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I was talking to a woman who's an on-air
personality for one of Chicago's most popular
urban radio stations recently when she argued
that rap music, even the hardcore kind,
plays a negligible role in violence.
I vehemently disagreed.
We went back and forth for a while until
it became clear that neither of us could
convince the other. I wanted to explore
this topic some more,
and I could have interviewed an
academic or an industry professional.
But I decided to go right to the source — to former gang member Derek Brown who runs Boxing Out Negativity, an extraordinary after-school boxing program for youth in the North Lawndale neighborhood. It's been around for about six years.
Although he teaches his students the art of boxing, checks their homework and visits their schools, he also warns them about rap music and how seductive the life may seem in verse, but how destructive it is when played out in real life.
Brown was a stone-cold gangster, the type who got tattoos to cover bullet holes and stab wounds. He also did time in several juvenile facilities and prison.
He said his introduction to rap music came from artists such as Poor Righteous Teachers, X Clan and Queen Latifah, who were socially conscious. But their music later got drowned out by the more exploitative, gangsta rap that N.W.A., the Geto Boys and Scarface performed.
"I remember listening to N.W.A. and they were singing Fuck Tha Police,' and I became somebody who believed in that kind of language, and low-grading women and calling them out of their names," Brown said. "When I shot people, the first thing I did was put on a record."
He said he listened to Scarface's "Diary of a Madman:"
Dear diary today I hit A NIGGA with the torch / Shot him on his face and watched him die on his front porch / Left his family heartbroken / Flashbacks of him laying there bleeding with his eyes open / I can't put the (stuff) behind me / I know I'm here somewhere, but I can't find me.
Brown grew up in North Lawndale during the late 1970s watching Hollywood's blaxploitation-era movies that depicted black neighborhoods as mostly filled with pimps and prostitutes.
He said he liked movies such as "Superfly" and "The Mack" and wanted to be like the pimps and players who were outside his door. He said the movies laid out a lifestyle of excess that later was glorified further in rap music.
Gangbanging and drug dealing appeared to offer a way out, and Brown became a gang leader. The Geto Boys' "Straight Gangstaism" was an anthem:
I was a curious child / I used to hang out by the ballroom and study the gansta style / The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they act, / the way they wore dat gansta hat, / Tilted, rim laid flat out / now that's the type a (stuff) I'm talkin' about yeah / Cigarette in one hand, drink in the other/ leanin' to one side, cooler than a (expletive).
"But even when I was making a lot of money selling drugs, I stayed in the gutter," Brown said. "I lived in a place that had roaches. My neighbors were on crack. I was a product in my environment. I didn't know how to get out. I didn't know how to move. I was someone who wasn't taught anything."
He said he began to wake up when his best friend was killed at 19 years old.
Brown said he looks around the community today and sees how the music controls the minds of many of the young men who are gangbanging. He said that in the absence of more positive role models, the singers take up the slack.
He said the music also does a good job of product placement for drugs and alcohol.
"The reason I am where I am is because the community knows me and the community sees a change in me and they've given me their kids because they can't do anything with them," he said. "Rap music is the driving force of the destruction of a lot of people. I don't want it to be that for these kids."
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