Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Kinsella Vs. Hip Hop

When I was just a baby my mama told me
Son, always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
--Johnny Cash

Not too long ago, the high profile "bon vivant" Warren Kinsella wrote about the violence that permeates the genre known as "Gangsta rap" in a column called "Glorifying the Gun". In his column, Warren insinuates that rap itself fosters a culture of guns and the glorification of violence and asks the reader, at one point, if rap should be subject to censorship. Now, if asking whether artists should be censored or should "tone it down" seems paternalistic, it should be remembered that Warren cut his teeth in the Chretien administration where paternalism was the name of the game.

That aside, the real question is why rap, a genre that has incorporated so many other genres into its own lyrics, music, beats and outlook should be singled out. And why it is that Warren, who is knowledgeable about and identifies specifically with the punk scene, would choose to overlook this fact. The work of Johnny Cash and a host of hyper violent luminaries that pre-date the birth of Tupac Amaru Shakur by a few decades will be ignored here. However, one group that Warren knows intimately, respects, and has written about extensively has also been one of the more lyrically violent of modern groups - The Clash.

Take for example the song "Guns of Brixton":
When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun
"They", of course, is a reference to the police. A decade before NWA (a group Warren uses as an example in his column) told their listeners to "Fuck the Police", the Clash asked their audience to go a step further and actually kill the authorities.

The Clash go on:
You can crash us
You can bruise us
But you'll have to answer to
Oh - the guns of Brixton
As if they were IRA terrorists, the Clash explicitly warn the police that they can come to their neighbourhood, but that there will be hell to pay.

Other songs, such as "White Riot" and "Safe European Home" flirt with violent white supremecy. "White Riot" encourages its caucasian listeners to cause a race riot:
White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own
White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own

Black people gotta lot a problems
But they dont mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick
Other songs such as "Tommy Gun" clear up any ambiguity about the Clash's tendency towards all things violent:
Tommy gun
You can be a hero in an age of none
Tommy gun
I'm cutting out your picture from page one
Kinsella, of course, is aware of these lyrics and knows the band that wrote them. Again, the question remains why he would single out hip hop in particular, and make a case for the censorship of rap artists when even the Beatles made songs like "Happiness is a Warm Gun".

Of course I'm not making the case that the Clash or any band should be censored. The Clash (like many hip hop artists) are a product of the circumstances that surrounded them. Joe Strummer (if I recall correctly) was homeless at the age of 16, and sensitive to the condition of a deteriorating urban England and the greater anxiety of the "decline" of western nations. While the Clash gave voice to the poor underclass of '70's England, rap today is the "CNN of the ghetto", as per Chuck D. It offers a view into the harsh underworld that that contrasts to the North American media more obsessed with the death of a B-list celebrity than with the constant low intensity warfare waged on the streets of urban America.

When and if Kinsella takes on hip hop again, he should remember that rap is by no means the originator of the violent lyrics, and is by no means the only genre today that is given to gun glorification (country music, anyone?).

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