School shootings have become so commonplace in the United States that news of one hardly makes a blip on the national radar, save for if the death toll reaches the double-digits. In the years since the Columbine shooting, children dying from gunshots behind the walls of a school building has, sadly, become ordinary. The nation as a whole seems to be numb to this pain.
Yesterday one student at a California high school was shot in the head and another in the neck as a gun inside a fellow student’s backpack accidentally went off in a hallway. The shooting was by all accounts “accidental”, though I doubt the carrying of the weapon in question was an accident. This also isn’t the first shooting at this particular high school, as a robbery attempt on the campus in 2002 resulted in two people being shot and three students were involved being sentenced to prison.
Gun related violence is not new to the U.S., as the country consistently ranks among other nations in terms of gun deaths per capita. The question that always arises after incidents like the one in California, however, is what is the cause? Beyond the accountability of parents, a lot of blame gets placed on the entertainment industry, particularly those aspects that rely on guns and violent imagery, such as action movies and explicit music. Of course, in the last 20 or so years, the biggest and easiest scape goat has been hip-hop. With so much focus on the images of “thugs” and “gangstas” brandishing guns and making outlandish threats of physical harm and/or death, hip-hop very often comes under fire from those seeking to assign blame for shootings like the one in California to a party not directly involved.
WATCH MSNBC COVERAGE OF THE ACCIDENT IN GARDENA, CALIFORNIA:
Words have consequences, so it is not completely off-base to suggest that hip-hop (and other music with violent undertones) contribute to a culture that is desensitized to violence. But to place the squarely on hip-hop’s shoulders would be to neglect the fact that rappers are reflecting and reporting the violence and despair that continues to plague the communities they were born into and represent. In his 2003 song “Public Service Announcement”, Jay-Z quips: “you can blame Shawn, but I ain’t invent the game, I just rolled the dice, trying to get some change.” His metaphor serves as a keen observation that while he and rappers like him are often derided for their “glorification” of guns and violence (and other ills of society), they are not responsible for the creation of this climate. They are participants, more often that not reluctantly, who seek understanding and desire a way out, just as anyone would.
Little, if any attention, is given to the gun manufacturers or those who push for deregulation of gun control laws when tragedy strikes. No serious debate is given to the merits of the second amendment in our modern times. We avoid the discussion of the idea that the U.S., a unilateral superpower driven by the military industrial complex and whose major export has become war, is a violent nation from top-to-bottom. Rather, we choose easy targets, no pun intended, to become the face of problems that they themselves are also victims of. Video games, movie stars and rappers catch the brunt of these attacks.
At the same time, as role models, whether they chose to be or not, a certain amount of responsibility rests on the shoulders of those who have captured the eyes, ears, and imaginations of a sizable portion of the population. Through their music, rappers reach millions, mostly youth, daily, and some ways owe them more than just hot beats and dope rhymes. True, they are “just entertainers”, but they are also asking their young fans to buy into a certain lifestyle, ideology and culture that lies beyond the music and will stay with them far beyond the four minutes they invest in a single song. For that, there should be something a value they can redeem.
Rappers have the ability to use their platform to inform, inspire, and transform. Just like Nas, Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Jay-Z and others recorded songs attended benefits in 2008 to rally support for then presidential-candidate Barack Obama, they can do the same to address gun violence. Such an event is set to take place today (Jan. 19) at City Hall in New York City, where Peace Week organizer Erica Ford, Russell Simmons, and rappers Jim Jones and Juelz Santana will join City Councilmen Leroy Comrie, Charles Barron, and Reuben Willis to speak out for gun control.
Hip-hop didn’t cause the shooting in California, or any of the school shootings we have witnessed, but the power of the music can help prevent future voice. If hip-hop lives up to its potential, it can truly be transformative.