Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Street Dreams Are Made of These

From the article "For S.F. rappers, another dream deferred" by Erik Arnold in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Known as Sucka Free City in the rap world, San Francisco has no shortage of rappers or independent labels. However, its artists' close ties to the inner city--and, by extension, the tribulations of the ghetto--may be one reason it has produced a scant number of big-name acts.

Doesn't this explanation imply that rap acts who do make it big don't have close ties to the inner city? I guess those entertainers who are making millions by glorifying their own gritty histories and lifestyles must be lying, otherwise they wouldn't have been able to succeed like they have. Right?

Well, no, not entirely; I think this is more a case of flimsy logic in the excerpted article (and I'm not quoting out of context, read the rest) than of musical myth-making. But it still points to a larger problem in hip-hop, in that rappers are often expected to harbor some kind of rough-n-tumble past, serving as the legitimizing basis for their words. From the same article:

As [filmmaker Kevin] Epps explains, street credibility means everything in the rap game. With gangster rap especially, listeners want to know, "is this n---- real, where's he coming from?" When your entire persona is based on being in the streets, he says, "you can't just cut the cord" and remove yourself from the community altogether.

Emphasizing the idea that listeners crave realness and that a rapper's identity is inextricably tied to the streets further pushes the unfortunate and inaccurate idea that hip hop is mainly about being a thug. Also telling here is the use of the word persona, which dictionary.com defines as "the mask or fa├žade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment and not representing the inner personality of the individual; the public personality." Sometimes, millionaire entertainers are lying.

Yet there's no doubt that the genre's roots are planted firmly in the ghetto, or that it gives expression to the experience of facing an uphill battle in oppressive, economically impoverished, and frequently violent circumstances. And it sounds like the main subject of Arnold's article--a Fillmore rapper named Messy Marv--has had a tough time escaping the trouble which has shaped his music. But I think we all need to remember that where art often reflects life, life is just as likely to turn around and try to emulate art. And when it does, we might not even be able to tell the difference.

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