Hip-Hop and Gangsterism: The Shape vs. Mirror Debate

By: Teron Anderson


“We’re not against rap, we’re not against rappers, but we are against those thugs.”

That’s from the intro to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s classic “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.” The words were courtesy of Reverend Calvin Butts and they capture the essence of a long time war waged between America and the rawness that is Hip-Hop culture.
Rapper…thug, are these terms synonymous?

Al Capone
Al Capone…the man who inspired more than a few rappers

Unfortunately many seem to think so, despite all of the positive elements of the genre that gives hope to the hopeless and a lane for success for the disenfranchised. Hip-Hop and Gangsta Rap, in particular, has had a bad rep in pop since its inception.
The rebel has been prominent in American culture pretty much since the rise of mass media.
“It is perhaps fair to say that crime and criminals could make as good a definition of modern America and contemporary American-ness as any other,” wrote Kristopher Allerfeldt, Professor of US History at University of Exeter, UK, in his book “Crime and the Rise of Modern America.”
Whether it was the rebellious gunslinger roaming the wild, wild west or the Irish, Italian, and Jewish mobsters roaming the streets as early as the late 19th century, the gangster lifestyle was proliferated through the media long before the existence of Hip-Hop.
The socioeconomic conditions were in place to breed such a mentality, as many of those involved in such a decadent lifestyle in that period were descendants of immigrants who had not been fully accepted into society.
Prohibition in the 1920s gave an opportunity for many of those involved to monopolize the underworld, leading to a rapid rise in organized crime and characters like Al Capone, who was also known as “Scarface.”
The influence that the preexisting glorification of gangsterism had on the culture, as well as the poor socioeconomic conditions that it rose out of, is glaringly evident. When Hip-Hop surged to prominence much of the music revealed on the harsh realities of inner city life, such as Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.”

Machine Gun Kelly

Over time, this image would be commercialized, and many would follow suit just for sales, glorifying the struggles of the impoverished rather than providing insightful commentary on the reality.
References can be found throughout much of the music referring to criminal organizations such as the Mafia, making claims of connections, artists referring to themselves as “Dons,” etc.
Rappers like Machine Gun Kelly, Capone, Daz Dillinger, Beanie Sigel and Murder Inc. all have connections to gangsters in their names. Those men were infamous well before Hip-Hop culture existed.
So what role does Hip-Hop play in the prevalence of “thug culture?” Does Hip-Hop shape society or does it mirror society?
The “Shape vs Mirror” debate is an issue that is often brought up when dealing with advertising and mass media. Is the media creating desires in people by bombarding them with thousands of advertisements within the span of one day?
Alternatively, does the media reflect people’s actual desires to gain a positive response to the service or product that is being marketed? Unfortunately as with many issues in life the answer is not as clear as we would wish, since life is one big shade of gray, as I would like to say.

It should be recognized that these problems would continue even if the music were banished. As long as there is poverty there is going to be a rebel mentality. Even Aristotle understood this as one of his famous quotes stated that “poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.”
Although there is bound to be some shape effect due to Hip-Hop’s popularity, by large the violence that is prevalent in the culture is mirroring a mentality that is present in society.
Where’s our savior to come and save the day, the king to take the throne? It would be convenient if the solution to this complex issue were as simple as a few artists rising to prominence and spreading positivity. Socially conscious artist such as Talib Kweli, Common, and Mos Def certainly play their part in promoting positivity, but the solution to the problem starts at home.
Ultimately, the more stable the home life with two parents actively in the child’s life and positive influences around, the less likely the child is to be negatively influenced by a lyric from Bobby Shmurda or Lil’ Wayne.
Are we depending on the actions of rappers to raise our children? At the end of the day, they’re just artist. The actions they take shouldn’t have such an influence on someone’s life as to lead them towards crime.
Don’t fall for the hype. Hip-Hop is just the scapegoat of the hour.