Cross My Line at Your Own Peril

January 20, 1994|By GREGORY P. KANE

The gloomy countenance of rap artist Snoop Doggy Dogg recently graced the cover of Newsweek magazine. The caption noted that his most recent album hit number one on the charts at about the same time he was indicted for murder.

Beads of sweat were noticeable on the rapper's face, which evoked defiance touched with a -- of bewilderment -- as if he were wondering whether his next album would be cut from the pernicious digs of San Quentin or Soledad.

Snoop Doggy Dogg, born Calvin Broadus, is in the eye of the storm of controversy that surrounds ''gangsta'' rap. Some radio stations have refused to play it. Ministers and women's groups have condemned the genre for its glorification of violence and its misogynistic lyrics. Mr. Broadus' picture on the cover of Newsweek was accompanied by the headline ''When Is Rap 2 Violent?''

My feelings about gangsta rap are mixed. I like rap music, and I don't think art -- the best art, anyway -- should tell us what we want to hear. Art at its best generates the type of 4l controversy that gangsta rap has brought forth.

But I do have some problems with gangsta rap and some gangsta rappers. Dr. Dre, the thug who assaulted talk-show host Dee Barnes and who should be in jail even as you read this, would have to evolve several stages just to rise to Neanderthal. With their clarion call to violence, gangsta rappers seem to be not particularly bothered by the homicide rate among young black American men that is the highest in the industrialized world. In fact, they seem committed to perpetuating it.

But we would be wrong to blame them for the carnage some young African-American men are working on each other. Gangsta rap is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. TC When rap group Onyx shouts out ''Bacda***up'' on their album, they are merely reciting the anthem of black American male macho culture.

That anthem's theme is not to cross any lines. Do so, the theme implies, and you do it at your own risk. The attitude is not unique to gangsta rappers. It's been around for generations.

Growing up in West Baltimore, I made the acquaintance of a particularly brash and volatile young man named Bernard. Sharp, we called him -- for the sharp way he would negotiate street corners when he took flight after committing some act of villainy. He and a group of his buddies -- a posse, or homeys, we would call them in gangsta rap lingo -- terrorized the neighborhood of St. Pius V Church in West Baltimore.

I was 10 or 11 when I first met Sharp. He must have been 17 or 18. He was courting my oldest sister, Barbara. I overheard him tell her once -- in a conversation about a rival for her affections, ''I ought to punch the nigga in the face.''

He spent his teen years punching someone in the face for slights, insults and affronts to manhood both real and imagined -- crossing the line of others and daring them to cross his. One night he got into an argument with a man in the 500 block of N. Schroeder St. One of them -- I don't remember which -- had crossed the line. Sharp punched him in the face. Enraged, the man charged Sharp, who took off in one of his frenetic, zig-zag runs that had helped him elude bewildered Baltimore police so often. One of Sharp's cronies named Ronald ran up behind the man and smashed a bottle on his left shoulder. (Ronald's older brother, Aljay, ironically enough, met his end about a year earlier by means of a knife to the back from a guy named Tony. I'm not sure who crossed the line in that one either.)

My siblings, cousins and I watched in stunned silence as blood poured down the man's chest and soaked his shirt. He railed against ''teen-agers who would gang up on one man.'' He had just learned a painful and sanguinary lesson about the male bonding ritual of ''being down for your homeys.''

Later, I watched Sharp beat senseless the president of the St. Pius Catholic Youth Organization -- an affable and unoffending chap named Alvin. I still don't know what Alvin did to cross Sharp's line, but it took the parish priest, Father Sadlier, to put an end to the drubbing.

''You're lucky, because I respect this man here,'' Sharp told the quivering lump of protoplasm to which Alvin had been reduced.

Later my sister Carolyn told me Sharp, under Father Sadlier's tutelage, was studying to become a Roman Catholic. Not very damned hard, evidently, I remember thinking to myself.

Sharp crossed someone else's line the final time with a guy named Butch. An argument in the 900 block of Bennett Place one late-summer night took a nasty turn. Sharp had a switchblade; Butch a .22. Unequal odds for anyone except Sharp, whose hubris must have approached the suicidal level. Sharp slashed once with his knife and Butch blasted him into an eternity in which he would never have to worry about crossing any more lines.

Sharp and his crew are still with us today. Their weapons are Glocks and Magnums rather than switchblades, fists and bottles. Today's gangsta rappers are their direct spiritual descendants. The problems manifested by gangsta rappers, with us for decades, will take even more decades to correct.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Sun.

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