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Questioning the Criminalization of Gangsta Rap: How Explicit Lyrics Reflect Economic and Racial Inequality in the Wake of Deindustrialization and the War on Drugs

By Frances Hornbostel, VI Form

Questioning the Criminalization of Gangsta Rap: How Explicit Lyrics Reflect Economic and Racial Inequality in the Wake of Deindustrialization and the War on Drugs 

In 1992, rapper Tupac Shakur carved the powerful mantra he had created across his torso: “Thug Life.” In bold, unfading, blue ink, the message would last forever on his body and resonate off of it. The message of “Thug Life,” however, did not convey one, coherent story. As with anything celebrities do, the media, political figures, and the general public began to weave another section of the messy web that is Tupac’s legacy. The word “thug” inspired images of criminals who are violent, malicious, and crude.2 Many snatched the opportunity of Tupac’s branding himself with the public’s negative usage of “thug” as confirmation that he was accepting the media’s labelling of him. Some took it as permission to call Shakur a criminal before he was ever accused of a crime.

Many thought the way of life he depicted in his lyrics incited violence, holding him responsible for some real, criminal acts of violence that followed the release of his music. Linda Davidson, the wife of Officer Bill Davidson, would sue Time Warner, Interscope Records, and Tupac Shakur, blaming them for the fatal shooting of her husband. In April 1992, Officer Davidson pulled over Ronald Howard, a teenager from Houston, for a broken headlight. As the officer walked up to Howard’s window, the teen shot Davidson, who would die three days later. How could Tupac be responsible if it was Ronald Howard who was convicted of the crime? At the time of the shooting, the music of Tupac Shakur’s album, 2Pacalypse Now, blasted through an audio cassette in Howard’s car. Linda Davidson claimed the music’s obscenity and violent imagery directly encouraged illegal behavior, like the shooting that led to her husband’s death.3 Although the Judge eventually dismissed the lawsuit against Time Warner, Interscope Records, and Tupac, criticism of the rapper and the genre of gangsta rap was still very much alive.

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