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Moral Panics: Gangsta Rap

The Task

The original essay posed this task:

"Kim Howells, culture minister [in 2002], referring to rap culture stated, “It is a big problem. Lyrics don’t kill people but they don’t half enhance the fare we get from videos and films. It has created a culture where killing is almost a fashion accessory.” Analyse this statement with reference to appropriate media theory."

The Essay

“F**kin’ with me ‘coz I’m a teenager

With a little bit of gold and a pager” – NWA – Fuck Tha Police

The violence debate is of key interest to media researchers. Whenever a violent crime involving young people occurs, a ‘moral panic’ breaks out and campaigners from all walks of life appear again to give their opinion on the subject, usually demanding either censorship of the media or a complete ban on guns, depending on their viewpoint. This essay aims to analyse Kim Howells’ statement on rap culture using media theory in an attempt to assess its actual validity.

Kim Howell’s statement came after two girls were shot dead at a New Year’s party in Birmingham in January 2003. The girls were 17 and 18 years old, and were thought to have been caught up in a gang related incident on the Aston estate, a deprived area of Birmingham with a large black population. Politicians, journalists and social commentators were quick to point the finger at various targets, but this time the coverage focussed on rap lyrics. The So Solid Crew, a UK garage act whose career has been dogged by arrests for gun possession and shootings at their concerts, were frequently mentioned in the coverage, the group accused of glamorising guns and the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle. Calls for tighter regulation of guns were ignored, as gang members aren’t known for using legal means to obtain weapons. The backlash to this moral panic was instant, as other columnist and TV pundits suggested that Howells suffered from “a fundamental misunderstanding about who black people are, how they live their lives” (Eshun: 2003), perhaps suggesting a form of institutional racism.

But perhaps critics are looking at the wrong side of the Atlantic. While acts like So Solid Crew are ‘big’ in Britain, even here they sell far less records than American rap stars like Eminem, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. While the So Solid Crew mentioned guns every so often in songs, Snoop Dogg has been up on a murder charge, and newcomer 50 Cent has been shot 9 times, once in the face. Acts like these, and ‘gangsta rap’ predecessors like Ice-T and the group NWA talk about gang violence, drug dealing, beating women and other controversial subjects. American artists have more money for promotion, and as such more influence within rap culture.

As ever in the violence debate, the influence of television and films was a target for examination, although rap lyrics were the main subject of debate. But rap culture is in the business of filmmaking. Hip Hop films have been around almost as long as the music, portraying an image of the lifestyle. Wildstyle focuses on the graffiti aspect of rap culture, as well as having a message about unity. At the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, films starring rappers began to appear such as Friday, starring NWA’s Ice Cube. As well as starring, he provided a few songs for the soundtrack. Tupac Shakur (aka 2Pac) starred in a film called Gang Related (Kouf: 1997), released after his death, where he played a corrupt police officer running a drug scam on the side. The plot involves some drive-by shooting, something Shakur had been a victim of before.

According to Klein (2000), clothing companies such as Nike, Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger target the ghettos of New York and Los Angeles as their primary market, knowing that associating their products with ‘the streets’ and giving rappers like Snoop Dogg free clothes gives their brands ‘cool’ status among a wider youth market. This secondary market is white middle class youth, with large disposable incomes. These are the people who will buy the clothes, buy the CDs, go see the film, buy the film on DVD and take their logo covered bodies to arenas to watch their favourite rapper, buying a t-shirt and baseball cap on their way out.

The media are keen to downplay the link between violence on screen and violent behaviour in children, but then the media has a vested interest in keeping violence on television (since it’s good for the ratings) and so tend to brush over the effects debate.

To assess the influence of rap lyrics and violent imagery on people exposed to it academically audience theory can be used. The effects model favours a direct interpretation by listeners or viewers, and suggests that “meanings are ‘injected’ into this mass audience’s minds by the powerful syringe-like media”(Branston and Stafford: 1996, p309). Chuck D, a member of the rap group Public Enemy said:

“The gang problem is not just in L.A., Chicago, or New York. The gang problem is in the middle of those major cities that you rarely ever hear of: Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Houston, Texas… and many others. They’re heavily influenced by the news media coming from the bigger cities. The copycat gangsterism occurs in places like Kansas City, which is the wildest situation that you ever want to confront because in Kansas City you have people that have become Crips and Bloods from just choosing sides after seeing the movie ‘Colours’.” (Chuck D w/ Jah, Y.: 1997, p245)

This quote seems to support the effects model, showing a link between images in films about gangs and gang behaviour. Obviously there were gangs before there were films about gangs, but the prevalence of these images and the alleged glorification of violence appears to have had some effect. Martin D. Carter (1971, p105) suggested that violence on television “may retard children’s awareness of the serious consequences of violence in everyday life, encouraging a greater acceptance of aggression to solve conflicts.”

The uses and gratifications model suggests that ‘audience members’ choose media products to gratify their needs (Morley: 1991), suggesting that all ‘consumers’ are empowered text decoders and ignoring differences in intelligence, social context and income. To talk about a rap culture consumer is not to talk about one homogenous social grouping. Rap was created in the ghettos of New York, but its audience is much more varied than just black American youths with low incomes. But then gang violence has spread, especially in America:

“Youth crime, guns and gang violence are now national issues. The more they get covered and interpreted on the news and in the media and also glorified in films, videos, and records, the bigger they become.”(Chuck D w/ Jah, Y.: 1997, p184)

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Some research suggests that violent imagery only has a real effect if the viewer has experience of such imagery:

“Children, they found, tended to be most disturbed by real-life situations involving aggression, where they were able to identify themselves. They appeared to be less concerned with the amount of violence than the situation in which it occurred. Guns did not seem to produce much fear, but more ‘homely’ weapons such as knives and daggers were far more disturbing. One point made fairly clearly was that with normal children the effect of television violence was not generally to arouse more aggressive attitudes. There were, however, a small number of emotionally disturbed children who did appear to become more aggressive.” (Carter: 1971, p104-105)

This theory would suggest that someone who does not come into contact with guns would be less effected by watching a film with multiple shootings such as Terminator 2, but someone who grew up around gun violence would become more aggressive upon viewing such a scene.

It could be argued that we now live in a more liberal society where violence is frowned upon more by the status quo. Recently a six-year-old boy was expelled for violent behaviour. Ten years ago, boys fighting at school would warrant a good telling off, and maybe a letter to the parents if it was a repeat offence. Now it results in expulsion. Society is becoming less tolerant of violence.

What actually constitutes ‘rap culture’? Howells seems to be focussing on the aspects which appear to promote or glorify violence, but not all rap is about being a ‘gangsta’ or thinly veiled misogyny. A lot of rap is positive, with groups such as De La Soul promoting a peaceful alternative to the violence of NWA. Public Enemy, despite courting controversy, tended to speak in a similarly positive way, promoting empowerment among black youth, rather than encouraging them to pick up a gun. Frequently, rap is presented by the media as a dangerous genre, and a negative influence on young people. Rap music was subject to mass criticism in the early 1990s, where organisations such as the PMRC called for some artists to be banned or censored, particularly acts like Ice-T and NWA. Fernando explains why their lyrics caused such moral panic.

“Like any rock group worth its electric guitars, N.W.A. caused mass hysteria in most of the population over 30. As heartless, AK-47-wielding black males rallying under the cry of “fuck the police” (for which they were censured by the F.B.I.), they represented white America’s worst nightmare – except, of course, for the rebellious youths who ate it up. The critics asked why there was so much negativity, violence and profanity. For N.W.A., the answer was simple: This is our reality, unadulterated and without apology.” (Fernando: 1995, p100)

Ice-T had incensed the police force with a song called Cop Killer. Ice-T claimed the track was response to the Rodney King beatings:

“Cop killer, better you than me.
Cop killer, f**k police brutality!
Cop killer, I know your family's grievin'
(f**k 'em)
Cop killer, but tonight we get even.”

(Bodycount, 1991)

The track was banned and Ice-T dropped from his label both as a solo artist and a member of the band Bodycount, (who recorded the track in 1992) as a result of a massive media backlash and the ensuing moral panic.

Was the real cause of this outrage the fear of impressionable listeners taking Ice-T’s advice and killing police officers? Perhaps the reality of the situation is a case of censorship and misrepresentation of both hip-hop and its audience.

In terms of censorship, many artists have been silenced while attempting to make political statements. Rock band System Of A Down had a free concert closed down by police in 2002. Despite the fact that the concert had been planned for months, police claimed that it was ‘unsafe’ to continue. System Of A Down songs were banned from the radio in the wake of the September 11th disaster in New York, authorities citing that the band’s political sentiments might upset those in shock. More recently, the video for their anti-war song Boom! was banned in the United States, despite featuring no ‘bad’ language, nudity or violence. The video is essentially a collage of footage for anti-war protests around the world on February 15th 2003, so it’s banning seems to be a case of silencing a dissenting voice, as Ice-T was silenced over police brutality.

Perhaps there is a ”double standard at play when it comes to gangster imagery” as Yvonne Bynoe (2001) suggests, citing the critical praise from the mainstream media that the T.V. show The Sopranos (about a mafia boss) receives as a key point. “Are White sociopaths less scary than Black ones?” she asks, not unreasonably. Films like Goodfellas present gang life in a stylised way, but tend not to be mentioned in such debates because they are ‘classic’ films. The issue of race is important, and the phenomenal success of Eminem illustrates this interestingly. As a white rapper, Eminem is in an unusual situation. The fact that he grew up in the slums of Detroit makes him ‘real’ to the ghetto youth who decide what is ‘cool’ in rap. White rappers were previously rare, and successful ones even more so. Not only does Eminem have ‘real’ status, but also he has the respect of established rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, which aided his career greatly. More importantly, mainstream critics have not vilified him in same way earlier rappers were, despite being as offensive as anyone:

“When Chuck D and his peers were rapping about having a state holiday for Martin Luther King, police misconduct, and the misery of ghetto life, they were deemed threats to America. Now some years later a white rapper who refers to gays and women in the crudest of terms and seems to see rape and murder as recreational activities is a brilliant jokester.” (Bynoe: 2001)

The issue of glorification of violence is a key one. While commentators tend to throw this statement around with conviction, many rappers claim that all they are doing is ‘telling it how it is’ and presenting the harsh realities of life in the ghetto, as Fernando Jr. explains:

“Rappers take a lot of heat for glorifying this lifestyle, but for many, [gang]banging is as normal as a corner office on the eleventh floor and softball in the park on weekends. It all goes back to the City of Angels, which Ice-T, among the first street reporters, dubbed “home of the body bag.” As the territorial stomping grounds of some 1000 gangs claiming a membership of 150000, according to a May 1992 report issued by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, L.A. is also naturally acknowledged as the gangsta rap capital.” (SH Fernando Jr.: 1995, p92)

But, as Chuck D states, “Most recording artists that have record contracts aren’t gangsters” (Chuck D w/ Jah, Y.: 1997, p249), referring to artists such as Jay-Z and Eminem who have been made international superstars on the back of their violent lyrics and ‘bad boy’ images. Rap culture presents and reinforces a view of street life, focussing on money, cars, ‘bitches’, guns and drugs. By association, it presents an image of young black males which I problematic. On the one hand, they are seen as ‘cool’ within youth culture and rap culture, while outside this other opinions form, such as a stereotype of a gun-toting thug dripping with gold purchased with drug money. This is an extreme of course.

Of course, many (if not most) British rap fans are both white and middle class. If violent images have such a strong effect on youth, are we going to see gun crime on the streets of Kensington? Will the youth of Tunbridge Wells rise up against the police, fuelled by rap lyrics and MTV Base? We shall see.

Rap music is big business in 2003. Rapper 50 Cent is being touted as ‘the next big thing’ by the music industry, while Eminem continues to be one of the world’s most famous entertainers. Youth culture has always worried the establishment, dating back to the Sex Pistols, The Beatles and beyond, all accused of corrupting the youth of the nation. It comes down to being little more than another moral panic, a knee-jerk reaction to a tragic event which draws attention away from the real problems like poverty, heroin and the proliferation of illegal guns. While rap lyrics can have a contributory effect on violent behaviour, a range of social, moral and economic factors determine the effect on the individual. Kim Howells is not a fool: he knows he has to keep himself in the public eye to get to the higher reaches of the political system, and that Middle Englanders are always ready to jump on another moral panic. But to describe it as a ‘culture where killing is almost a fashion accessory” is either to show a fundamental misunderstanding of what hip-hop is about, or a cynical attempt to get his name in the newspapers.

The References


Branston, G. and Stafford, R. (1996) The Media Students Book, London: Routledge

Carter, M. D. (1971) An Introduction to Mass Communications, London: Macmillan

Fernando Jr., S. H. (1995) The New Beats: Exploring the Music Culture and Attitudes of Hip-Hop, Edinburgh: Payback

Klein N. (2000) No Logo, London: Flamingo.

Morley, D. (1991) cited in Branston, G. and Stafford, R. (1996)

Ridenhour, C. aka Chuck D with Jah, Y., (1997) Fight The Power, Edinburgh: Payback p184


Eshun, E. (2003) from Newsnight (BBC2) broadcast 13th Jan 2003

Web Sites

Bynoe, Y. (2001) Is There a Gangsta Double Standard?, retrieved from 25/3/2003


Gang Related (1997), dir. Kouf, J., Orion


Bodycount (feat Ice-T.) (1991) Cop Killer

NWA (1988) F**k Tha Police, from Straight Outta Compton

© 2019 Luke Chant

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