The world of thug culture has its own perverse equivalent, in which middle-class men with minor legal transgressions exaggerate their bad behavior, claiming to be hard-core degenerates in order to impress youngsters looking for outlaw role models. In this destructive environment, the more violent and predatory you are, the more heroic you seem.
That helps to explain why a metro Atlanta hip-hop star known as Akon wove a tall tale of malevolence and criminal activity, claiming to have spent three years in prison for running a “notorious car theft operation,” a story he’s been telling for years. In fact, he has apparently never served hard prison time. A Web site called The Smoking Gun recently exposed Akon as a thug wannabe, a “James Frey with . . . an American Music Award.”
American popular culture has always had a tendency to romanticize hoodlums, whether Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde or Tony Soprano. But the hip-hop world’s celebration of savage violence, educational failure and misogyny by gangsta rap has been one of the worst influences on American youth, especially black youth, in decades. If you want to ruin a nation, a society or an ethnic group, persuade its members that the highest form of achievement lies in criminality.
Even before the 1980s, when gangsta rap oozed out of downtrodden black neighborhoods, too many black men were marginalized—unlettered, unemployed, imprisoned. They were already the victims of a fratricidal cycle of violence, predator and prey. They were already disproportionately fathers in absentia, completely divorced from the lives of their children, providing neither material support nor moral guidance.
Indeed, the baggy britches that are now de rigueur in hip-hop circles grew out of jail rituals. When men are arrested, their belts are confiscated, so their trousers tend to droop. It’s from that unfortunate facet of ghetto life that the ubiquitous sagging pants were launched.
But folk art has never been so popular—or lucrative. The worst of gangsta rap has not merely reflected behavior but has also inspired it, much of it lawless and destructive. Its lyrics are paeans to murder and mayhem. It celebrates an outlaw culture that disrespects women, mocks middle-class values and preaches against any cooperation with police in catching criminals.
If black men like Thiam enthusiastically abandon a passable reputation for the notoriety of a prison record, then black America is in serious trouble. If it is better to be an outlaw than to be a teacher or a chemist or accountant, then young black men will continue to go to prison in record numbers. If it is more acceptable to be violent and reckless than to be a responsible father and husband, then marriage will continue to decline in black communities.