To punctuate her point during a high school debate competition that gangsta rap has no place in society, Denaya Barnes ended her oral argument with - what else - a rap:
I propose that hip-hop has the struggle
And you fake MCs need to be muzzled
Thanks to your representation
Hip-hop needs an emancipation
The lyrics were part of a longer rap that Barnes, a 17-year-old City College student, unleashed on her opponents - two other city public high school students - in a spirited debate about the urban musical subgenre.
It is an argument that has gone on for years, and yesterday it was set in a courtroom at the Eastside District Court complex on East North Avenue in East Baltimore.
In many ways, the courthouse was an appropriate venue for the argument about the violence, drug-dealing and gritty urban lifestyle that rap music typically portrays. The district courthouse sees hundreds of defendants each day, many of whom are accused of the crimes that gangsta rap artists portray and, critics say, glamorize.
The students found themselves putting on a verbal display of their own, in observance of Black History Month. Barnes and her partner, Kenneth Westbrook, 19, of Baltimore Talent Development High School, tried to convince three judges that gangsta rap should be condemned.
They were faced by Magda Phillips, 15, of Western High School, and Brion X, 17, of the Baltimore Freedom Academy, who argued that gangsta rap is merely a truthful reflection of the reality that blacks in poor, urban America experience and shouldn't be stifled.
The debate - as much a competition as a demonstration of the students' talents - grew fierce at times. They cut each other off. They pushed each other to concede points. They hammered their arguments home with raised voices, citing musicians and their lyrics.
"Public Enemy had lyrics encouraging the impoverished to fight the power," said Brion, "while rappers like Tupac [Shakur] and Jay-Z told the stories of the struggle through songs like `Brenda's Got a Baby' and `99 Problems.' Although many will argue that hip-hop is detrimental, I argue that it is real and uplifting, a musical reflection of life. The same life that a large segment of society wishes to ignore."
Critics might try to cite gangsta rap as a contributing factor in the decline of urban communities, Brion argued, but the violence is "simply the fury of young, demoralized blacks, resulting in bloodshed."
The debate was prefaced with a brief lesson in hip-hop music history by Joanne M. Martin, president and co-founder of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in East Baltimore. Martin noted the roots of gangsta rap and hip-hop music as part of the African-American experience - influenced by gospel music, spirituals and jazz - and rooted in slavery.
Videtta A. Brown, chief of the city state's attorney's office domestic violence division, wouldn't take sides on whether gangsta rap should be banned. Rather, she spoke about seeing young women being victimized because they join gangs or date gang members who abuse them.
"They think being a girlfriend of a gang member is very glamorous because it also gives them extreme power when they're out there on the street," Brown said. "Well, what happens when she bucks him?"
The event was sponsored by J4P Associates, the owners of the building that the state of Maryland leases to run the city's District Court on the east side. Carl Stokes, a former city councilman whose public relations firm organized yesterday's event, said the owners have sponsored civic-related events during Black History Month for the past four or five years.
"This month, we tried to be as relevant as possible," said Stokes, who ran for mayor in 1999. He said some musicians engaged in gangsta rap are "misusing their talent and being used by promoters and record manufacturers."
Organizers of the event tapped students from the Baltimore Urban Debate League - a nonprofit organization that helps students acquire debate skills and that works with about 1,000 students a year in about 60 city schools. The program targets teenagers who are in danger of dropping out of school and helps them become strong debaters and better students, said the league's executive director, Pam Spiliadis.
Spiliadis said the strongest students travel to regional and national competitions.
"Ninety percent of our students graduate and 90 percent go on to college," Spiliadis said. "Which is quite different than the general statistics in the city."
In the end, the students' arguments were judged by three people who've been observing Baltimore from different perspectives for years: Erich March Sr., a vice president of March Funeral Homes; Richard E. Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University; and City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young.
After the debate ended, the four teenagers hugged, laughed and joked. The three judges convened in a hallway for several minutes.
The side that defended gangsta rap had won the debate.
To watch a video of the debate, go to baltimoresun.com/rapdebate.