New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton’s claim on Thursday that “so-called rap artists” are “basically thugs” in the wake of a shooting at a T.I. concert at Irving Plaza in Manhattan is reverberating in the hip-hop community.
Local rapper Troy Ave, who was wounded in the altercation, which surveillance video shows took place in the dressing room at the venue, has been arrested and charged in connection to the shooting, which left one dead and two others injured. T.I., who appears not to have been involved, wrote on Instagram afterward: “My heart is heavy today. Our music is intended to save lives, like it has mine and many others. My heartfelt condolences to the family that suffered the loss & my prayers are with all those injured.”
Meanwhile, Bratton went on to say,“There’s no denying that to a lot of people … they enjoy the music, [but] the music unfortunately often times celebrates violence, celebrates degradation of women, celebrates the drug culture and it’s unfortunate that as they get fame and fortune, some of them are not able to ‘get out of the life.’”
Later, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to throw cold water on the controversy by arguing that Bratton was simply speaking out of “frustration.” De Blasio said he is exposed to a wider variety of hip-hop music through his children (both of whom are African-American). “Some is thoughtful and socially conscious. And some I find distasteful. But I could say that about a lot of genres,” he said. But the anger Bratton’s broadside engendered isn’t dying down, nor is a growing conversation around whether the term “thug” has become a polite substitute for the N-word.
“I am more upset at Mayor De Blasio’s comments,” Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, told MSNBC on Friday. “You know as the mayor how important it is to make comments that can unify, not pit one against the other. This really speaks to a cultural ignorance, and it speaks to a bigotry on behalf of his police commissioner. As someone who’s called on to protect and serve, I’m more worried does that mentality seep into policy?”
Yearwood went on to say that De Blasio needs to hold Bratton “accountable” for his “reckless” comments that can not just hurt hip-hop artists and fans, but also economically damage businesses and employees who can profit from the genre’s success.
“When [Bratton] says, ‘these so-called artists,’ you automatically take the legitimacy away with that,” Rob Markman, an artist relations manager for Genius who attended the T.I. show where the shooting took place, told MSNBC on Friday. “I wish with his comments Commissioner Bratton has spoke on the incident at hand. I go to a hundred hip-hop shows a year, I can’t count how many rap concerts I’ve been to – this is the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like this.”
Although he wasn’t in close proximity to the violence, like many attendees Markman had to flee the scene to avoid being trampled once shots rang out. While he said the entire episode was “unfortunate,” he believes Bratton made the situation worse for fans and promoters by “casting a fear” and indicting an entire culture.
“There’s ramifications and repercussions to that. Maybe a promoter gets scared and now has to hire additional security just to put on a rap show, and will ask themselves, ‘Does that make business sense?’ Or a venue may not want to host hip-hop show at all,” he said. “I don’t understand why hip-hop has to constantly defend itself as a bona fide art form. I question the commissioner’s motives. I think he’s smarter than that.”
Curiously, Bratton’s condemnation of hip-hop comes at time when just about the last thing the genre is being associated with is violence. Two of the hottest hip-hop artists right now – Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper – have been hailed for their social consciousness-raising lyrics, and the latter’s album has a heavy gospel influence. And the top-charting rap artist of the moment – Drake – doesn’t even reference violence, largely dedicating his lyrical content to the trials and tribulations of his personal life.
Meanwhile, T.I., who has had not been shy about speaking candidly about his own past misdeeds, has remade his image in recent years as the patriarch of a family-friendly reality show and an advocate for social justice.
“It’s very much a redemption story,” said Yearwood, who knows the rapper personally. “He will tell you, ‘This is what I had to do to make it, but now I am going to use that same grind, that same hustle in my new career as a businessman, as someone who employs many people.’”
Yet the “thug” image has been hard for hip-hop to shake. It is true that it has historically been embraced by the culture, albeit with a different meaning. The late Tupac Shakur infamously tattooed “Thug Life” across his chest, but his message was one of resilience and empowerment, not an endorsement of a life of crime. The word itself, whose origins can be traced back to a Hindi word that translates to a cheat or a swindler, was once used by British colonialists to denigrate people deemed unsavory in India. Today, it’s been lobbed at NFL stars like Richard Sherman, activists demonstrating against police brutality, unarmed black youths killed by white men and protesters at Donald Trump rallies. More often than not, it’s people of color who receive the label.
“The sad reality is that the word ‘thug’ is increasingly being used as a stand-in for ‘black person I don’t like.’ When angry white people denounce the ‘thugs’ who demonstrated against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, or who are members of the Black Lives Matter movement or who are opposed to Confederate symbols, they are frequently speaking in code to fellow racists,” Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told MSNBC on Friday. “I don’t know what Bratton’s intent was in making his statement about rappers being ‘basically thugs,’ but it is certain to be interpreted by many as an attack on black people.”
And the inclination to draw a link between the music, its fans and violence continues, despite no empirical evidence that there is a direct correlation. Many of the headlines regarding the shooting at the T.I. show emphasized the rapper’s past run-ins with the law, and yet there was no attempt to cast aspersions on country music stars Keith Urban when a teenage girl was raped at one of his concerts in 2014 or Kenny Chesney when violence at one of his shows in 2013 led to 70 arrests and 150 injuries. Hardly anyone used the term “thug” to describe the white mass shooters in Aurora, Colorado, and Charleston, South Carolina, nor when predominately white members of New York’s police and fire departments were involved in a violent brawl during a football game for charity just this week.
“Death metal talks about raping and killing, there’s a lot of misogyny in rock music, but [coverage of hip-hop] taps into this social anxiety that so many white people feel about immigrants, about shifting demographics, about crime,” “Whiteness Project” filmmaker Whitney Dow told MSNBC on Friday. “It’s an extension of the Willie Horton brand, the fear of black youth, the fear of black power, the fear of black reaction.”
“It shouldn’t matter, because it’s free speech,” said Yearwood. “What should matter is that when people commit crimes, whoever it is, we hold them accountable. You can’t keep putting this image out there about thugs when this hip-hop community is doing so much. We’re doing our best to make America better.”