Rap war not the point Deaths of Wallace, Shaker illustrate that black men still at risk

March 16, 1997|By Lisa Respers

MY LITTLE BROTHER wants to be a rapper.

Lured by the promise of big money and adoring fans, my 22-year-old brother Gary has been exhaustively pursuing his dream of becoming a rap artist for the past two years. He spends hours locked in his room listening to compact discs and composing rhymes.

His most precious possessions, a rhyming dictionary and a stack of hip-hop magazines, lie next to his bed. He works two jobs to help pay for studio time as he and a partner work on demo tapes to shop around to record labels.

But the death of rap artist Biggie Smalls, coming a scant six months after rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down in an eerily similar drive-by, has caused my brother - and me - to step back and re-examine his dream.

Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, was a 24-year-old former Brooklyn crack dealer whose raps told the tales of a climb to fame and a lavish lifestyle that included expensive cars, designer clothes and women. They also spoke of the violence so pervasive in the street that birthed hard-core rap and artists such as Wallace and Shakur.

Now with allegations of a music-mafia media-inspired "war" between the East Coast and West Coast and charges that Wallace's slaying was retaliation for Shakur's, the point is being missed that violence between and against black males continues to wreak havoc in this country and drench our streets xTC with blood.

What happened to Wallace and Shakur occurs to young black men almost daily in cities around the country. Shooting remains one of the leading causes of death for African-American men and the glare of publicity focusing on "gangsta rap" ignores the systemic problems that created the music.

Young African-Americans are suffering from a socioeconomic depression and rap music has become their voice to express their anger and pain. With their brushes with the law and nonconformist attitudes, Wallace and Shakur were perfect poster children for that rage.

Fans have pointed out that the richness of their rhymes was due in part to their backgrounds. Both were raised in fatherless homes and admitted drug users.

They were poets of poverty who, when they spoke of crime, despair and violence, did so intimately. Like many rap artists, the pair seemed unable, or unwilling, to break the ties that bound them to the streets.

"I keep it real," Wallace told an interviewer last year. "And that's why my [people] got love for me. They know that I would never sell out."

"Keeping it real" is what elevated Shakur and Wallace to superstars in a multimillion-dollar industry that critics initially panned and labeled a "phase of black music" that would pass. Now young white suburban kids flock to record stores to buy hard-core music, never realizing that the "thug life" they are seeking to emulate is a bravado born of fear - only those appearing to be strong can survive the streets.

Shakur and Wallace flourished in the cross-over success of rap. They continued to carry guns, be arrested and kick against a racist society where black men are more welcomed into the drug trade then they are into corporate America - and they were respected for it.

They wore their anger like badges and straddled the line between their old lives and the new ones they were carving in the music industry. Both often spoke of the danger they faced before becoming rap stars and predicted early deaths for themselves.

"I will die before my time because I already feel the shadow's depth," Shakur wrote in a poem called "In the Event of My Demise."

Their success has enticed countless would-be rappers, like my brother, who believe that they could emulate the rappers' careers.

"If they can get paid, we can get paid," one fan wrote in a message in a chat room on the Internet. "They may have died young, but they lived the life while they were here."

And in the end, keeping it real may have contributed to their deaths. Wallace and Shakur were unable to escape the violence that had shadowed them all their lives and the echoes of despair that could not be blotted out by the fast life.

It's a life I do not wish for my baby brother. Wallace and Shakur's killings illustrate that our black sons, fathers and brothers are still very much at risk.

It proves that being black men with money and fame could not prevent them from having a bull's eye placed on their backs.

Lisa Respers covers Harford County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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