On the allure and the illusion of gangsters.
From Jesse James to Al Capone, Scarface to, well, Scarface, Bonnie and Clyde to Mickey and Mallory, there’s certainly nothing new about our American love affair with outlaws and gangsters, with those who make the wrong side of the law seem like the right response to our crazy country and world. In fact, you could say that self-made criminals have been idealized in our narratives for about as long as the self-made man has. So anybody who critiques one of the more recent cultural representations of that fascination, gangsta rap, as something particularly new or disturbing is either unaware of these longstanding histories and narratives or (more likely, to my mind) trying to mask racial or cultural attitudes toward that particular genre behind these more general, moralizing critiques.
But on the other hand, just because gangsta rap isn’t new doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to critique it, or at least its most excessive versions; and recently I’ve experienced a striking contrast that has led me to one such critique. I’ve been re-watching all five seasons of The Wire and have come to my favorite, Season 4, with its focus on the four middle school boys struggling with childhood and adult realities in West Baltimore. Each of the four is, in his own catastrophic way, directly impacted by the culture of the corners, of the drug trade—a culture that traffics (pun intended) heavily in the gangster mythos (it’s no accident that the killer Snoop wears a Scarface shirt in one episode). And while I’ve watched these four young men (fictional characters, but no less real because of it) experience the darkest realities of those myths, I’ve happened to hear numerous gangsta rap tracks on the local rap and hip hop radio station, including (to cite only one example) Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” in which he raps “Oh you got a gun so now you wanna pop back?/AK47 now nigga, stop that!/Cement shoes, now I’m on the move/Your family’s crying, now you on the news.”
Again, the gap between the image and the reality of gangsters has been part of our narratives for centuries—but I can’t help but feel that the gap is particularly destructive when it impacts young men for whom gangster life is a very real possibility, rather than simply the briefly attractive fantasy it offers so many of us. One young man for whom it seems to have been an all-too-real possibility is Aaron Hernandez, the professional football player currently awaiting a murder trial here in the Boston area; another was Odin Lloyd, the local man Hernandez is accused of murdering. Whatever precisely happened on the June night that was Lloyd’s last, it seems clear (to me, at least) that both Lloyd and Hernandez were caught up in the pursuit of a gangster life, of the guns and the crew and the respect and all the myths that come with it. And when the realities caught up with the myths, their American stories—like all those I’ve mentioned in this post—ended tragically.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other 2013 events you’d remember?
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