|"Cartoons versus Reality"8
In the struggle for power, often perception is more important than reality.
Of course, that may be little more than wishful thinking. Gangsta rap, for the most part, is barely politicized. Dr. Dre's The Chronic, which has sold more than two million copies, contains vague political sentiments that are more than overshadowed by the preponderance of traditional gangland patriarchism (celebrated in songs like "Bitches Ain't Shit" and "Nothing but a G-thang").9 In a recent cover story in Rolling Stone, Dre lashed out at critics who have denounced the misogyny that plagues his creations (and apparently his personal life):
This claim to reality, to represent reality, particularly as a defense against (liberal or feminist) criticism, is part of the gangsta genreso much so that it repeatedly surfaces in the lyrics of the raps themselves. Hence Ice-T insists repeatedly on his latest album, "This shit is real to me." On The Predator, Ice Cube reproduces an excerpt from a radio interview in which he boasts that everything about the riots was "in the records before the riots," and that if anyone wanted to know about the riots, they just need to check their "Ice Cube library." Ice Cube is not alone in his assessment of his oeuvre. At least one rock critic asserted, "The recent social meltdown [the riots] will not have surprised anybody with even a cursory knowledge of California's rap acts."12 Similarly, Houston A. Baker, in his essay "Scene . . . Not Heard," looks to rap as the place where America can hear the rage and the desperation of black urban youth. As opposed to the silence of Rodney King as he is beaten to the ground in the world-famous video tape, rap provides a "contemporary reverberant echo of historical black soundings of the scene of violence."13
||Giving these voices a hearing could provide, according to Baker, wisdom,
insight, and understanding into the situation of a dying generation. He
even goes so far as to say that rap and its "expressive economies are,
perhaps, far more likely to yield a hearing that forestalls further American
urban disaster than any sophisticated and commissioned Los Angeles post
mortems that we can presently imagine."14
It is not so much that rap reflects reality—Baker readily admits that much
rap is produced mainly for entertainment purposes—but that it allows for
an authentic interpretative
phenomenology of an otherwise obscured reality. Rap brings "its own clear
black understanding of the inner city's economic and political abandonment."15
The pedagogical force associated with rap, its potential to produce listeners
who will ultimately engage in some form of political activity as a result
of their encounter with this music, relies on the organic connection between
the producers of this music and the community of the oppressed. More important
than the specific messages transmitted through this music is its training
of individuals to hear, to overcome their acquired deafness to the plight
of those on the receiving end of contemporary social conditions.
In spite of Baker's optimism, some critics have not been as enthusiastic about the representative status of gangsta rap. In an essay that appeared in Billboard shortly after the L.A. riots, pop singer Michelle Shocked and freelance writer Bart Bull denounced gangster rap as a racist revival of the "minstrel" tradition embodied in the "coon song." They wrote that the "chicken-thieving, razor-toting 'coon' of the 1890s is the drug-dealing, Uzi-toting 'nigga' of today." Their argument is that white people, the main consumers of this "racist imagery," will use its contents to justify or ignore the continued oppression of blacks in this country. Their argument depends on the notion that most consumers of gangsta rap have no direct contact with the reality that it supposedly depicts. Therefore the actions of these consumers vis-à-vis this reality will be adversely determined by their mediated encounter with it and, if this encounter contains "lies," inaccuracies, or out-and-out racist elements, than this will have deleterious effects on the real inhabitants of the real South Central Los Angeles.
They single out Ice Cube in particular as one "greed-artist" selling out the world of the struggling black (lower) middle class. Shocked and Bull set the latter up as the "reality" juxtaposed to the cartoon peddled by the gangstas. They are "the ones with the freshly mown yards, the clean-swept sidewalks, the steady job at the post office, the mortgage on the house smack dab in the middle of South Central." This celebration of middle-class normality, tragically undercut by self-involved youths (willing to sell out their parents for "the price of a coon song," as Shocked and Bull conclude their essay), has an undeniable pathos when applied to the black community. What comes across as conservative, even reactionary, when invoked by the white liberals such as Bill Clinton appears here as an emblem of integrity and struggle. The black middle class must fight a double battle against racist power structures external to the black community as well as the destabilizing effects of these structures within the black community. The poverty produced by racism fuels and encourages the criminality and nihilistic violence expressed by the gangstas, which in turn jeopardizes the achievements of the black working and middle class.
That is, the criminalized underclass and the overclass that profits from the conditions that produce the underclass in the first place reach a point where they can mutually benefit from the destabilization of the middle-class majority (itself a densely contradicted and internally incoherent social grouping). What makes gangsta rap attractive to the overclass is not only its profitability, which will tend more to benefit the latter than the former, but also its depiction of a will to power expressing a total negation of traditional middle-class taboos against violence in "civil society" (violence in the domestic sphere, especially when directed against women and children, has always been tacitly condoned by the middle class). Its shock value, so important from the standpoint of commodity aesthetics, produces an ideological shock. The norms of bourgeois liberality are violated in an orgy of paradoxically subaltern elitism. The "avant-garde" quality of rap, which linked it to the armed guerrilla, thrives on a subordination to the social conditions that produce the zone in which the gangsta functions as an elite.