Music Features

Urban Music and Gun Crime

On New Years Eve at a party in Birmingham, Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis were killed, shot, caught in the crossfire of gang warfare. In the wake of the tragedy, politicians were quickly into the fray, and amidst the expressions of sorrow and sympathy, an idea of blame crystallised. The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Dr. Kim Howells levelled the dread finger of morality at the; "hateful lyrics that these boasting, idiot, rappers come out with". Directly in his line of fire were the London garage collective, The So Solid Crew, who in his mind are; "idiots", responsible for; "a culture where killing is almost a fashion accessory".

The desire to find a scapegoat is understandable; gun crime has risen rapidly on our shores over the past few years' and we are now at a point where twenty two fire arms offences are committed per day.

David Blunkett is also keen to link urban music with gun crime. There is a real chance for him to cement his reputation as the most draconian Labour Home Secretary in history and along with mandatory five year jail sentences for those possessing guns he is speaking of censoring that music which is not, "acceptable".

To understand modern day rap and garage a trip down memory lane is necessary.

1989: "Taking out a police will make my day, a nigger like Ren don't give a fuck to say; fuck tha police" (NWA, Fuck tha Police").

"Gangsta Rap" is born, in the ghettos of America where the murder rates are among the highest in the western world. It is met with terror and outrage but for the kids for whom it speaks, it is liberation. As Jonathan Gold wrote in the LA Weekly at the time, "Hard rap, like punk, brought together a self-selected community of kids by becoming what their parents feared most". Utterly nihilistic the movement emerged kicking and screaming from the broken dreams of the black civil rights movement. Egalitarianism was replaced with a kind of Social Darwinism; the miseries of poverty and urban decay were raged against, the new music a primal scream from the weak who refused to be the meek.

1994: "I'm shooting nigga's quick if they hiccup, don't let me fill my clip up in your back and head..." (The Notorious BIG, Gimme the Loot).

By the mid-90's gangsta rap had exploded in popularity. The two figureheads of the scene, Biggie Smalls' and Tupac Shakur's enmity creating an East Coast/West Coast rivalry. Soon they would be dead, shot. The margin between real life and music, blurred. Both rappers achieved iconic status after their killings - the new punk had its martyrs. The effects extended as far as our shores, for this, you only need look at the graffiti on inner city bus shelters; "2Pac Lives"; "Biggie Rules"; "West Side".

Hip hop is, by now, the soundtrack of young, male, urban life.

Fast forward to the present day and the influence of gangsta rap is still strong. The twin spectres of Tupac and Biggie loom large (demand for Tupac is insatiable, one posthumous album follows another). They are to be found in the guns and bling bling lyrics of The So Solid Crew and in UK Garage generally. Indeed the members of So Solid are involved with violence; Asher D has been imprisoned for possessing a fire arm, and, this Christmas, Kaish was held in custody under suspicion of the same offence. Is the music they and those like them make the coda for impressionable teens who move into the world of gun crime? The government thinks so.

But let the right wing news script crumble to dust, forget the reactionary, here is the truth. UK Garage like hip hop, like Punk rock, like rock and roll, and like blues is reflecting something real. Guns exist on the street and violence is ever present for some. Living in this environment kids like Asher D possess guns for self defence. Poverty has caused this, a divided society has caused this, urban decay has caused this, and poor education has denied any chance of finding ways out of it. Street life can be close to a state of war where life is nasty, brutish and short - urban music mirrors that - successive administrations are responsible for it. As Mercury Music Prize Winner, Ms Dynamite says; "There is violence wherever you go and the rave is a small part of it. It is a metaphor for life in general".

Another thing that Blunkett and Howells fail to realise is that rap and garage are popular with middle class white kids and yet there are no running gun battles on the mean streets of Berkshire.

Dianne Abbott, MP for Hackney North (a constituency blighted by gun crime), highlights the irrationality at the heart of Blunkett and Howells' argument; "Lets not pretend that ending gun criminality on the streets of Hackney or Birmingham is as simple as getting people to sing different songs", she opines, a rational voice.

In order to solve the problem the government needs to make some tough decisions. Blaming the makers of urban music is both too easy and fundamentally wrong.