Violence and death as entertainment
By BILL MAXWELL
Published August 20, 2006
Hip-hop mogul Ice Cube - a cigar between his grillz and bling around his neck - scowls from the cover of the current issue of The Source, the magazine that touts itself as the place for "Hip-Hop Music, Culture & Politics."
Gangsta rappers 50 Cent and Banks - decorated with signature hip-hop garb and bling and tattoos - cool pose on the cover of the September issue of XXL, the magazine that claims to deliver "Hip-Hop on a Higher Level."
The Source and XXL, along with other such publications, are the bibles for devotees of the black thug life, young men like the many who die violently on the streets of St. Petersburg.
In this light, the article headlined "Rising death toll gives birth to 'R.I.P.' songs" last Wednesday in the St. Petersburg Times captured the deleterious influence of the culture depicted in The Source and XXL and other hip-hop entertainment venues.
Intended or unintended, the article, focusing on Dana "Short Fuse" Harrington, a 33-year-old rapper who records songs about slain black men, shows how violent street death has morphed into entertainment. The stuff of the new entertainment, music about the violent deaths of real people, has become the new reality.
A two-page spread in The Source pays tribute to 34 dead rap artists, most having died violently at the hands of fellow blacks. The roster includes the likes of Big Pun, Notorious B.I.G., Ol' Dirty Bastard, Jam Master Jay of Run DMC and Tupac Shakur. Throughout both magazines, Tupac and Biggie are featured in ads. Tupac was shot in 1996. Biggie was gunned down the next year.
After all this time, the stock and the popularity of these two dead, self-appointed thugs have soared. Real-life, violent death and other insanities have become sources of entertainment and, thus, reality.
Read part of the first paragraph of a recent XXL essay about 50 Cent: "At this point, it's a well-known story. A Southside Jamaica, Queens, native, orphaned as a child, who'd taken nine bullets and lived, 50 Cent exploded onto the scene in 2002 via a series of mixtapes and a public feud with rap star Ja Rule and his label, Murder Inc."
Many young black men revere 50 Cent and his cat-with-nine-lives persona. In life, he is a phenomenon, a king of entertainment, and his life has become reality. If he were to die from bullet No. 10, he would become a god.
He is not alone. Dozens of other rappers, especially gangstas, have been shot, stabbed and imprisoned, only to survive to become millionaires whose notoriety becomes their raison d'etre and a main source of emulation. A violent end would deify them.
This fact brings us back to the "Rest in Peace" song industry that is taking root in St. Petersburg's Midtown. After an estimated 85 violent deaths during the last five years, Short Fuse Harrington is creating songs that turn death into entertainment and entertainment into reality.
Short Fuse has turned R.I.P. music into a means to memorialize victims of black-on-black murder and police confrontations. All over Midtown, according to the Times article, blacks, including grieving mothers, are listening to thumping and poetic dirges.
Here, I think, is the tragic rub of the new trend: Short Fuse and his followers are burning both ends of the candle at the same time. On the one hand, they are celebrating everything bad in gangsta culture. On the other hand, they are apotheosizing the victims who are being killed for trivial and stupid reasons.
The major problem with R.I.P. songs is that their creators, loved ones and friends left behind, somehow expect the music to stop the killing or to at least provide enough of a vicarious experience to make a positive difference.
Short Fuse said of his recordings: "There's so much pain on these streets. Maybe if kids ... hear this music, they'll know what it's like."
He is foolishly hoping that entertainment will reverse reality. It will not because he and others are burning both ends of the candle at the same time. How can you celebrate the very thing you want to stop?