Critics of vulgar, violent, gangster-style rap music make a mistake when they write off rap stars as stupid, immoral and self-destructive. They may be immoral and self-destructive, but they're not stupid. As one of my readers observed in a thoughtful e-mail, they're making a rational economic choice.
The reader wrote: "I had to stop and ask this question to myself: 'Would I call my mother a 'ho' or my sister a 'bitch' if I could make a couple of million dollars and get out of poverty and live a pretty good life? Makes you wanna say, 'Hummm ...'
Hummm, indeed. My reader's right on the money. In a line of work that dangles riches in front of impressionable kids, some rappers will sell out more than their mamas. They'll even cover up for killers.
" has metastasized into a popular hip-hop slogan. Unlike earlier generations of poor ethnic communities that zipped up their lips around police, the Stop Snitchin' message is displayed on T-shirts, rap videos and Internet sites, boosted further by the entertainment industry's money and marketing machines.
In a CBS "60 Minutes" report on this community cancer, scheduled to air Sunday evening, the rap star Cameron "Cam'ron" Giles says cooperation with police would violate his "code of ethics." Besides, he says, "with the type of business I'm in, it would definitely hurt my business."
That explains the refusal by Giles or his entourage to cooperate with police even when law enforcement officials are looking for the man who shot the rap star in both arms while he was sitting in his Lamborghini at a Washington intersection in October 2005. Giles, 30, managed to drive away. According to The Washington Post, Giles said, "I didn't give up the car because I paid $250,000 for it."
Nevertheless, rumors swirled in the local media that Giles might have staged the whole thing to raise his "street cred," the street credibility that pumps up music and ticket sales in the weird culture that surrounds his line of work.
"60 Minutes" correspondent Anderson Cooper asks Giles if he'd inform police of "a serial killer living next door." No way, says the rapper, "But I'd probably move." Gee, thanks.
A similar ethos showed itself after gunfire erupted during a Brooklyn video shoot by another popular rapper, Busta Rhymes, alias Trevor Tahiem Smith Jr., in February 2006. Israel Ramirez, one of Rhymes' bodyguards, fell dead. As many as 25 witnesses saw it happen, police said, but none cooperated with investigators and the crime remains unsolved. Is this their idea of serving their community?
Yet keeping mum can bring rewards. The rapper Lil' Kim, for example, went to jail for perjury because she refused to implicate members of her entourage in a shooting. But before she reported to jail, Black Entertainment Television made her the center of a reality show. It turned out to be one of the cable network's most popular programs, but a crime expert in Cooper's report called it "big business selling death."
Rap is big business. Giles, for example, is distributed through Asylum Records, a division of Time Warner, the world's largest media conglomerate. Rhymes is distributed through Interscope Records, a label of Universal Music Group, one of the largest companies in the recording industry.
Other music forms also were created out of painful circumstances. But pioneering blues singers, for example, did not strive to return to the cotton fields. Gangster rappers, by contrast, milk the gangster pose, the appearance of keeping at least one foot in the criminal underclass. Hip-hop gangsters model themselves after white mobsters whom Hollywood glorifies. But the European-American gangs had the decency to hide their shame. The lure of big bucks removes all shame from hip-hop's gangster game.
Without community backing, good citizens who try to do the right thing risk severe punishment. The most outrageous example among many that I have run across is Baltimore's Angela Dawson. The married mother of five testified against a local drug dealer in October 2002. Two weeks later, the dealer set fire to her home as the family slept. All seven family members died.
The killer pleaded guilty to avoid a possible death sentence. According to Juan Williams' best-selling book "Enough," the drug dealer had vowed to kill Dawson for "snitching on people."
"You don't need someone destroying you when your own people are the worst messengers possibly," says Geoffrey Canada, a nationally recognized anti-violence organizer in Harlem. "And this is what black people in America have not come to grips with."
We can turn back the tide. Start snitching.