Interview: The Past Is Not Forgotten – Nim Alae
Interview with Nim Alae, Musician and Protagonist of the Film "La Isla"
Gangsta rappers promote a violent lifestyle while carrying the banner of peace and responsibility. What are their values?
In late November 2014, the German public was shaken by a violent incident that took place in Offenbach, a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt am Main. German student Tuğçe Albayrak was beaten to the ground by a young man after she attempted to stop him from threatening two women in front of a fast-food restaurant. The brutal attack left its marks: Tuğçe suffered severe injuries to her brain and skull, and ultimately passed away on her 23rd birthday a few days later. Perhaps due in part to her Kurdish background, the incident attracted attention in the genre of German gangsta rap – a community mainly represented by (post)migrant artists and fans. Many musicians expressed their condolences and respect, mainly via Web 2.0 platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Just a minute, you might be thinking, gangsta rappers? Aren’t they the ones who most prominently recommend physical violence as an appropriate reaction to insults, insecurity, or any other interference with one’s desires and intentions?
The killing set off a wave of anger and unrest, which took the form of both peaceful protests and riots to oppose racist police brutality.
To better explore this question, it might be helpful to take a look at an incident that took place far from the small German town Offenbach, one that also caused quite a few reactions in rap music. In August 2014, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in the US-American city of Ferguson, Missouri. The officer allegedly suspected Brown of a robbery. The killing set off a wave of anger and unrest, which took the form of both peaceful protests and riots to oppose racist police brutality. Ironically the police responded to these protests with an excessive show of force. The unrest continued in November 2014 after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who shot Brown. Many different rap artists made their voices heard in the days after the shooting and the grand jury finding.
How can a rapper be gangsta and carry the banner of peace and responsibility at the same time?
The reactions ranged from an emotional speech by political rapper Killer Mike at a concert in the nearby city of St. Louis to “Don’t Shoot” by The Game, a song featuring rap stars like Rick Ross, Fabolous and Diddy. It may seem like no big deal when a political rapper makes a political statement. But what about rappers like Rick Ross, whose career has been based on songs written from a violent drug dealer’s perspective, someone who shows no mercy for others? How can a rapper be gangsta and carry the banner of peace and responsibility at the same time?
What makes values particularly interesting is their often contradictory (and therefore contested) character.
Interestingly the fascination with such ambivalent values has constituted a central motif in popular culture. In its broadest (sociological) sense, values are concepts that signify the level of desirability of things and activities. For any group (whether it is humanity as a whole, a company’s workforce, or the people at your last house party), such values are not only stabilizing and integrative in the sense that members of a specific group can expect each other to adhere to them; they also help make sense of what the group does. What makes values particularly interesting is their often contradictory (and therefore contested) character. Accordingly, privately practicing a deviation (e.g. drinking wine) of what one publicly preaches (e.g. drinking water) has traditionally led to the widespread accusation of hypocrisy against dignitaries of all kinds. In the following, the two recent cases from the gangsta rap genre mentioned above will be introduced in more detail, with the aim of illustrating the dynamics in the field of popular culture.
Had it not been due to the offensive and brutal lyrics that the offender had had reacted with violence?
So let us return to the death of Tuğçe, its pop cultural reception and its echo in the media. After it became public that the attacker was not only a fan, but had also uploaded a picture of himself posing with the musician shortly before the attack, German media started criticizing rapper Haftbefehl (German for arrest warrant), pointing to what they portrayed as partial responsibility for the assault. Had it not been due to the offensive and brutal lyrics that the offender had had reacted with violence?
Looking at Haftbefehl’s recent output, the accusations that he justifies (or even glorifies) violent attacks in urban life does not seem to be taken from thin air. In his video for the song “Lass die Affen aus dem Zoo” (‘Release the Apes from the Zoo’), real scenes from street beatings and gang violence were mixed with self-generated material showing tough looking guys in ready-to-fight postures. In view of the male dominance these images project, the attack on Tuğçe, who offensively approached her attacker, should not come as a complete surprise. So did the consumption of this kind of media lead to the attack?
“I had to take time in order to make up my mind as to whether I can keep making this music” (Rapper Haftbefehl)
In an interview with Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s leading news magazines, Haftbefehl said dashing someone’s brains out was not something he would recommend to anyone. In fact, as an acquaintance of Tuğçe’s family, he confirmed he felt great sympathy with the victim. Furthermore he noted that the incident caused him to question his musical output for its seemingly harmful impact: “I had to take time in order to make up my mind as to whether I can keep making this music”, he told the magazine, before continuing: “Maybe this does not come across sometimes, but I am making art. I am not glorifying a criminal lifestyle like many other rappers are. I lived this life, so I know what I am talking about when I tell these stories.” From a critical angle, it seems easy to uncover the hidden intention behind such statements. By openly adhering to the dominant negative perspective on street violence, one might argue, Haftbefehl is attempting to escape public blame for being a pop-cultural arsonist. Upon closer inspection, though, it appears less coherent. In an older video interview, Haftbefehl seems well aware of ambivalence in the reception of his output, as he states in an interview with Der Spiegel: “My music is not for children. Nobody under 18 should listen to my album. You need to be mature to do that.”
So how do we interpret what seems like a fundamental contradiction regarding the question of values? If we agree that attacks such as the one on Tuğçe are unacceptable, we can ask whether this makes an artist responsible for setting an example for their fans and listeners. While the general suspicion of Haftbefehl and others who attempt to dodge public indignation through cautious denial persists, the answer to the question of how they are to be dealt with remains unclear.
“I am a black man with kids of my own that I love more than anything, and I cannot fathom a horrific tragedy like Michael Brown's happening to them” (Rapper The Game)
Of course reports of street violence as put forward by Haftbefehl in the form of rap may seem inconvenient. But should they be suppressed by public restrictions? Or is it enough if critical observers highlight the fact that Haftbefehl is allegedly glorifying what he talks about? As in the German case, a reaction from the US-American hip hop community was not long in coming after the Ferguson shootings. “I am a black man with kids of my own that I love more than anything, and I cannot fathom a horrific tragedy like Michael Brown's happening to them”, The Game told the well-known music magazine Rolling Stone, “That is why this song must be made and why it was so easy for so many of my friends to come together and unite against the injustice.” The song “Don’t Shoot” was released on the online music platform SoundCloud not even three weeks after Brown’s death. To date it has been played almost three million times. All the money raised from its iTunes sales goes to the Justice for Mike Brown fund.
“Don’t Shoot” mentions other black men killed for racist reasons, such as Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. The title of the song refers to events at the shooting, during which Brown is said to have been unarmed and had his hands in the air. “We care and are inclined to take a positive approach to resolving an issue that has existed since the beginning of mankind and that is racism and hatred towards one another as human beings”, The Game said, describing the purpose of the song. However, not everybody appreciates the political activism of (in)famous gangsta rappers. On the popular website WorldStarHipHop, many readers reacted with mockery to the news. In one comment Rick Ross was called “Mr. War Ready”, referring to his song “War Ready” that was released a few months before the killing of Brown. In this battle hymn, Rick Ross makes clear from the outset what it is all about: “War ready, you got shooters, I’ve got shooters, we’ve got money.” This criticism of this seemingly fundamental contradiction was summed up by rapper Kendrick Lamar in “The Blacker the Berry”, a song he released around six months after the Ferguson shooting. Referring to black student Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by a Hispanic white neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, Lamar asks: “Then why did I weep when Trayvon was in the street, when gang banging made me kill a n* blacker than me?” His answer is clear: “hypocrite!”
This is an indication of who profits from drawing the public’s attention only to violence in rap music or protests.
However, is it really contradictory to stand up against racist police brutality and glorify (or live) a violent lifestyle at the same time? Do you have to be an exemplary citizen to criticize institutional racism? If so, maybe nobody would ever have taken notice of the killing of Brown. This is an indication of who profits from drawing the public’s attention only to violence in rap music or protests. Besides, is Diddy acting like a hypocrite in “Don’t Shoot” when he puts criticism of the police (“police taking shots”) and advertising for vodka (“and I ain’t talking about Cîroc”) together in one line? Quite the opposite, one could say, he is just publicly preaching (expensive vodka) what he is privately drinking (expensive vodka) and getting paid for (being an ambassador for expensive vodka). By the way, it comes as no big surprise that the people who follow WorldStarHipHop know Rick Ross’ brutal lyrics so well, as the website is infamous for posting videos of violent fights.
In other words, discussing contradictions in gangsta rap leads to a broader discussion of values before you know it. The role of and attitude towards violence in society can generally be considered to be very ambivalent. While waging war has been repeatedly approved in order to secure peace, abuse of animals can cause a public uproar (especially if it is considered unnecessary; most people see nothing wrong with eating a Big Mac). Against this background, the fact that there are similar contradictions in the hip hop community should come as no great surprise. Or might it – especially from a white and/or bourgeois angle – simply be more convenient to detect such unpopular characteristics in marginal groups? From this point of view, German petty criminals of Arab or Turkish origin or black gangsta rappers appear as aggressive offenders who cannot control themselves. At the same time, cases of alleged racist white police brutality (e.g. Oury Jalloh, who burned to death in custody in the German city of Dessau in 2005) are not even properly investigated. The killer of Michael Brown was not even officially charged. By using stereotypical images or disregarding racism, the discourse around the reception of violence in hip hop seems to perpetuate this situation.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)