My current book project is a history of gangsta rap in the 20th century. I examine the ways the genre impacted public discussions on race and crime during a “tough-on-crime-era” in American politics.
Imagine my surprise when I read Joe Gyan Jr.’s summary of a sentencing hearing that also involved the infamous genre called “gangsta.”
As she sentenced 20-year-old Michael Louding to life imprisonment without parole, state District Judge Trudy White reflected on the “culture of violence” in the African-American community. One of the many culprits, she surmised, was the profane, violent and misogynistic world of gangsta rap.
I felt like I had entered a time machine. During the 1980s and 1990s, as gangsta rap acts such as N.W.A. and Snoop Doggy Dogg were making millions, culture warriors such as Tipper Gore, C. Delores Tucker and Bob Dole waged war against a so-called “culture of violence.”
Gangs and drugs definitely plagued America’s inner cities at this time. However, so did unemployment, low wages and a vanishing social safety net. Rather than address such problems, politicians placed blame squarely on these communities.
When they were not chastising rappers for promoting bad behavior, they passed harsh sentencing laws that have helped make the United States the world’s leading jailer.
Much like the war on gangsta during the late 20th century ignored the effects that era’s policies had on our most vulnerable citizens, I fear White’s reflections and others like them have similar effects. Consider the following:
Our state government consistently drains public schools and universities of essential resources. This hurts the quality of education and leads to higher dropout rates. As Judge White noted, more dropouts leads to more prisoners.
Louisiana has one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S., yet our elected officials consistently cut public resources, court low-wage jobs and pursue other policies deeply corrosive to the welfare of the poor and working class.
I trust that Judge White’s concerns are earnest. However, when we fixate on scapegoats such as gangsta rap, we ignore the role of larger systemic factors that lead young men such as Louding to a life of crime. Perhaps if his community had the resources it needed, Louding might have stood a better chance earlier on.
I am reminded of Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s eloquent words before the U.S. Senate in 1994, when she explained gangsta rap was a reflection, not a cause, of social ills.
She claimed, “I take responsibility for trying to understand what they are saying.” America’s reliance on incarceration is an unmitigated disaster and we help no one by imprisoning Michael Louding for the rest of his life. I think we stand to gain a lot, however, by heeding Waters’s words and listening.
assistant professor, communication studies, LSU