Dr Boyce Watkins: The music industry is killing more black men than the Klan

This week, I had a conversation with Father Michael Pfleger, head of the Saint Sabina church on the southwest side of Chicago. Father Pfleger actively engages with struggling young black men in the consistent fight for their humanity, education, prosperity and survival.

by Dr Boyce Watkins

Pfleger, more than most men in his position, knows the reality behind the promotion of violence in hip-hop music. His church resides in the center of the community that produced “Drill Music,” which the rapper Rhymefest refers to as “the theme music to murder.”

For those who live in middle and upper class America, the music is merely harmless entertainment, no different from a Scarface movie. But for those who live in these neighborhoods, the impact of the music is as real as the bullets that murdered a 9-year old boy last week. The catchy and compelling messages manifest themselves in communities where it’s easier for a black man to get a gun than it is for him to get an education. It’s easy to put your life on the line when you have nothing to live for.

As a person who’s taught in five business schools over the last 20 years, I’ve learned a great deal about the power of marketing. Corporations spend billions in their quest to shape consumer thinking and behavior. Hip-hop music is among the most powerful and persuasive forms of marketing imaginable. Black teens get many of their social cues from their favorite hip-hop artists, and this is a gold mine for companies seeking to cash in.

So, that brings us to the latest hip-hop phenom, Bobby Shmurda (aka Ackquille Pollard). Bobby’s song “Hot N*gga” is still being played around the nation, and even Beyonce did the “Shmurda dance” on stage. The imagery on the video consists of the kind of stuff you might expect in any gangsta’s paradise: Thuggin, smoking, drinking, “wildin,” and repeatedly squeezing imaginary triggers at the camera. Of course, in-between, there’s talk about women and “getting money,” the standard formula for a lot of the “gangsta” rap music videos of today.

Ironically, it is only in this genre that you see the same messages repeated over and over again, as if they are all coming from the same musical blueprint. Many of these performances don’t fall under the domain of free and creative expression, since it’s hard to call yourself creative when you’re basically saying the same thing that the last guy said in the video right before your own.

The Bobby Shmurda video’s 14 million views reflect the fact that Bobby not only has a strong following, he’s also got corporate backing, providing the financial fuel necessary to mass market a borderline-genocidal message to millions of marginalized young black men.

The late rapper Tupac Shakur once said this in the song “Only God can Judge Me”: “No more hesitation, each and every black male’s trapped, and they wonder why we’re suicidal running round strapped.”

When marginalized, miseducated, and neglected young black males see the Bobby Shmurda songs being promoted by Epic Records, they are deeply affected. Similar to the way NASA missions inspired millions of kids in the 1960s to grow up and become scientists, major music labels increase the social capital available to black men who choose to become “thugz, killaz, gangstaz” and all the other things that might land them in prison. We know that impressionable teens are an easy target audience for any corporate marketing machine, and such bastardized forms of hip-hop music have done a number on these otherwise promising young men.

In light of the recent shooting of Michael Brown and the unprecedented amount of solidarity shown by his supporters, there is no denying the blatant contradiction of trying to convince the world that black male life is valuable, while corporations are mass marketing imagery which argues that black male life has no value at all. Ironically, the fact that these corporate-sponsored messages are coming out of the mouths of black men on stage only serves to confuse those who somehow think that all black men are co-signing on this frightening social tornado.

While the artist is an easy and relevant target in the campaign to confront violent messages in hip-hop, we must remember that Bobby Shmurda is just a kid. The greatest culprits in the musical promotion of black male criminality are the wealthy, 50-year old executives who know the real consequences of convincing millions of young men to break the law and get themselves killed.

One very telling piece of evidence of the impact of this music is the fact that Bobby himself was arrested on a gun charge and is now facing several years in prison.

Similar to the way tobacco manufacturers were told that they can no longer market to children, we must consider the implications of marketing repetitive, extremely violent music to young people, especially those who have easy access to guns. Father Pfleger recently protested Chuck’s gunshop in Riverdale, Illinois, because Chuck’s is one of many shops that have guns which “miraculously” end up in the hands of criminals committing homicides on the south side of Chicago.

So, while Bobby Shmurda and Drill music are sources of thug fantasy for members of the American middle class, these situations become very real in impoverished communities with broken families and ready access to weapons. Real people are dying over “rap beefs,” with one example being the rapper Lil Jo Jo, who was gunned down right after making a song attacking his rival, Chief Keef.

When it’s all said and done, action should be taken against big record labels promoting toxic music. If people are dying as a result of your product, then you are liable for its effects. This is especially true if the consumers are underage. At the very least, irresponsibly profiting from clearly destructive messages is symptomatic of dastardly business models, hurtful racism and unAmerican corporate citizenship.

Bobby Shmurda appears to be an assailant, but the truth is that he is another young victim. He’s a victim of the fact that many of the adults managing him have failed to help him understand the power of his words. Even worse, they’ve given him millions of dollars to promote his misguided message, and it’s already helped ruin his life.

It’s time to end the era of corporations promoting harmful black male stereotypes without accountability. These images signal to the world that black men are animals who are unworthy of even the most basic amounts of dignity. When the world is taught to see us as trigger-happy thugs, its easy to convince a jury that we deserve to be shot down the by police, George Zimmerman, or anyone else.

Record labels promoting violent stereotypes are every bit as harmful as the Ku Klux Klan. That’s just a fundamental fact.

*Dr Boyce Watkins is a Finance PhD and author of the book, “Commercialized hip-hop: The gospel of self-destruction.” (http://store.yourblackworld.net/) To have Dr Watkins’ commentary delivered to your email, please click here.(https://greatblackspeakers.wufoo.com/forms/dr-boyce-watkins-on-aol-black-voices/)

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