Conservative pundits have this neat parlor game they’ve played since back in the day, and it never ceases to amuse. It’s a lot like “Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon” except it’s actually “Six Degrees From This Being the Fault of the American Negro.” The current grand-poobah-champion of this game is Bill O’Reilly, who managed in just four degrees to blame Katrina on the residents of New Orleans’ public housing (“uneducated” to “poor” to “drug-addicted” to “standing on your symbolic rooftop waiting for help”). Odds are no one’s about to dethrone Bill anytime soon, but David Brooks gave the champ a run for his money recently. Check it out: Tupac and Biggie to “American countercultural hegemony” to French rap to gang rape to teen rioters firebombing the French projects. Five degrees, smooth as silk.
David Brooks laid out his theory in a New York Times piece titled “Gangsta, in French,” which describes the hip-hop affectations of French rioters as a matter of apocalyptic urgency. True to form, Brooks takes his time progressing from halfway-reasonable to bat-shit crazy. He writes, “One of the striking things about the scenes from France is how thoroughly the rioters have assimilated hip-hop and rap culture,” and that’s fine. Here’s where he gets icky: “The French gangsta pose is familiar. It is built around the image of the strong, violent hypermacho male… It is perhaps no accident that until the riots, the biggest story coming out of these neighborhoods was the rise of astonishing and horrific gang rapes.” Brooks is either clueless or baldly disingenuous.
There’s no denying that when gangsta rap first surfaced in the late 80s, it was plenty reasonable to think the music a threatening development. Ice-T and N.W.A. dropped their first successful albums against the backdrop of a nationwide crack epidemic, and at the time, it was hard not to imagine that the violent, suddenly ubiquitous music was helping fuel the country’s skyrocketing crime rates. The outright misogyny of N.W.A cuts like ‘One Less Bitch’ was unprecedented in popular music, and Ice Cube lines like “to a kid looking up to me/ life ain’t nothing but bitches and money” expertly tweaked the exact fear of suburban parents. The trend gained momentum through the early 90s as Dr. Dre’s seminal The Chronic blew up on radio and similarly criminally minded artists like Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Biggie and the Wu-Tang Clan turned gangsta rap into hip-hop’s dominant form.
All the while, crime rates continued rising, pundits were having conniptions and politicians on both sides of the aisle scored good publicity going after hip-hop. The hysteria reached its zenith in 1994 with a Senate hearing on hip-hop lyrics. Dr. C. Delores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, testified before the Senate Juvenile Justice Subcommittee that gangsta rap would “trigger a crime wave of epidemic proportions” if left unchecked. Hip-hop, of course, did remain unchecked, and the same year Dr. Tucker made her dire prediction, violent crime rates began falling dramatically. By the time Tupac dropped the thug-life epic All Eyez On Me in 1996, the murder rate was already down 21 percent from 1990. It declined considerably more by decade’s close.
David Brooks makes a revealing error when he writes, “French rap lyrics today are like American rap lyrics of about five or ten years ago,” implying that some sort of mellowing-out of American rap coincided with the recovery of the American city. The truth is, there probably hasn’t been more than one or two hip-hop albums to make the Billboard Top 40 charts in the last ten years that don’t openly promote criminality of some sort, be it New York’s preoccupation with gunplay or Houston’s love of prescription cough syrup. Gangsta rap never went away, it just dropped off the radar of people like David Brooks when low crime rates diminished its usefulness as a culture-war scapegoat.
Not knowing a lot about modern hip-hop can be forgiven of an old white guy like Brooks. But blaming the horrifying rash of sexual violence plaguing French ghettos on the influence of America’s “gangsta pose” is as cynical as it is asinine. Sexual assault rates in America have fallen precipitously since 1991, unimpeded by some of the most misogynistic music ever recorded. The issue of gang rape (or “tournantes,” literally a “pass-around”) in the French projects is far bigger than hip-hop; it’s a problem rooted in class, religion, gender, race, everything. Samira Bellil describes in her book Dans L’Enfer Des Tournantes (In the Hell Of Gang Rape) a poisonous ghetto culture in which frustrated male teens regard a woman’s choosing French fashion over Islamic garb an offense that justifies sexual brutalization — a line of thinking hardly discouraged by the community’s open contempt for rape victims. She was gang raped three times at 14, and when she found the courage to talk about it publicly her family disowned her. Hip-hop had nothing to do with Bellil’s Algerian parents turning her out on the street for being raped. Obscuring a deadly serious issue with such nonsense is just an ugly way to rack up points for the old family values argument against rap.
The French student insurrection of 1968 wasn’t Serge Gainsbourg’s fault, and gangsta rap didn’t cause the unrest in the projects surrounding Paris. Hip-hop’s been a big deal in France for 20 years now, and if “American countercultural hegemony” were really all Brooks builds it up to be, the French projects would’ve exploded decades ago. Willfully confusing cause, effect and coincidence, David Brooks’ comments ultimately say as much about the state of conservative rhetoric as the burnt husks of French vehicles say about the state of France. Nodding politely at issues like class strife, Brooks found a way to pin chaos abroad on the least loved music of old white men at home. It must be said that the man plays a badass round of “Six Degrees.”