Today's youth are living just enough for the city. Would their pop music heroes rather have them...ready to die? | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Today's youth are living just enough for the city. Would their pop music heroes rather have them...ready to die?

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Deondre Howard was 4 years old the first time he died.

Caught outside amid gunfire between older kids in Homewood, Deondre was hit once by a bullet that entered his chest on the right and exited on the left, just missing his heart.

Paramedics pronounced him dead. Three minutes later, says his mother, Deon, he was revived.

"Just a few hours before, he had told me that he was going outside to play with Jesus," she says. She and her son were outside a local salon with family and friends, practicing for a fashion show. When tempers began boiling across the street and fists led to bullets, Deondre's mother ran back into the salon and locked the door. It took only seconds for her to realize her son had not made it inside.

Deondre appeared at the glass door with his arms outstretched, as if airing out the cold blood moistening his shirt.

"At first it didn't look like he was shot, because he had all black on," his mother recalls. "I lifted his shirt and it was all blood."

After blacking out for a moment, she awoke to hear her son asking, "Mom, what's wrong?" Then Deondre passed out.

"And I did play with Jesus," says Deondre.

It wouldn't be Deondre's last look at death. A couple of years later, when he witnessed another rumble that ended in gunfire, he remembers urging his mother to go help the boy lying in the street. The boy had been shot in the throat. Deondre remembers the skin complexions of the shooter and the victim; he remembers what they were wearing; and he remembers telling his mom the boy wasn't going to make it.

Moments later, another mother's son died in the arms of Deondre's mother.

"I never seen nobody die like that before," says Deondre.

Deondre is 9 years old now, attends Belmar Elementary School and loves football. After school he goes to the Community Empowerment Association youth program where he does his homework, draws, paints and learns martial arts. At Shiloh Baptist church in Homewood he's an usher.

When the minister preaches about life and death, Deondre says he doesn't listen. Bring up his favorite rapper, 50 Cent, though, and he begins reciting the popular artist's songs instantly.

"Many men / wish death upon me / blood in my eye / and I can't see / I'm tryin' to be / what I'm destined to be / and niggas wanna take my life away …"

The fact that 50 Cent was shot nine times and survived has not skipped town on Deondre. He knows the story. Deondre doesn't approve of 50's use of gun talk in his rhymes, but he likes the beats. When asked how he feels when he hears 50 rhyme about shooting and death, Deondre starts rubbing his chest where he was shot.

"It's a bad feeling," he says. "You wouldn't like it."

"Some days wouldn't be special, if it wasn't for rain / Joy wouldn't feel so good, if it wasn't for pain / death gotta be easy, 'cause life is hard / it'll leave you physically, mentally and emotionally scarred …" 50 Cent -- "Many Men (Wish Death Upon Me)"

Last year, Allegheny County commemorated the 10th anniversary of its record-high 118 homicides -- a frowning achievement -- by matching that number. Sixty-three of the 74 people killed in the city of Pittsburgh were black.

Last year also happened to be the year that the best-selling musical artist was a rapper who was not only shot nine times and survived but who named his CD Get Rich or Die Tryin'. "Many Men (Wish Death Upon Me)" was a hit single. It's one of Deondre's favorite songs.

50 Cent follows the tradition of two other rappers: The Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. "Biggie") and Tupac Shakur. Biggie and Shakur were the best-selling, most popular artists of years past, and both also put out CDs that explored themes of death, usually in violent terms. Biggie's first album, Ready to Die, ended with a song called "Suicidal Thoughts." His second CD, Life After Death -- released after he was shot to death -- ended with a Sinatra interpolation called "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)".

Shakur had dozens of songs dealing with death: "I See Death Around the Corner," "How Long Will They Mourn Me?" "If I Die Tonight" and "Bury Me a G." His bottomless lyrical death references led many to believe that he, like Biggie, foretold his demise. Shakur was killed in 1997, Biggie six months later. Neither case has been solved.

Hip-hop culture and the rap music it spawns has had such a huge impact on youth and young adults that many have dubbed them "the hip-hop generation." Even if they're only "the MTV generation," some of the artists in heaviest rotation on MTV lately are Eminem, 50 Cent, Outkast, Jay-Z -- all rappers. Today, with the emergence of 50 Cent, who sold more than 10 million records last year, there has formed a bulletproof chic.

In his music videos, 50 parades in bulletproof vests, gun holsters, bulletproof cars and, if you believe his lyrics, bulletproof hats. His G-Unit clothing line includes shirts with bulletproof vests attached underneath, albeit not actually Kevlar or Teflon. His bullet-shielding accessorizing has been outdone only by rapper Beanie Sigel's clothing line, which includes jeans with hidden gun compartments.

In the hip-hop world of fashion, bulletproof is the new black.

Much of this music and apparel is marketed toward youth -- black, white, Hispanic or otherwise -- under the age of 18. Kids like Deondre soak up the messages of lyrics and clothes that say Getting shot is inevitable, especially if you're from the hood, so you might as well be prepared and look good doing it.

Older adults of this hip-hop generation know how to separate the literal and figurative in lyrics and media images, but does a 4-year-old?

Revered rappers like 50 Cent, Biggie and Shakur can't solely be blamed for the tragedies that too often occur in black and poor neighborhoods. Surely death-obsessed video games, ultra-violent movies and TV shows, poor parenting, failing schools and fractured communities help breed these tragedies.

But does it help that the kids of these broken homes and communities know songs inside-out that insist they ought to get rich by any means necessary or die trying? It's a tough pill to swallow, but the hip-hop generation may one day have to consider that some of the lyrics of our most popular artists may be raising kids ready to die.

"When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation / Getting closer to God in a tight situation..." Mobb Deep -- "Survival of the Fittest"

Last summer was one of the hottest in decades, but it wasn't just the humidity. The majority of killings last year occurred in the summer, 18 in August alone. When bullets rip through souls with that kind of frequency, the streets say it's "hot." Much language in the streets, in fact, reflects the kind of climate welcome only in hell.

A gun is called a "heater," a "burner" or "toast." Any time cops are thick in the hood or rival crews are suspected to be close, it's considered "hot." A loose cannon or a member of one's own crew who is likely to snitch is considered "hot." It's no coincidence that shooting victims say the feeling of being hit is a burning sensation.

Shawn and Marcus* of the North Side say they've had guns put to their heads. That's been enough to make them sweat. Both are 18.



Shawn's father has been shot four times. Shawn's seen guns pointed at his mother and his younger sister. He's a lively teen trying to graduate from Oliver High School, but keeps butting heads with the principals. He was suspended today for insubordination toward the vice principal.

His friend Marcus is more laid-back. He also attends Oliver, plays basketball and goes to church. He used to be "out there," he says, "but I calmed down." His father didn't set the best example and he says he wants to do better than him. Marcus recently became a father himself.

Both have been embroiled in major beefs between rival North Side neighborhoods. Both are big fans of 50, Biggie and Shakur. Neither are so religious about them that they feel they have to live by the rappers' codes of death.

"Some of the weak-minded people take all that stuff they see on TV and they feed off that," says Shawn. "They see 50 and know he got shot nine times and they figure, ‘If I get shot I'ma live too.' But that was all luck -- it just wasn't his time to go yet."

Shawn calls it luck. Marcus says 50 was "blessed." What they agree on is that 50 is taking his bulletproof image too far. And they both see the impact it has on the kids from their hood.

"Living in the projects, these li'l kids, these 9- and 10-year-olds, I swear, these kids are on some other stuff," Shawn says rather emphatically. "I know a li'l 12-year-old kid right now who acts like a grown man, and to other people in the hood he is a grown man. He smokes, he drinks. Whatever. He sticks people up -- he'll pull a burner out in a heartbeat."

As Shawn talks he's sitting at a desk writing a rap. When asked to spit it, he responds, "I ain't even gonna stunt, cuz, I don't think you wanna hear this one."

Shawn promises he won't "stunt" -- mislead you -- at least a hundred times in a 45-minute conversation. He bombards you with the "nahmean?" question hundreds more -- sometimes four or five times within one sentence. What's understood through it all is that you must take seriously what he's saying. When he says he's writing a rap about the retaliation he'll take when he finds the guys who pulled burners on him and his family, he promises not to "stunt" and asks "nahmean?" with feverish frequency.

"There is nothing nobody can say to make me feel no different," he says. "If you were me, nahmean? and I pulled a burner on your mom or dad, there's nothing I'ma be able to tell you to make you not want to go back and retaliate."

"They should've shot me when I was born / Now I'm trapped in the motherfuckin' storm…" Tupac Shakur -- "How Long Will They Mourn Me?"



Maybe there's nothing anyone can say to Shawn to make him reconsider revenge, but there are several people willing to try.

Rick Bigelow, 27, and Khalif Ali, 32, cruise the halls of Oliver alongside Shawn, Marcus and the school's other students, less to patrol than to console them about problems they're having at home. Ali and Bigelow (Mr. Bigs, as the kids call him) are mediators whose job it is to solve conflicts between students before they manifest as fights or spill into the streets for worse.

In working-class Beltzhoover and other troubled neighborhoods, Bigelow and Ali work as officers of a non-profit organization called Voices Against Violence. VAV began six years ago under Richard Carrington, who set up a "safe house" in Beltzhoover where gang members, or young people about to make criminal decisions, could go to cool off. Today, VAV representatives work in many schools throughout the district as well as in the streets, preventing clashes.

"We know what's going down in the schools, we know when it's going to happen, we know how it'll happen and we can stop it before it ever went down," says Carrington.

When Carrington walks down one of Oliver's main hallways, he's greeted with shout-outs, hand-shaked and hugged by just about every student, security guard, teacher and administrator passing. When he meets Ali in a counseling room reserved especially for VAV mediations, their hands meet, pulling themselves toward one another for a hug -- a hug so tight their cheeks press. They remain frozen in this position long enough at least for a quick prayer. It's a bold display of affection uncommon among most men, especially in front of five students.

Here, VAV counselor Cecilia Murphy is having a one-on-one with a female student threatening to fight another girl for reasons she refuses to divulge. Bigelow is talking to Shawn about his spat with the vice principal and his suspension.

"We define violence as anything that affects the mental, emotional or spiritual well-being of a member of the community," says Ali.

Including rap lyrics that entail violence?

"If it assaults your mental well-being, that's violence."

Bigelow, Ali and Murphy are all hip-hop generation-ers: All of them listen to rap heavily -- 50 included -- and all of them dress and speak the part, wearing the same baggy denim attire as the kids they serve and using the same slang. But they also are very aware of the influence rappers have over the children whose disputes they work to settle every day.

"Whoever spends the most amount of time with our kids are gonna have the most influence," says Ali. "So if they listen to rap and are out in the streets all day then that's what's gonna have the most sway.

"We only get to spend a few hours with them all week. I'm not saying I'm gonna give up on them, but it needs to be an all-encompassing thing. Parents need to work; the community needs to work together so we can all spend more time with the children."

Ali and Bigelow live in the same neighborhoods as the kids they counsel. They see first hand the severe economic and social dysfunctions. A lot of that baggage is carried in through the metal detector at the school's front entrance. The lyrics of 50 don't help, but neither does Bigelow let them hinder his work.

"I listen to that music, too, but if a kid would quote some of 50's lyrics, I'd shoot that down, tell them the exact same line and tell them, ‘He's not meaning for you to go out and really shoot someone,'" says Bigelow. "Rappers probably have more influence than parents, due to the way our economy is. Most parents have to work two jobs, so if dad isn't home our kids then are getting their education from 50 Cent."

Paid through a contract with Pittsburgh Public Schools, VAV officers volunteer three to four hours for every hour they are paid to be in the schools. Most physical infractions among teens occur after school rather than during, so office hours don't mean much. Bigelow and Ali give the students their cell phone numbers and say they keep their line open because "after 2:30 our kids still need help."



"Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion / I know my mother wish she had a fuckin' abortion / She don't even love me like she did when I was younger / suckin' on her chest just to stop my fuckin' hunger /
I wonder if I died / would tears come to her eyes? / forgive me for my disrespect / forgive me for my lies …" The Notorious B.I.G. -- "Suicidal Thoughts"

In the early '90s, some of America's top elected and anointed leaders, both black and white, were highly critical of the violent and misogynist lyrics of some rappers. Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and even Dionne Warwick were but a few voices in the "rap-is-destroying-the-world" chorus. Bigelow and Ali say they fiercely defended rap back then. But now, after witnessing what goes down among youth in the schools and the streets, their views are changing -- while still maintaining that rap can't be the only culprit.

Bigelow and Ali say George W. Bush's aggressive handling of rogue nations sets a bad example: If war is how America solves problems, then violence must be right.

"That's no different than us," says Shawn of Bush pushing America into war with Afghanistan and Iraq. "That's no different than us out here bangin'. Only difference is, Bush has power."

Bigelow and Ali say their modified perspectives on rap come from maturation. They were both raised in two-parent, religious families -- something they admit most of their kids don't have -- so they believe their viewpoints in life are rooted in a bit more traditional values.

As they grow older, Bigelow and Ali have also found that the kids they're asked to counsel are getting younger and younger, as are these kids' parents. It's not uncommon, says Bigelow, for them to be partying at clubs with the parents of the kids they serve. Ali works with an 11th-grade girl at Oliver whose mother was in his high school graduating class.

"How can a baby show another baby how to be an adult?" asks Ali. "So now we have a vicious cycle where it's harder for these kids to learn any values because their parents don't have any values."

"I was taught to value life and treat it like a jewel, but our kids look at life like it's just this piece of paper here," says Bigelow, picking up a construction-paper star. "I got my values from my mom and dad. I didn't have the type of parents who, if I was wrong, they would try to cover it up and appease for me."

Bikari Kitwana's book, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, covers anyone born between 1965 and 1984. That was the first wave; hip hop also permeates the generation born afterward.



What can be said of the newer hip-hop generation is that they are the first to share the music with their parents. Those depicted in Kitwana's book grew up with parents who grew up in the Motown and soul music eras -- parents who for the longest time detested and resisted the more street hip hop. Many parents today likely listen to 50, Biggie and Shakur with their kids.

Acknowledging this, Bigelow and Ali accept their roles as father or older-brother figure. Bigelow takes some of the young men to Western Penitentiary, the county jail and other prisons to show them where gunplay can land someone who doesn't have rapper resources -- if they're lucky.

"They resolved a lot of the [Northview] Heights/Manchester problems but some niggas don't listen," says Marcus, referring to neighborhood feuds. "The way Mr. Bigs looks at it, he'll keep preaching to you. Like, when he took us to West Pen to show us how it is and some people was like, ‘I don't care, if I was down here it wouldn't be like that.' Yeah, OK, well, go down there and experience that."

"My shit's deep / deeper than my grave, G / I'm ready to die and nobody can save me / Fuck the world / fuck my mom and my girl / my life is played out like a jheri curl …" -- The Notorious B.I.G. -- "Ready to Die"

"The romanticization of death is very American, but people try to make it out to be some kind of black pathology," says Dr. Kim Ellis, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Africana Studies department who has studied both African and Western societies.

She teaches a course called African-American Poetry and has discussed the lyrics of 50, Biggie and Shakur in class along with Harlem Renaissance poets like Claude McKay, who wrote "If I Must Die," and novelist Toni Morrison, whose book Beloved tells the true story of a black slave mother who opts to kill her children rather than give them to slavery.

"I'm not ready to wholly blame 50 Cent, but whoever you are, no matter what you listen to, what you think about is what you begin to believe, talk about and do, and what you do obviously affects your life," says Ellis.

A study by the Parents Television Council reported 534 separate episodes of prime-time violence on the six major broadcast networks during the first two weeks of "sweeps" week in 2002, which is 242 more than during the same time period four years before. Meanwhile, gun homicide has remained the leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 34 since 1969.

Kitwana says in Hip Hop Generation that this incorporation of violence into the hip-hop aesthetic is part of a worldview with a "sense of resignation and acceptance of the world as it is. And we are led to believe that this glorified lifestyle of violence, chaos and mayhem, where black youth are either irredeemable or dead, is representative of the new black youth culture."

In a report published in the Journal of Black Studies titled "Rap and Race: It's Got a Nice Beat, but What About the Message?" University of Connecticut researcher Rachel E. Sullivan concluded that "Many young African Americans appear to be looking at rap for its messages about life and its aesthetically pleasing sound" while other races listen "almost exclusively because of the aesthetically pleasing sound." One of the most common responses Sullivan obtained in her survey of teen rap fans was that rap "teaches me things or tells me things about life."

Ellis says its fine that these rappers rhyme about death and the hard struggles of the ghetto, but she believes many of them haven't gotten what many blacks have received since slavery: a survival guide -- an oral manual on how to rise out of depressive and oppressive conditions.

"Either they were not given one or they were but not given all the tools, or they're just not using them," says Ellis. "The thug life is not the only way out. Why isn't revolution an option? It's just, ‘I'm poor and life is hard.' Why don't we turn our attention to the source, since largely what we're talking about is poverty?"

Ellis is the niece of Hill District native son and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. She recalls an interview in which her uncle said that when he was younger he wasn't sure if he'd live to see 21 -- a sentiment shared by many blacks in the hood. That feeling changed, explains Ellis, when her uncle was taken in by an elder in the community who gave Wilson a place to write and to develop. That was his survival guide, says Ellis.

"We live in a societal vacuum where we are valorized by the mainstream and yet still are heavily disenfranchised and distanced in terms of equity and resources, home ownership and health care," says Ellis. "Tupac [Shakur] was far more of a tragic figure because in many ways he was given a survival guide."

Shakur's mother was a frontline Black Panther at the peak of that group's notorious interaction with American national in-security. The Panthers had developed an international following in the late '60s and early '70s. Their radical messages of black empowerment, coupled with social services -- free breakfast and lunch programs in public schools, for example, which were revolutionary for their time -- led FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to declare them public enemy No. 1.

Many of Shakur's early songs reflected Black Panther values: promoting self-defense against police brutality and militantly advocating the concerns of society's downtrodden. But later in his career his songs took a nihilistic turn, glamorizing the sexual objectification of women and promoting violence toward other rappers. Ellis and other scholars opine that Shakur's lyrical transmogrifications were the result of seeing a failed movement that didn't help his mother to escape the ghetto and drug addiction. He began rapping about whatever sold.

The term "thug life" was popularized by Shakur in the mid-'90s when he spun it into an acronym meaning "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody."

The economic hump, though, is something Ellis and Kitwana say many blacks never overcame, causing the next generation to doubt the significance of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Says Ellis, "The revolution can't be something that's just social and political; it has to deal with economic disparities. That's where Malcolm X went and we know that's where Martin Luther King was going with the Poor People's Campaign...but then he got shot."

"Now I'm lost and I'm weary / so many tears / I'm suicidal, so don't stand near me / My every move is a calculated step / to bring me closer / to embrace an early death / now there's nothing left …" Tupac Shakur -- "So Many Tears"

When rapper Kimani of the newly formed New York-underground group Roosevelt Franklin heard that Jam Master Jay of his favorite rap group Run-DMC was killed, he re-linked with old friends he had parted ways with to record a CD called Something's Gotta Give.

Originally from Clairton, where his father's family still lives, Kimani has broken into the global music industry, and he did it without having to saturate his music with bullet talk.

Sitting in his hotel room after a show his group rocked at Rosebud in the Strip District -- in a green T-shirt with "RAP SUCKS" across the front -- Kimani says he's "torn" about rap content. He believes any artist should be able to say whatever he wants, especially in America. But he has a 2-year-old. She won't listen to rap yet, he says, and he won't play it, not even his own.

"We don't have any political leaders," he says. "Our leaders are our rappers, so you should have a li'l consciousness in what you say."

His mother runs a refugee camp in New Jersey where African immigrants and escaped prisoners of war stay. Kimani says he was freaked out one day to see a teen from Sierra Leone show up with a 50 Cent shirt -- the one with the faux bulletproof vest attached. Sierra Leone is plagued by warfare like few other African countries, with Soviet-supplied assault rifles arming renegade gangs trying to seize control of its diamond mines. It's common in Sierra Leone to find kids with bullet-wound scars and missing limbs.

50 won't stop rapping about guns because that will cost him millions of dollars, says Kimani. "Rappers are never gonna take responsibility. They might make themselves feel better by starting a camp for inner-city kids, just to say they are giving back to the community or some shit. But sending 75 kids to camp doesn't do away with fucking up the minds of, like, three million other kids."

Not all kids struggle with separating the myth and the man of 50 Cent. Nine-year-old Deondre Howard has a gunshot wound in his chest, but not a chip on his shoulder. At Community Empowerment Association, he's one of the most animated children and believes he will be a football star when he gets older.

He's not supposed to play football. He's not supposed to be too active. He's not supposed to be alive. He still has a blood clot in one lung from the shooting. Yet you can find him at his after-school program, smiling and causing others to smile as he dances and recites raps about getting double cheeseburgers from McDonalds.

If he were to meet 50 Cent, Deondre says he would "push him down on the floor and say, ‘Why are you rapping about guns?'"

In the next breath, though, Deondre says, "Then I would take his hand and pick him back up."

Why?

"All his songs ain't about shooting. He also says,: ˜I'm trying to be what I'm destined to be.'"

*The names of these two high-school students were changed.

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