To Eugenia Harris, the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg is something of a role model. Eugenia is 13 and a bookworm; when she grows up, she wants to be a pediatrician. "People say he is bad," she says, pensively. "But he is not bad." Along with her mother and two younger siblings, Eugenia live in "the Hornets," the Henry Horner projects on Chicago's West Side, in a faceless concrete high-rise marked with bullet holes and gang graffiti. By any standards, the Hornets is a tough place to grow up. "We get scared at night," says Eugenia, "but we're used to it. When somebody you know and love gets killed, it hurts and it's scary." Last Friday afternoon, Eugenia, her sister Renetta, 11, and their brother, Eugene, 10, bundled up against the wind in front of one of the Horner buildings, and discussed Snoop Doggy Dogg. Eugene found him "a very good rapper with a strong beat." Renetta thought he was the hot rapper right now. Eugenia, thoughtful and patient, waited for the others to talk first. Then she described what he meant to her. "He grew up like us and he says we're all in the same gang," she said. "To me, he's saying you gotta take what's yours. if you want to get out of the projects, which always there are people trying to keep you in, he's saying you gotta take that chance." As she spoke, her friend Erica Nellem ran up to tell her about a recent drive-by shooting over on Roosevelt. "We didn't get shot," said Erica, 11. "We had our heads down."
Snoop Doggy Dogg is not everyone's idea of a role model. Born Calvin Broadus 22 years ago in Long Beach, Calif, he is by all accounts the fastest-rising star in the music world. Before he even released a record, he'd appeared on the cover of three major music magazines. When his debut album, "Doggystyle," hits the stores this Tuesday, it is expected to be among the fastest-selling recordings in history. "It's going to be larger than life," says Chip Hall, director of purchasing for the 280-store Super Club Music chain. Long anticipated, it is a cinematic, deadpan depiction of a ghetto world where the men sling dope and tote firearms, and the women are bitches or "hoes." In the cities and suburbs, kids love Snoop Doggy Dogg because they think he's "real." And perhaps he is. Last Friday he was indicted in Los Angeles Superior Court for the murder of Phillip Woldemariam. He maintains his innocence and is currently free on $1 million bail.
The day Broadus's indictment came down, another imperfect role model was tangling with the criminal-justice system in New York. Tupac Shakur is a shockingly handsome 22-year-old, a successful rapper and a gifted, formally trained actor. For his performance in John Singleton's film "Poetic justice," he earned an NAACP Image Award nomination; his current hit single, "Keep Ya Head Up," is cited as an inspiration for young black women. "I stand up for the young black man and the young black woman," he says. But last Thursday night, New York police arrested Shakur and two associates on charges that they forcibly sodomized and sexually abused a woman in a midtown hotel. Attorneys for all three men say their clients are not guilty. Michael Warren, Shakur's lawyer, dismisses the woman as a groupie trying to exploit a young star. The arrest came less than three weeks after Shakur was arrested for allegedly shooting two off-duty police officers after a traffic argument in Atlanta. He says he is innocent and is now out on bail, filming the movie "Above the Rim" in New York City.
Deep down, Snoop's and Shakur's cases have little to do with each other, or with the style of music they perform. Across the board, 1993 has been a tough year for popular music and the law. Harry Connick Jr., Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, the reggae singer Snow, rappers Flavor Flav of Public Enemy and Everlast of House of Pain--all million-record sellers--have made the papers this year for reported run-ins with authorities. Last week Eddie Vedder of the hugely popular band Pearl Jam reportedly landed in a New Orleans jail after a bar fight. And Michael Jackson--well, let's not begin to talk about Michael Jackson (page 70).
But for rap music--particularly for the school known as gangsta rap, which has found a pot of gold in selling images of black-on-black crime to mainstream America--the confluence of the arrests raises disturbing questions: what is the relationship between the violence on the records and the violence in the communities, between capital rhymes and capital crimes? In broader terms, how does art--particularly art often consumed by very young listeners--influence life?
In 1993, the face of rap music belonged to Dr. Dre, 28, a producer and rapper from Compton, Calif., whose hard-core gangsta album, "The Chronic," outsold those by mainstream acts like Barbra Streisand, Aerosmith or Sting, and dwarfed all other rappers. A former member of the notorious rap crew N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude), Dre has a gift as big as his police file. He is the producer of Snoop Doggy Dogg's album. Together, they are no strangers to notoriety. While controversy raged around Ice-T's relatively obscure song, "Cop Killer," no one but the millions of rap fans seemed to notice Dr. Dre's top rap hit, "Deep Cover." Its chorus, delivered in a singsong drawl by Snoop, ran, "It's 1-8-7 on an undercover cop": 187 is California coptalk (and rap slang) for homicide. It was a song about killing a cop. This summer the two ruled rap with a million-selling song containing the lyrics "If your bitches talk shit, I have to put the smack down." The line was particularly arresting coming from Dr. Dre. According to his record company, he recently settled a well-publicized suit for allegedly beating up rap-TV host Dee Barnes in a Los Angeles nightclub.
In Long Beach last Friday afternoon, the line between art and life was difficult to draw. Located 25 miles south of downtown L.A., central Long Beach is a working-class, ethnically mixed neighborhood of single-family homes with small front lawns. It is also home to some of Los Angeles County's most notorious gangs. About 66 gangs run in the city; half, by police estimates, are criminally active. As class let out at Polytech High School, coprincipal Karen Hillburn and some 15 other administrators with walkie-talkies scurried to move gang members away from the grounds, just trying to help the 4,000 students exit the school without getting shot.
This is the city where Snoop Doggy Dogg grew up, where he joined the Golgotha Trinity Baptist youth choir and, later, the Insane Crips. His mother nicknamed him Snoopy because of his long face and droopy ears. At 6-feet-4, he was a star basketball player at Polytech; his father, who recorded a few gospel singles with the Varnado Brothers, thought his son could become the next Magic Johnson. But just after graduation, Snoop landed in jail for the first time, for possession of cocaine for sale. The stint, he says, straightened him out; but it did not end his problems with the law. Police say that on Aug. 25 Snoop was driving his late-model Jeep in Palms, a middle-class neighborhood in West Los Angeles, where he met Phillip Woldemariam, an alleged member of the Venice Shoreline Crips. Snoop's bodyguard then allegedly shot Woldemariam twice in the back, killing him. Snoop's attorney David Kenner contends that Woldemariam had a long history of threatening Snoop, and that the shooting was in self-defense. Police say that at the time Snoop was already out on bail for weapons-violation charges; on Dec. 8, he'll be arraigned for murder.
To the teenagers hanging out at Toney's #23 World Famous Chili, Burger and Hotdogs last Friday, a block from Polytech, the allegations have done nothing to shake Snoop's status as a local hero. Friday was a carefree day at Toney's; the drive-by shootings that used to clear the place have subsided. For the kids enjoying the sunny, 70-degree afternoon, Snoop's music registers as an accurate depiction of their lives as well as his own. They had tapes of his album well before it will have reached stores. "He tells it like it's supposed to be told," says Taneika Archer, 17, a solid African-American girl wearing a down parka despite the weather. "People will always try to bring you down no matter what you do. It's the same thing with Dolly Parton and her big breasts." Erica Brown, 16, also a student at Polytech, agrees. "He's not trying to be what he ain't" she says. "If he said he wasn't a gangster, he'd be lying." Paradoxically--and conveniently--she doesn't take the misogyny in his music, or in some other gangsta rap, seriously. "They talk like that to look hard. They don't actually treat people that way. Most girls won't let them."
Outside the community, though, the battle lines are more clearly drawn. In the last year, gangsta rap has come to eclipse more politically conscious or innocuous styles--not just in the alarmist media, but in the marketplace. Acts that defined themselves as underground became the mainstream. And with their rise, the chorus of opponents has boosted the volume. Rap has always had its critics; many of them have always been black; some have always been other rappers. But with the increasing prevalence of violent and misogynist imagery--driven in part by the appetites of white record buyers, now the largest segment of the rap audience--even some supporters of the music don't like where it's heading.
The radio station KACE-FM in Los Angeles has adopted a policy to ban all songs that degrade women or promote drugs or violence. The Rev. Calvin Butts, the highprofile minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, has mounted a crusade against the more feral strains of the music; last summer he held a rally at which he ran a steamroller over offending tapes and CDs. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has made policing rap a part of his campaign against black-on-black crime. "We're going to take away the market value of these attacks on our person," he told NEWSWEEK. "Anyone white or black who makes money calling our women bitches and our people niggers will have to face the wrath of our indignation."
Even the hip-hop fanzine Rap Sheet has taken a stand, banning all album ads that feature guns. "One of the reasons that we in the black community tended to ignore some of the harsh language in the lyrics was that it reflected the anger of young, black disenchanted folk," says Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall. "And then it evolved into something else." McCall, who served nearly three years for armed robbery in the mid-'70s, takes seriously the influence of violent entertainment on teenagers. In a recent article, he recalled the exhilaration of shooting someone as a teenager, and being intoxicated by the rush of living out the I fe he'd seen on screen in "The Godfather." "We need to acknowledge," he told NEWSWEEK, "that there are obviously some correlations between the negative, violent messages that are being put out in rap and the violence that exists out there in the real world."
Debre Blakely, a Brooklyn girl enrolled in a program for troubled teens, would agree. At 17, Blakely has a high-school equivalency diploma and a 19-month-old son. She likes rap, but not the hard stuff. "It bothers me, the violence," she says. "Sometimes I see little kids trying to be like these rappers. They really do take these rappers as role models." But Blakely, like so many rap fans, is no easy study. From the start, rap has developed its own vocabulary of words, sounds and images, a complex set of codes that allowed fans to understand its meanings but confused everyone else. When they don't suit her, Blakely sometimes just doesn't bother to decode them. "If the beat is cool and the rapper can flow," she says, "sometimes you find yourself listening to stuff you don't really agree with."
Between Debre Blakely and the Reverend Jackson lies a gap wide enough for a generation to slip through. The problem of urban violence is much bigger than rap. If anything, the arrests of Shakur, Flavor Flav and Snoop Doggy Dogg demonstrate how little power, or "dap," rap actually has in the real world. These performers should be classic American success stories: young men of humble origins who through sheer talent and hard work rose to the mansion on the hill. For all the macho stereotyping that often seeps into the music, these are complex, creative individuals. A little over a year ago, Snoop phoned Richard Harris, minister of Golgotha Trinity Baptist, just to recite a Biblical rap. "It was something about grace, and Jesus, and coming down from the cross," said Harris.
But for most rappers, there is no mansion on the hill. No matter how successful they become, they feel justifiably threatened by the dangers of the poorest communities in Black America. The music, the industry, the white and black audiences all push the performers back toward their roots and reward them for staying close. But these forces aren't villains, just unwitting accomplices. The real problems are outside the music, not within.
Snoop recently described his idea of a happy day. "I want peace on the street like it was 4/29/92"--the day the Los Angeles gangs called a truce. "That s--- felt good. Bloods, Crips, everybody just chillin'. I ain't never felt that before,, being able to go to neighborhoods where they restrict you 'cause you wear this color and they wear that color. Everybody was together. That's what my music's going for--to stop you banging for a second. Listen to my music and get on another vibe." These are modest dreams: to travel safely to the next neighborhood, to have a good time without fear. It's a shame that music and stardom can't make them come true--or even keep the stars out of trouble. But it's shortsighted to bang all the blame on the music when trouble comes around.
See, it's the west coast thing where I'm from. And if you want some, get some, bad enough, take some. But watch the gun by my side. Because it represents me and the motherf---in' eastside.
I wonder why we take from our women, Why we rape our women. Do we hate our women? I think it's time we care for our women, Time to heal our women.