it as having the best influence all if the time either especially when their isn’t other forms of hip hop provided as a balance to it. I know one thing though that I officially know that current “gangster rap” isn’t targeted to me anymore because last night I heard Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” on the Adult Contemporary station.