Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2002 / 12 Tishrei, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

On death and a pop-culture mindset | Rick James couldn't stand Prince.

We're talking a little over 20 years ago, back when Prince was an acclaimed new performer and Rick was one of the biggest names in pop. His sizable ego wounded by the attention accorded this fey wunderkind, James used to vent about how worthless and overrated the younger singer was. He hated him.

And yet, somehow, he never shot him. For all the nasty things James said about Prince and other artists, the idea that the antipathy might become lethal was unthinkable.

All you have to do to understand how profoundly the world has changed is to read the recent two-part Los Angeles Times series on the murder of rap icon Tupac Shakur. The Times reports that the killing, which took place in Las Vegas six years ago this month, was carried out by Los Angeles street gang members and commissioned by a rival rap star, Christopher Wallace, known professionally as the Notorious B.I.G. Wallace himself was gunned down six months later in Los Angeles.

Members of Wallace's family have vigorously denied the newspaper report and have produced evidence to buttress their contention that he was not even in Vegas that night.

The Times piece has produced fierce debate in hip-hop and black journalism circles, much of it critical of the reporting and offering wild speculation about the newspaper's supposed motivation. In one online editorial, black journalist Kevin Powell hints broadly that the Times had a racial agenda in running the story, warning readers that "we should never allow folks who do not have our best interests at heart to control our thinking."

He calls the L.A. Times' account "sensationalized."

And yet, neither he, nor to my knowledge anyone else, has been able to call it unthinkable. To say that the very idea of pop stars settling disputes with guns is too outlandish to be believed.

I'm not here to defend - or condemn - the Times report and have no way of knowing whether Christopher Wallace actually did what he's accused of doing. No, what has me shaking my head is that we're even forced to take the allegation seriously.

What does that tell you about the world we have made? "We" meaning consumers of American pop culture in general, but blacks in particular. We've created - or simply countenanced - a world in which the line between video fantasy and street-corner reality is all but erased, where thug values and gangster mores demand blood for the faintest slights and we - still talking blacks - walk around acting as if this were as unremarkable as fluorescent lights and traffic jams.

We do not criticize or hold accountable, particularly in forums where whites may be watching, because some of us regard that as an act of racial betrayal. So nobody says the obvious: "Pop stars don't shoot each other!" There's something seriously wrong when it becomes impossible to distinguish music acts from street gangs.

I understand the corrosive effects of drugs and poverty on the black community. I also understand that those effects have been with us for generations. Not to sound dismissive, but that's old news. What's new is these diseased mores and this collective shrug in the face of them.

This isn't about liking or not liking rap. It's about surrendering - or not surrendering - to a mindset that allows us to contemplate the murder of young men without crying out, shouting, SCREAMING that this is wrong.

I'd never hold up the pop stars of 20 years ago - Rick James in particular - as role models. For all that, though, we children of that era had not yet learned to face dysfunction and misconduct with a shrug.

And that's why James and Prince are one thing Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace will never be.


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