photo by: Alex Crick
Last week, rapper T.I. was officially released from prison after serving a sentence of 10 months for charges related to possession of drugs and firearms. For those familiar with the tumultuous career and lifestyle of the hip hop star, know that skepticism abounds, as to how long it will be until he’s incarcerated once again.
“T.I., don’t swear to us in a freestyle you’re gonna stay outta jail this time,” comedian Rell Battle wrote in a Facebook post. “Let’s just play it by ear.”
In fact, it’s actually surprising T.I. made it out on time in the first place, given earlier in the month he was released to a halfway house only to be returned to prison immediately after for violating terms of his sentence. As TMZ reported, the rapper traveled “to the location by luxury tour bus instead of a less ostentatious van,” which authorities had required.
T.I., like many hip hop artists, was raised in the streets, dealing drugs before he ever made it to fame as a musician. Jay-Z’s career was likewise built on such a hustle, and he still references trade games in his raps: I used to move snowflakes by the O-Z; I guess even back then you can call me, CEO of the R-O-C.
Most genres of music have close ties to a particular community or demographic. Country is bound by winds of the South and western frontiers; bluegrass and jazz are rituals in the quarters of New Orleans. Emo fans look and act the part, and goth wouldn’t be goth without black shrines and heavy makeup. Hip hop, however, bears the greatest bonds to a lifestyle than any other genre. Born as a countercultural movement, hip hop was a culture before it was a form of music. It was the disenfranchised, minority constituencies in urban enclaves, racially profiled, filtered and marginalized against the larger white majority. Without the streets to play in, as well as fight in, and ultimately, to market their economies in, there would be no genre of rap today.
Hip hop is traditionally recognized by four distinct manifestations: the rapper, the DJ, the b-boy, and the graffiti artist. It was the DJ who spun music to which the b-boy danced. Graffiti artists painted anti-authoritative messages, and rappers made them vocal. Hip hop was, and always will be, counter to the mainstream, even though today’s commercialized habits question the value of its content.
In his article “Represent,” from the book, That’s The Joint, Murray Forman illustrates the lifestyle of hip hop culture, and the challenges it faces in the current musical environment.
“Rap emerges as a voice for black and Latino youth which, as a large subset of North America’s socially disenfranchise population, is at risk of being lost in the combined transformations of domestic and global economies that are altering North America’s urban cultures today…the abstract spaces of the ghetto are transformed into the more proximate sites of significance or places of the ‘hood.”
In other words, the ideology of hip hop has been subjected to a conversion factor, not in reality, but societal perception. It’s now a figurative concept not a truth, and the majority chooses to believe it. The ghetto became the ‘hood when the legacy of Biggie and Pac was replaced by today’s popular rap acts such as 50 Cent and Young Jeezy. To be called a pimp became cool, and the ‘hood left the ghetto behind.
In 2005, I made a documentary specifically on this subject matter, following the lives of two girls – Angela and Carmen Jones – whose father was a pimp and crack dealer in Watts, a community of South Central Los Angeles. His criminal record was extensive, with charges of pimping, pandering, possession and disorderly content spanning the course of a decade. Yet he continued on with his pursuits, and kept his children surrounded by ill-will and disgrace in a house of prostitution. Their mother, formerly one of his concubines, was now serving a life sentence for murder. When the girls reached a tipping point, they turned their dad into the police; he went to jail for three years only to return to the house again with additional clientele.
“He’s just doing the same thing,” says Angela, currently in her early 20s and living in Arizona. “When he got out, he’d have people calling him from prison asking for drugs…We had all these new people coming by looking for it.”
Theirs is a common story, a cycle with no end point. Like racism, poverty and its afflictions don’t go away; they merely hide. In this country, the primary voice of opposition has been rap artists, who provide testimonials to those who without the knowledge. There are those who stick to the documentary narrative, underground artists like Murs, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, as well as a few more prominent names, Common and Nas. And there are those who speak the fairly tale. Nevertheless, hip hop may attempt to divorce its culture, but it will never be irreparable. As evidenced by T.I.’s struggles, there’s no way to break such a bond.