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David Muhammad: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 3, 2006
By Sheerly Avni
These are all words and images straight out of the lyrics of E-40, the Bay Area’s most popular rapper - his album is now number one on the national hip-hop charts. The local homicide rate in Oakland more than doubled in the past year, just as the Bay Area “hyphy” movement, with its lyrics about thizzing and going dumb and sippin’ ‘bo,’ have also blown up, locally and nationally. Are you suggesting a relation between the two?
I really can’t help but see a correlation.
I’m not going to say the music is exclusively at fault, when I know the community is designed for its own destruction: blight, poverty, high unemployment, a liquor store on every corner, substandard education, drugs readily available and guns easily accessible, but these factors have all been in place for a long time. So what drives the crime spikes are added things, like the music being as bad as it is.
You think the music is part of what influences the kids’ behavior.
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And then there’s a rise in Ecstasy use, which started as a white rave thing, and is now growing exponentially in the black community. In Oakland it is on the rise in connection with “Hyphy” and the “Thizz” movement. There are club nights called Thizz, record labels called Thizz, the celebration of “thizzing” is all over Bay Area slang and rap, and now it’s spreading nationally…. Thizzing means, specifically, being on Ecstasy, usually mixed with other drugs, usually taken in large quantities.
Now you can ask, does life imitate art or does art imitate life? Of course inner-city kids were using Ecstasy before it was in all the rap, but after the songs started talking about it, it exploded.
I see the same kids you do, and hear what they say, and I agree that when they say “thizz” or “going dumb,” they mean exactly what you’re talking about. But words change. Can’t “going dumb” come to mean partying? Having a good time?
You know, we had a young man, now a graduate of the program, but he still comes consistently. He’s incredibly focused, incredibly bright ... he’s never even really been in trouble. But sure enough he went recently to a party where people weren’t out selling drugs, they weren’t exhibiting gang behavior, but they did start “going dumb.” Someone pulled out a gun, he got shot and ended up in the hospital.
It’s another big thing in the music, where you suggest that shooting people is a reasonable thing to do. That’s not just having a good time, and it speaks volumes to a culture of death, where you have young people 15, 16 years old who’ve gone to 10 funerals. You believe you won’t live past 21.
So why blame the messenger? This music may be speaking to where the kids are actually at.
No! Let’s be clear: The music did not create the situation. But the music has made it worse. It has exacerbated the problems, and it has promoted insane and destructive beliefs and attitudes in the country’s most vulnerable communities.
This is a community that has had a very difficult time defending itself from a series of afflictions: higher AIDS rates and cancer rates; incarceration, poverty, [poor] education performance, and first and foremost the devastating legacy of the crack epidemic. Back to that New York Times front-page story a few weeks ago: More than half of black men in the inner city are dropping out of high school.
Now that is horrific. And it should call for an outright state of emergency, but the national response to that statistic is almost “business as usual.”
Meanwhile, the worst and most irresponsible criminal behavior is being promoted by these rap artists, the ones who actually have the ear of these young people. And I see how much it impacts their behavior, and how they wind up being locked up for it - or worse.
Like that party last week in South Berkeley just across the Oakland border, where a father was throwing a nonalcoholic party for his teenaged daughter and her friends. He kicked out a group of young men for showing up drunk, high, and flashing guns. One of the young men broke back into the house and shot him fatally twice in the chest.
Being high and drunk, thinking what, [his voice rises, for the first time in the conversation] “Because you kicked me outta party, I’ma kill you!” ?
There’s that line by Ludacris: “Move bitch, get out the way.” It’s pushing a culture of violence and disrespect as a means of living.
When you were young, you listened to hip-hop. Usually the most violent hip-hop you could find. Do you remember the music that you used to listen to, growing up, and how much it influenced you when you were running the streets in the ‘80s?
While in it? I remember the connection between the music and my own irresponsible sexual relationships, without question.
And I know when I was going to do acts of violence, it would be like a rallying cry, or a soundtrack for my life. We would get it in the car, put on the hard music, put on some NWA, or maybe Ice-T, and go do some violence. We’d be on our way to go shoot somebody, go jump somebody, go get money from someone that owed us ... and the music was how we pumped ourselves up.
Also, complaints about obscenity in the music are hardly new. There was a huge controversy over Ice-T’s song “LTGBF” in the late ‘80s, as well as a good deal of concern over the violence promoted by bands like Niggas With Attitude.
Back then in the mid-‘80s, the kind of attitudes you saw in Ice-T were the exception. Today, they are the rule. Today, if you turn on any hip-hop radio station, I would probably guess that 80% of what you hear is going to be about drug use, alcohol consumption and irresponsible behavior.
Well, also, the obstacles are systemic, not just cultural. For example, a white teen and a black teen can commit the same crime, and the judge will send the white boy home, because there is a perception that he has support, while the black boy will be sent to jail, because there is a perception that there are not enough community resources to help him.
Is that perception true?
Sometimes, but not always.
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