The poetic justice of gangsta lyrics

Published: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

For several years now, many of us "old school," "back in the day" black folks have been warning that gangsta rap is a curse that we will regret having tolerated.

Of course, we are referred to as "Uncle Toms," "sell-outs," "handkerchief heads," "old niggers" and other derogatory names that cannot be repeated in a family newspaper.

Now, many of those foul and profane and violence-laced lyrics are under a legal microscope and are sending some real and wannabe gangsta rappers to prison. Instead of art imitating life, a lot of gangsta rap is violent life imitating violent art.

Recently, a New York jury convicted 23-year-old Ronell Wilson of the 2003 murder of two cops after prosecutors presented rap lyrics as evidence that Wilson is a cold-blooded killer.

When Wilson, a strutting, trash-talking thug who calls himself "Rated R," was arrested, his out-sized pockets were jammed with the kind of violent poetry that is the staple of gangsta rap.

The Associated Press reports that one poem found in Wilson's pocket "warned any challengers to wear a bulletproof vest and boasted of leaving .45-caliber slugs in the heads of his enemies." This is a pretty good description of the crime scene that Wilson left behind.

According to AP, prosecutors nationwide are collecting gangsta rap lyrics and are bringing them to court for jurors to consider. This tactic apparently is effective because some judges are taking note of hip-hop's direct influence on young blacks.

After all, for nearly two decades, rappers have preened in videos as they brandished automatic weapons and bragged about committing or fantasized about committing every violent crime imaginable, including rape and murder.

Prosecutors now know that the oeuvre of many gangsta rappers can be interpreted as blueprints for the thug life.

I was living in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last year when a jury sentenced Nathaniel Woods to death for participating in the murder of three Birmingham law enforcement officers. In addition to having a troubled past and being a gangsta rap devotee, Woods wrote violent rap lyrics and drew pictures depicting graphic violence while awaiting trial in a jail cell.

After prosecutors showed jurors the lyrics and drawings and after Woods shot off his mouth in court, the young wannabe was convicted.

He has yet to show any remorse for taking human life.

I followed the trial, and I could not believe that Woods could be so stupid as to put on paper such clear proof of his violent beliefs and violent intentions. But, then, the arrogance of gangsta rap is just that stupid.

I taught one of Woods' former high school friends while I was at Stillman College, and the friend said that he was not surprised that Woods' lyrics had landed him in serious trouble.

"Nate's writing was real scary," the friend said.

One of Woods' attorneys, Rita Briles, acknowledged to AP why her client received the ultimate sentence: "In our case, they gave him the death penalty because he had such a terrible mouth."

Finally, AP reports the case of the 18-year-old in Virginia who was convicted in February for killing another teen. Like many others, this young killer was in possession of rap lyrics describing the murder he committed when he was arrested.

Jurors believed that they had witnessed real-life violence imitating violent art. Indeed, the lyrics were written before the murder was committed.

Call me an Uncle Tom, a sell-out or any other nasty name. The truth is that I am a proud black man — a father and grandfather, a teacher and a writer — who is ashamed of a black musical genre that glorifies crass materialism, violence, anarchy, nihilism, self-destruction and self-immolation.

I am especially sadden that gangsta rap has such a powerful allure for young black males who are trying to emulate the rich and powerful superstar thugs they admire.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. He wrote this column for The Guardian.

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