[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]
On a sports scandal and the allure and the illusion of gangsters.
As this week’s series has amply illustrated, 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 (and yesterday’s subject), gangster 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 gangster rap isn’t new doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to critique it, or at least its most excessive versions; and a few years back I experienced a striking contrast that led me to one such critique. I had been re-watching all five seasons of The Wire and came to my favorite, Season 4, with its focus on 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 professional killer Snoop wears a Scarface shirt in one episode). And while I watched these four young men (fictional characters, but no less real because of it) experience the darkest realities of those myths, I happened at the same time to hear numerous gangster 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 who was convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison in one of the more shocking and horrific sports scandals in history; another was Odin Lloyd, the local Boston man Hernandez was convicted 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.
Last GangsterStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?