Understanding Gangsta | Letters | Chicago Reader

Understanding Gangsta 

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To the editor,

Bill Wyman ignores the economic issues and problems that give rise to many of Ice Cube's and Chuck D's lyrics [Hitsville, February 11]. At the HotHouse panel discussion on gangsta rap, he held up Cube's lyric "You let a Jew / Break up my crew" without mentioning the inequity in the way goods and services in America are produced and distributed. For example, although two-thirds of poor Americans are white, the average white in this country has 12 times the financial assets of the average black.

In his columns, Wyman's most oft used terms for rappers are "lunkhead," "idiot," and "doltish." However, those who are considered "lunkheads" from a middle-class perspective such as Wyman's are often those rockers and rappers who speak forcefully and eloquently for (and to) disenfranchised people. (Has Wyman listened to Professor Griff's Pawns in the Game before dismissing him as a dolt?)

I guess there's no reason to expect Wyman to understand gangsta rap. On the other hand, a middle-class background doesn't prevent the many whites who do love and understand the music, because they have (or soon will have) the same problems as the rappers, due to changes in the economy. Cube and Chuck speak for everyone, regardless of race or sex, who's concerned with homelessness, education, health care, police brutality, and with changing America. Nor does supporting them make one an anti-Semite. For example, Ice-T is a vocal opponent of anti-Semitism, and yet he's always had Cube and Chuck's back.

Wyman's take on music censorship at the HotHouse discussion was rather weak. He allowed that governmental censorship is a bad thing, maybe, possibly; but that anything short of that is OK because it adds to an atmosphere of discussion (perhaps referring to Reverend Calvin Butts, who runs over gangsta rap tapes with a steamroller). However, censorship is capable of empowering much more dangerous anti-Semites than Chuck or Cube, such as Reverend Donald Wildmon, the anti-Semitic leader of the American Family Association, who raises funds by attacking TV programs and films. Then there is Fred Malek, a contributor to the music censorship group the Parents' Music Resource Center who was booted from the Nixon administration for attempting to enforce a limit on the number of Jews in the U.S. government. Furthermore, censorship doesn't target only rap, but is aimed at the pop music spectrum, from rock to soul to country to metal to punk.

It's no trick to go through our music and find disgusting shit. The better endeavor is to listen for and promote the good aspects of it, to emphasize the positive. We do need an atmosphere of critical discussion and dialogue around our music, but Bill Wyman, whose performance at the HotHouse served only to distract attention from the important and pertinent issues that gangsta rap raises, shouldn't be allowed to set the agenda.

Scott Pfeiffer
N. Cleaver

Bill Wyman replies:

I appreciate Scott Pfeifer's taking the time to write; if I may, I'd like to clarify a few points. Rap is my music too. But not to address some of the stupid things rappers say--or, worse, to defend them on what comes down to grounds of solidarity--is wrong. It's true that a lyric like "You let a Jew / Break up my crew" (again, let me stress that this line is a fairly isolated instance of anti-Semitism in rap) has a certain tangential something to do with "the inequity in the way goods and services in America are distributed," primarily as an example of the pathologies that develop as a consequence. But in this situation it has mostly to do with Ice Cube's being an asshole. People should note this fact and move on. (I probably have used words like "lunkhead" and "idiot" in writing about rappers. I've also used words like "brilliant" and phrases like "the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world" when writing about them.) It's extremely frustrating to hear people rationalize Ice Cube's words. The reaction to the column makes me want to restate this point plainly: many people find that line offensive, and it's not for Ice Cube to decide whether they're allowed to.

I'd like to make two other points. The media have made something of a blood sport of baiting certain blacks about the activities of others. I defend Jesse Jackson's and Scott Pfeiffer's right to say "Go fuck yourself" when put in that position and applaud them when they do it. I don't think I was baiting anyone at the panel--people were all over me for merely mentioning anti-Semitism. But if I was perceived as doing that, I apologize.

Finally, I'd like to note that we're talking about the activities of talented provocateurs on both sides of the issue. Ice Cube is trying to push people's buttons--sometimes even blacks' buttons. (See the song "Us.") With these lyrics he plainly stepped over the line, and people shouldn't have any problem calling him on it. Donald Wildmon is a bigger bozo than Ice Cube by a long shot, but surely even he realizes that he's playing a part in a game that keeps both him and Cube in the public eye and, not incidentally, in nice digs as well.

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