From the abstract of Darby Southgate’s Gangsta Rap: Cultural Capital, Community Cohesion and Political Resistance – Meaning Making in Music Production.

There exists a dialectic response due to the exploitation of African American music by non-whites throughout U.S. history. The response of the Black musical community has been to produce new codes – exclusive to the community – which are soon routinized by the dominant group. I use participant observations over five years at a professional recording studio in Los Angeles, California, coupled with interviews of workers and owners (artists and producers) of the Hip-Hop genre Gangsta Rap to show that the response to the expropriation of black music by non-blacks results in the conscious production of codes to signal political resistance, and that these codes also function as community cohesion. I further show that receivers of these codes who are not in-group members react to the associations of the codes, and not their organic meanings; and this response is how cultural boundaries are made.

The full paper is not available online, which is too bad because it is probably quite interesting. The language in the abstract may seem like academic gobblygook, but you can see the main point. Gangsta rap includes in-group code language (cultural resistance) that is misinterpreted and then misappropriated (exploited) by out-group consumers. Gangsta rap is not alone. This has been a recurring feature with the black music scene throughout our history.

When considering the genre of Gangsta Rap, the exploitation phase occurred almost immediately after the first phase of authentic resistance. I am not going to write a history of rap here…instead I’ll show an example of real early gangsta rap. This is from Oakland rapper Paris’s The Devil Made Me Do It, and it is called Break the Grip of Shame.

Powerful images, right? It wasn’t designed to make white folk feel comfortable. It isn’t ‘mainstream’ and was never intended to be mainstream. ‘Shock’ was an elemental part of the art-form. This music was being made in 1989-1991, in the era directly prior to the Rodney King beatings and then the OJ Trial. No one was talking about police brutality and the planting of evidence by police officers. There was a war on in the cities and Gangsta Rap arose in response.

A group named N.W.A. (Niggers With Attitudes) created the early anthem with a rap named Fuck the Police. Their leader, Ice Cube spelled out what he saw going on in the cities.

Fuck the police
Comin’ straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
For a punk mother fucker with a badge and a gun
To be beatin’ on, and throw in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Fuckin with me cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searching my car, looking for the product
Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics

This introduction is instructive. Ice Cube isn’t celebrating gangsta life, he’s protesting police brutality and harassment. The police think they have the right to search his car just because he’s black, or because he has a some gold and a pager. They even think they have the right to beat, jail, and kill him without evidence. As we later found out, the LAPD was guilty of all of those things during this time period.

Why did Ice Cube create this song? The motive is multi-faceted. It’s an effort to educate white people about what is going on in the city, to rally black resistance, to show some (mostly false) bravado, and to make some money.

That last point (money) was what ruined the genre of Gangsta Rap almost immediately. White record executives and Black Entertainment Television president Robert Johnson quickly realized that there was money to made by selling the ‘gangsta/pimp’ look and message. Within a year or two, Ice Cube went solo and came out with less politically meaningful material.

I am friends with Larry Johnson, but I don’t think he’s qualified to do exigesis of Ice Cube’s lyrics, let alone tar Barack Obama with their meaning. If his point is that it is hard to get elected in America if you are associate yourself with Gangsta Rap, then he’s correct. That’s a political insight, but it’s also a cheap shot. Larry should attend services at Trinity Church. I think he’ll discover it’s a wonderful place that isn’t anti-American at all. I’ll bet he’ll also discover that they know a lot more about police brutality and harassment than he does. And they reserve the right to speak out about it. Maybe they’ll even try to ‘shock’ him into doing something about it.

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