by Gee Joyner and Earle Fisher
Rhetoric Race and Religion Contributors
*The authors first presented a version of this paper on March 10, 2012 at the 36th Annual National Council of Black Studies in Atlanta, Georgia
After evidence of police brutality against African-Americans was recorded by a video camera in Los Angeles, California, the entire nation, and the world, was privied to what African Americans had been knowledgeable of for years—the inhumane and discriminatory treatment of Black males, and often times Black women, by U.S. police officers solely because of their race and the prescribed stereotypical perception thereof. The media’s broadcasting of the beating of motorist Rodney King became the impetus for widespread outrage amongst the United States’ Black population, and because of the acquittal of the officers responsible, the L.A. riots of 1993, which ironically took place in the predominately Black area of Watts.
This text intends to explore the burgeoning of ‘Gangsta Rap’ into mainstream media, radio, and households via the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and how rap artists began to utilize their lyrical and rhetorical skills to redefine the content of their music to protest not only police brutality but the inequality and socioeconomic and political inequity that Black Americans had endured throughout the post-Civil Rights Era and, holistically, throughout their residence in the United States by unleashing a verbal rebellion vis- a- vis abrasive and suggestive lyrics, appearance, and demeanor. This blatant display of social, and often times political, rebellion and the antagonistic positioning the genre takes towards the United States’ ideological metaphor of the ‘American Dream’ and the notion of racial equality should be deconstructed in a way that thoroughly defines the signifier of ‘gangsta’ when categorizing a subgenre of Rap music that addresses the conundrum of American civil rights for the Black American.
First, one must define the ‘gangsta’ in Gangsta Rap, as well as juxtaposing that definition with the original and correct spelling of the term in the American lexicon. The Oxford American Dictionary defines gangster as “a member of a gang of violent criminals.” To deconstruct the term, the audience must deconstruct the terms used in defining gangster—“violent” and “criminal”. Before the media coined the term ‘gangsta’ for the subgenre of rap music that addressed the social ills of the mostly Black communities in the United States—and chronicled the violence that persisted and the poverty that inundated these neighborhoods—the label Gangsta Rap had never been used by those within the industry and culture of Rap music. Maybe this term was used to clandestinely hide the racism that mainstream America felt towards this form of Black music that created, according to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “a safe, color-blind way to state racial views without appearing to be irrationally or rabidly racist.”
Think about it for a moment—have you ever heard of ‘gangsta’ Rock or ‘gangsta’ Heavy Metal? Probably never—even though Rock and Heavy Metal often have themes of violence and misogynistic allusions and imagery. In contrast, the colloquial term ‘gangsta’ in the African-American culture, and particularly the way it is used within Rap jargon, is not monolithically defined as one who participates in criminality, but it also refers to and is synonymous with being a rebel and rebellious. This assertion, however far-fetched and linguistically reaching it may seem, is, in my opinion, in direct correlation to the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, the Black Panther Party was revered in their founding city of Oakland and throughout America because of their ‘gangsta’ or rebellious attitude towards the disenfranchisement African-Americans endured at the hands of the U.S. government, and their attire and use of firearms gave off a ‘gangsta’ vibe if you will. “Gangsta Rap” artists, particularly those from the West Coast reincarnated that look and gangsta demeanor through artistic creation and the ability to influence an entire culture.
We assume that this blatant defiance of what America thought young, Black males should be—subordinate, docile, and obedient, prompted the white mainstream media to negatively pan the music and behaviors of those rap artists that protested the U.S. treatment and stereotypical characterization of not only Black males, but the Black community in its totality. Really, there was no need to demonize and label, if not socially posit the music, in a subordinate role within the musical and social hierarchy. For the most part, early Rap music, particularly the songs and groups or individuals who made it to the mainstream airwaves and a particular level of crossover success, only spoke of and delved into the prowess of the DJ and the superb linguistic skill, and ability to rhyme, of the rapper through the use of verbal verbosity and braggadocio. Ironically, once the Black Rap artist began to use his talent of rhetorical prowess to adhere to the Black Aesthetic critic’s mantra of utilizing Black art to uplift the race, the media began to demonize not only the artists who created the lyrics but it also disregarded their plight and condemned the ethno-specific culture in which those artists jointly shared.
The aforementioned content of protest within Rap music was not deemed ‘gangsta’, in our opinion, until after the Los Angeles riots, which were a direct result and physical manifestation of elements of hardcore Rap music that had addressed the ills of inner city United States’ neighborhoods. Moreover, this form of music highlighted the dehumanizing and oft times racially charged profiling by the local police and sheriff departments throughout America. Now, before we continue, we must note, for the Hip Hop historians that may read this text, that the label ‘gangsta’ had been applied to previous rappers or rap groups, most notoriously N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitudes) in the late 1980s. However, this form of Rap music did not become prevalent in mainstream media, via MTV and popular radio stations, until after the brutal beating of motorist Rodney King and the subsequent trial that acquitted the police officers involved, Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno.
The irony of the invention of Gangsta Rap is that if one were to look at it as protest music, the origins could be found in Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message” and not the profanity laced and misogynistic lyrics connoted with what audiences now perpetually referred to as Gangsta Rap. We want to suggest that the grim narrative depicting the poverty, drug use, and violence that inundated many inner-city communities was the harbinger of the Gangsta Rap genre. Moreover, due to the media’s repackaging and reconstruction of the worth of Rap music is the reason why most listening audiences do not, or will not, properly attribute the characteristic of protest to the prophetic content associated with not only Gangsta Rap music but the majority of Rap music as a whole.
Even more so ironic is the fact that the artists such as Ice Cube, Ice Tee, Tupac Shakur, and numerous others—who protested and verbalized their gripes about America and its police forces, are the same artists whom MTV and radio stations across the country, and the world, commoditized and celebrated in hopes of profiting off of the very verbiage and musical genre that was criticizing the white establishment. These Gangsta Rap artists became heroes in a sense, not only to young Black males and females who witnessed the same abuses and neglect that the music spoke of, but they also became cult heroes to the white listening audiences, specifically members of Generation X, who were either unaware of what was going on in the inner city, or the ‘hood’, or had only received a sanitized version of the plight of the Black American through old footage from the Civil Rights Era, familial discussions or white-owned print and visual media outlets.
Yet when we shift our lens from the literary etymology and social constructs and focus equally on the rhetorical and religious, our findings are striking. According to an article entitled “Anguish of the King Verdict” published by the Christian Century in May of 1992, “In Los Angeles on the day the verdict was announced, Cecil L. Murray, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, formed a circle of prayer with church officials and members and asked God to "help us localize the pain." Murray's church was the site of an appearance by Mayor Tom Bradley on the night of April 29. The meeting had been planned during the trial in hopes of cooling emotions that might be touched off if the officers were acquitted…”
The environment of the impoverished black Americans in Los Angeles (of which Rodney King is representative) in 1992 was extremely comparative to the environment of the 2nd Class citizen Jewish peoples of the Greco Roman world during the life and time of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, who has come to be known as a powerful prophet by those within and beyond the Christian religious circle, was a student of and professor against the oppression of a federal government system and structure that lorded over and abused his people. Jesus was a poor person of color and the Roman Empire was a group of elite Europeans. Nonetheless, the language and rhetoric that Jesus (and other prophetic figures) used was inflammatory to the ears of the roman empirical representatives.
What seems to have been lost in translation is the prophetic rhetoric Jesus spoke to the Jewish and Roman officials, which subsequently had him killed. Jesus’ language was what we would call in contemporary terms, “Gangsta” Rhetoric. Clearly, Jesus was able effectively to articulate the plight of his peoples due to (from his perspective) the unjust legislation that oppressed his people. A (re) reading of Matthew 23 is illustrative here.
"The riots in Los Angeles highlighted the previously contaminated relationship between the police and the African American community. Several years prior, N.W.A. had already begun to address the trending trepidation with a song entitled, "F**k the Police." Many of us may be taken aback by such a prophetic precursor, but let us investigate this statement using comparative analysis."
In the gospel of Matthew Jesus responds to the civic and social leaders’ (i.e. the elected officials and police) oppressive governing on behalf of the people they represented with these words, “"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! The term “woe” here, ouai (pronounced ooh-eye) in Greek (blueletterbible.org), is an interjectory exclamation of grief, disgust and dismissal. The slang comparative interjection is “f**k” (dictionary.com). Therefore, the comparative phrase for that would be consistent with what the audience heard Jesus say would be “F**k you scribes and Pharisees…”
Continuing, Jesus says the authorities of his day, “…build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and …you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” Here, Jesus has called the authorities murderers that have killed innocent people who have spoken out against oppression in the name of liberation. This unorthodox (ghetto) Nazarene then has the nerve to name call them by saying “…You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell...?” These labels and terms are in essence an indictment that they are devilish beings whose parents and their offspring (of which they are included) are “feminine nouns of uncertain etymological origins” (blueletterbible.org) that need to go to hell!!! This insinuates that in contemporary vernacular Jesus just called them “b****es.”
Jesus then closes this periscope with the satirical indictment screaming out - "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate...” - or in comparative words - Los Angeles Los Angeles the city that kills black people and lets the police off Scott free!!! (Matt 23:28-38 NRSV) (edits by authors)
To be clear, we are NOT drawing these parallels for the sake of shock and awe. Moreover, our intent is to expand the scope and sensitivity to language used by different subjects that receive different interpretations which ignore the etymological ethos that gives them specific meaning.
The use of language and censorship in American culture has been a topic of rhetorical debate since the implementation of the first amendment. Most often, the dismissal of a term is associated with the rejection of its user. Therefore, we are arguing that Gangsta rap has been dismissed as an attempt to continue the disenfranchisement of a group of people based upon mythical representations of their character.
At some point, the harsh realities of the environment Jesus was reared in has become sanitized, pseudo-spiritualized and misappropriated and Jesus himself has been “white-washed.” The result is a mythical line of demarcation regarding Christianity and political implications in contemporary contexts. This reinforces a platonic dualism that provides an argument of convenience for those who want to focus on content more so than context.
When dealing with rhetoric, especially protest and prophetic rhetoric, both content and context is paramount. For language to be considered vulgar is for it to be vilified as foreign. In religious terms these themes are comparative to sacred and secular appropriations. However, for something to be sacred to a given community doesn’t necessarily affirm the divinity therein. What is sacred in one community can very well be ordinary or profane (the root word for profanity) in another.
The religious community played (and continues to play) a large role in the dismissal and negative portrayal of gangsta rap. However, riotous behavior and language is what placed Jesus of Nazareth on the Calvary crucifix. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not executed because of blasphemy or some other religious misstep. Jesus was convicted and subsequently lynched because of sedition – the use inflammatory language and rhetoric that the Roman Empire feared would start a riot.
If we can draw parallels between the riot spawned by the King beating and acquittal of the officers (that was only part of the larger element of oppression which exists in countless urban communities like South Central Los Angeles) aligned with the atmosphere which spurred the religious revolution we know as Christianity, we may be able to resolve and further understand a deeply prophetic response to oppression.
It is fair to suggest that in the face of unyielding oppression a prophetic voice (or voices) cannot help but speak. This is the function of the prophet. Couple this with the sad reality that in both South Central LA and ancient Rome the institutions (i.e. the church and/or the federal government) that ought to have been the platform for representation of the oppressed peoples was (and sadly continues to be) silent. Even worse, sometimes these communities are hypocritical and beneficiaries of the oppressive system itself. In response to the violence that had broken out, the same “Anguish of the King Verdict” article quotes Davida Foy Crabtree, conference minister of the United Church of Christ's Pasadena-based Southern California Conference interpretation of the cause and result of these events thusly, "…We are devastated by the night of violence, but we must all understand it as the mirror image of decades of official violence masquerading as police protection." Crabtree added, "Perhaps now the white community can understand just how deep racism runs in our society. After decades of lip service and Band-Aid service programs, perhaps now our whole nation will face the fundamental issue of economic justice."
Should Jesus have not spoken of the impending wrath that he perceived to be on the horizon for the Scribes and Pharisees (i.e. the civic officials and police of his day)? Anyone who studies prophetic rhetoric would argue that the prophet had little choice other than to speak that which the prophet presumed God had inspired the prophet to speak unless the prophet wanted “…fire [to be] shut up in [his/her] bones…”
Herein lies the problem with this comparative analysis for the cursory listener - The way we have compartmentalized spirituality in our culture has allowed for us disconnect the relationship between religion and empires. The same community that has seemingly embraced “Christianity” as a religion (and in many ways sought to make it the corporate religion of the state) has not been able to reconcile the presentation of gangsta rap with the prophetic and protest rhetoric and presentation of the biblical narrative ethos. As we do this we miss an opportunity to experience contemporary prophetic representations. Therefore, our responsibility now must be to bridge the gap between the King riot and the everyday riots in neighborhoods all over urban America.