On Hip Hop, Blind Privilege and a Chronically Broken System

On my last full day in the midwest, I prepare to return east with a full heart, stomach, and no idea what’s next.

By now, my friends and family know that I visited this region to interview and write about the Twin Cities indie hip hop scene; understandably, many of them have asked if I know anyone who was involved in the recent shooting at Irving Plaza.

I do not. However, after the conversations in which I’ve engaged over the past several days, I certainly have some thoughts on the matter, with particular emphasis on the reactionary comments of police commissioner Bill Bratton.

When I had trouble falling asleep last night, I made the mistake of checking my email, only to discover that my father (quite thoughtfully wondering if it might help me with my research) sent me a New York Times article on the aftermath of the shooting. It included a quote from an interview with commissioner Bratton, who called the incident symptomatic of “the crazy world of these so-called rap artists who are basically thugs.”

If you’ll excuse my language, the spewing of this bullshit has got to fucking stop.

As a disclaimer: I will not even begin to pretend to be an expert on this landscape. I am not an economist, anthropologist, or a sociologist, and I most certainly cannot attest to experiencing anything even close to the lives of the individuals I’ve had the privilege of meeting in the course of my research. I am a white female who was raised in the upper-middle class suburbs of Washington, DC, and won’t deny the sentiment that there are certain things that I “will never understand.”

But I can try.

It’s that key word - privilege - that I wish to recognize in this preface. And for many people who have any degree of privilege, myself included, it is imperative that we cease treating certain issues with elective blindness.

My own privilege comes in many forms, including the good fortune of being invited into the homes and day-to-day lives of some major players within the Twin Cities indie hip hop scene. I was able to witness the creative process, to lend my own musical background to free-form recording and, perhaps most rewarding, listen to the stories of individuals whose own experiences sharply contrast my own.

As a result, I was able to clearly see and - for a few hours, at least - become immersed in the love, support, and unyielding sense of community that reaches far beyond any borders put in place by racism, poverty, or what society perpetuates and therefore expects from given populations. Thugs, Mr. Bratton? No. These are activists who use their art and talent to break the cycle.

This community is not one that perpetuates violence. The vast majority of the rappers with whom I met are also teachers or mentors for at-risk youth, using their own respective upbringings to end the very violence of which the commissioner speaks. These artists actively work to influence youth and, in their own words, “Keep them out of trouble.” They use music, in whatever form it comes, to blaze trails previously seen by younger generations as inaccessible, simply due to who they are and where they come from.

I am perpetually dumbfounded by claims that we do not live within a broken system. Quotes like Bratton’s - those that attempt to cast a generically wide net over a certain population or genre - only reflect an economic, educational and social infrastructure that is deeply flawed.

If we were doing things correctly, the owner of one such aforementioned home would not have feared for her life when a white, suited man in an SUV - merely a driver - arrived to give me a ride back to my hotel.

If we were doing things correctly, the cycle of physical and verbal violence against minority youths (often at the hands of white police officers) would not be on repeat.

And on the heels of the acquittal of yet another officer involved in the death of an unarmed young black man, I must ask the commissioner, using many of his own words: Are all cops white, racist “thugs,” who “celebrate violence” against those who look different than they do, with that “violence manifesting itself” in the “so-called” line of duty?

I didn't think so. Blanket labels are dangerous, no matter where applied.

Check yourself, Mr. Bratton. This shit has got to fucking stop. This blind privilege, and its consequential ignorance, is what fosters a chronically broken system.