In 1991, with Black and Brown communities all over the United States flooded with drugs and guns, local, state and federal governments conspired together to leash an all-out war on these communities. They later called it the “War on Drugs,” but what we now know was that it was truly a war on people. Our communities were in an absolute state of emergency.
But instead of actually solving the complicated problems at hand, political leaders decided to simply inject the systems and structures of mass incarceration with steroids – arresting, jailing, policing, and brutalizing communities of color and creating a 30-year run that carries on until this very day of the U.S. being the single most incarcerated nation in the history of the world. Our modern crisis of police brutality is a direct extension of this.
While an immeasurable amount of external oppression continuously poisoned our communities, grassroots organizations from coast to coast started fighting back to figure out how they could try to at least slow down the onslaught of drugs and violence. Listen – no one program or solution can ever solve any of our most complex problems, it takes all of us, coming at problems from every possible angle. And the hip-hop community, wanting to do its part, released a powerful project called “Self-Destruction.”
I’m 40 years old, so this came out when I was about 12 years old. It was so big, so pervasive, that it trickled all the way down to my little country town of Versailles, Kentucky. Now, of course we didn’t have the Internet or YouTube, but this video was on constant daily rotation on Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps. We would record it on our VCR’s and play it back. We would debate who had the best rhymes and style. While we did all of that, some of the message also got through to us.
I need you to take a few minutes and check it out for yourself. Yeah, hip-hop has changed. Yeah, our culture and norms have changed, but you’ll get the point. It was a beautiful, well-intentioned moment of hip-hop coming together and saying, “We have to figure out what WE can do to make our communities safer.”
Did you know that these past few years have been the single deadliest years for gun violence in American history? We’ve blown past the number of gun deaths from 1991. And while mass shootings at predominantly white schools get most of the attention, the number of people shot and killed in Black and Brown communities is an epidemic.
Do I think a hip-hop video will solve that? Of course not. But I know that in the past year we’ve lost beloved artists like Nipsey Hussle and Pop Smoke to gun violence. We’ve lost rappers like Juice WRLD and so many others to drug overdoses. And what I know is that the deaths of those men are representative of what’s happening in the broader culture. Most people in our communities who are dying of drug overdoses or being shot to death don’t have Top 10 records or huge followings on social media. They’re just everyday people.
And while I spend every single day of my life fighting to change the systems and structures of oppression, we must simultaneously address our own self-destruction. We must. And hip-hop artists themselves need to figure out own their unique role in shifting and changing the culture. On one hand, we can’t say that hip-hop is one of the biggest cultural forces in the world ( it is). On the other hand, rappers and artists pretend like they can’t use the craft, and their influence, to shift how we see our greatest problems in the world.
And yes, they need to find ways to impact society outside of their actual music, but it’s their music and culture that has the biggest impact. I don’t know what a 2020 version of a project like “Self Destruction” looks and feels like – I know it’s not a carbon copy – but we need something. We really do.