Talking Rap

Issue section: 

Blaming hip-hop won't tackle gun crime.

I remember just after the Columbine massacre hearing some right wing American shock-jock being interviewed as to why the massacre had happened. The music of Marilyn Manson, video nasties, and lack of parental control were all cited. When the interviewer asked whether gun control might not help, the shock-jock dismissed this as so much liberal hooey.

Now it may seem obvious that CDs or indeed videos are not much use as weapons of any kind of destruction, and that a gun is, by any standards, a potentially lethal weapon. But it didn't even occur to this jerk that he sounded absurd. Yet cultural manifestations of some of the nastier aspects of society are far easier to put forward than the realities of life that might have created these nastier aspects.

The rather glib Blairite rallying cry of 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' becomes even glibber when a government minister reveals that the 'causes of crime' are actually a motley group of rappers. He later added violent play-station games. That, though, appears to be what 'culture' (god help us) secretary Kim Howells believes. In the aftermath of the Birmingham shootings we need apparently look no further than rap music in general and the 'macho idiot rappers' of So Solid Crew in particular, and video games, to explain 'gun culture', 'black on black crime', and general 'lawlessness' and 'hooliganism'.

This black on black crime stuff fascinates me. I live in an area of London where there have been a number of violent drug-related deaths over the past few months, and the ethnic mix of killers and killed has been great. Nobody in the area is going on about Greek on Italian crime or second generation Irish on English crime.

How handy, though, that music and video are there so that we don't need any of that liberal guff about poverty, lack of resources, alienation, or any of those other things that Blair has failed to deal with to explain violent crime. Like the mad rantings of the shock-jock, one is forced to stand back from this and wonder at the inanity of it all.

Indeed how strange that this pillar of the New Labour intelligentsia needs to have a member of So Solid Crew explain to him that their music merely reflected 'real life issues and what's going on on the can't blame So Solid for all the gun violence out there'. So banal is this truism, that you would hardly think it worth stating. Yet clearly it has passed Howells by.

Howells is a strange man. A student radical influenced by Trotskyism in 1968, he studied at Hornsey College of Art, renowned for its student militancy and avant-garde attitude to art. Almost uniquely among his generation, he moved from the fringes of Trotskyism to the staid grey world of the Communist Party of Great Britain. From there he trod a more common path to union officialdom, and finally to his latest incarnation, that of Blairite cultural fuddy duddy.

It is crucial that the left doesn't fall for his line. True, some rap lyrics are unpleasant, nihilistic, homophobic, and/or misogynist, and some of the artists are far from pleasant people. Yet rap also finds an echo in the realities of modern urban life, and reflects anger and alienation, and to cast haughty judgement on it is little better than my parents telling me that the Rolling Stones were nasty and that you 'couldn't hear the words'.

Ah, it's said, but their violent lyrics are causing all the violence. Now it would be foolish of me to say that there isn't some vulnerable messed up soul out there who, having listened to the lyrics of some song, decided to do something violent. But I have no idea where this gets us. After all, the guy who tried to assassinate Ronnie Regan claimed that his love for Jodie Foster, after having seen her in the classic 'Taxi Driver', was the cause for his act of violence. Should we conclude that the film should be banned (or, come to think of it, shown daily in all public places)?

An entire terrorist movement in the United States in the late 1960s, the Weathermen, took their name from a line in a Bob Dylan song. When Charles Manson and his crew murdered Sharon Tate and others they scrawled the words 'Piggies' all over the wall. It was a direct lift from a Beatles song. Indeed the Beatles recorded a song which went 'Happiness is a warm gun, bang bang shoot shoot'. No doubt it became an anthem for 'white on white crime' at the time.

I also think I have discovered the origin of Al Qaida. A singer in the 1960s released a song called 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun'. It included the lines,

'And all those people who put me down

You better get ready to run

Cuz I'm gonna get me a gun.'

His name was Cat Stevens. He later changed it to Yusuf Islam on converting to Islam. Now I reckon that in his pre-radical days when he lived in London Osama Bin Laden would, on his way to watch Arsenal on a Saturday afternoon, be listening to his co-religionist's classic on a Walkman, and as a result turned to the gun and violent means to reach his political ends.

Ah, to live in the simple world of Kim Howells--lock up Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Cat Stevens, Eminem and So Solid Crew and you've done away with all the evil in the world. No drug-related crime, no urban terror, no mad assassins, no 11 September, and all at little or no cost.

Culture minister? Why the man should be home secretary. Watch out Blunkett! He's comin' to get ya.