May 18, 2013
David Muhammad: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 3, 2006
By Sheerly Avni
On March 6, 2006, just one day after the hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia took home an Academy Award for its song “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp,” David Muhammad, a respected black activist and youth mentor in Oakland, Calif., published a short Op-Ed piece on an multi-ethnic wire service in which he blamed some of rap’s biggest stars for promoting what he called a “culture of death” among young Americans.
In the essay, Muhammad called out the usual suspects: scantily clad women in rap videos; songs that glorify the gangster lifestyle; the thuggish personas of the rappers themselves. But he took the standard critique much further, suggesting that corporate hip-hop culture is helping kill black teenagers. He reserved special ire for the multibillion-dollar hip-hop industry. “The culture,” he wrote, “has denigrated into an embarrassing bastion of filth—promoting violence, drugs, irresponsible sex, excessive materialism, and delinquent behavior.”
Bastion of filth? These are strong words, and they sound like what one would hear from a hate-sputtering evangelical on late-night TV, not a progressive Bay Area youth mentor like Muhammad. On the other hand, as of this writing, there have been 35 homicides in the city of Oakland in 2006, more than twice the number by the same time last year. And, increasingly, the violence does not even seem based on the turf vendettas or drug market disputes to which the beleaguered city has grown accustomed in the 20 years following a devastating crack epidemic. Rather, the violence seems random and senseless, a nightmarish vision out of “A Clockwork Orange”—rampaging groups of kids shattering a block’s worth of automobile windows for the fun of it, shootings of near-strangers erupting over intoxicated arguments, fights and gunshots erupting at late-night parties.
Right now, the link between violence and music in Oakland and the surrounding Bay Area seems particularly manifest. Rappers native to that locale, notably B-Legit, the recently deceased Mac Dre, and current national chart topper E-40, are considered some of “realest” rappers in the country—which, according to the dubious ethics of hip-hop culture, means that most of their glorifications of pimping, illegal drug dealing, gang rivalries and street shootings reflect direct criminal experience. The authenticity of Bay Area rappers has never been questioned, but American hip-hop culture’s romanticization of that authenticity deserves a closer look, especially now as Bay Area rap moves to the top of the national charts.
Of course, the crimes and other problems plaguing Oakland are far from an isolated crisis. In nearly every urban center in the country, violent crimes are on the rise, as are unemployment and incarceration rates among black men and new cases of AIDS among black women. Add increasingly violent and sexually explicit lyrics in a musical genre that is now thoroughly mainstream, and the term “culture of death” seems more like an accurate description than an alarmist code word.
With Muhammad, however, it’s a different story; all he has to do is show up.
Handsome, well-spoken, straight-backed and remarkably even tempered, Muhammad commands immediate respect from the counselors, the staff and even the most rebellious youth—not only because he himself was raised on and by the Oakland streets but also because of his calm demeanor. I have never seen him lose his cool, even though more than once he was late for workshops because he’d been attending the funeral of one of the young men he had mentored or comforting one of their grieving grandmothers.
He is also rather private: Many of the details of his own life story—one which included being a detainee in the facility where he now leads discussions every Tuesday—were news to me. I did not know until he was filling me in on his background after we wrapped up the interview, for example, that he was raised by a single mother in Oakland; that he had one older brother who was a crack addict, another who was a crack dealer, and that he himself began selling drugs when he was barely into his teens. Nor did I know that after several stints in juvie, and six months homeless, he was taken in by the grandmother of a close friend, or that what finally turned him around was the intervention of a demanding football coach, a local youth group, and mostly, the role model he found in the teacher of his black studies class.
In other words, Muhammad is not just a conservative crank who lives in fear of dirty words. When he calls out negative influences in his community, he’s speaking from a combined personal and professional authority very few of us can match.
I asked him to speak with Truthdig about what led him to turn against the music he loves—more than once I’ve heard the bass booming out of his van as he peeled out of the Juvenile Hall parking lot—and he readily agreed, scheduling me between appointments. In his typical overextended style, he called me from the road, between a meeting with a judge, whom he was encouraging to focus more on diversion than on incarceration, and a speaking engagement with a group of inmates in a prison in Vacaville, Calif. In his van there were three young men, clients of his mentoring program, whom he was shuttling from work to home.
Occasionally Muhammad would stop to ask their help when trying to remember a specific lyric—as he explained why, after 33 years, he decided to take a stand denouncing the very music that he grew up on.
Sheerly Avni : What do you mean when you say “culture of death”?
David Muhammad: Wait, let me just start by saying this: As I’ve talked about my article, both on the radio and through e-mails, I have had to continually remind people that my perspective is not just hearing it and responding to what I hear, but seeing the influence of the music on the young people I work with.
I can see that they are literally part of a culture of death - there is drug abuse, alcohol consumption, delinquent behavior, an addiction to money, violence, reckless behavior. These youth come into my office after time spent in Juvenile Hall or at the California Youth Authority, and they talk about “Thizzing” -taking Ecstasy, usually in combination with other drugs, like “purp” (weed) and taking ‘bo’ (Robitussin with codeine). They talk about whip riding, which means driving while not actually sitting in the car. And, of course, they talk about going dumb, going stupid, which usually means exactly that.
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