Music

How Tekashi 69 And Other Artists Highlight America’s Trivialization Of Gang Culture

Getty Image

If you’ve been paying attention to any hip-hop media in the past month or two, you’d know damn near the whole rap game is going hard after rising New York rapper, Tekashi 69. The Brooklyn MC has been catching heat coast-to-coast for flouting his Blood gang ties and thumbing his nose at the idea of “checking in.” The “check-in” concept “mandates” gangster rappers notify known street figures in a city of their arrival, lest they open themselves up to being accosted or robbed by those very people if they go to certain areas. It sounds like a premise for a Boondocks comeback episode, but it’s very real, and the men in this video, for instance, don’t seem to be joking about it.

But Tekashi doesn’t care. He’s going to keep making songs like “Billy” and “[letting] his nuts hang,” as he said on his Breakfast Club interview, even after pictures have arisen of him wearing blue bandanas and throwing up a “C”, which indicate an affiliation with the Blood’s rivals the Crips. When he was asked about the perceived hypocrisy on the Breakfast Club, he inferred that he was just doing what his friends were doing at the time. That level of naivete is at the heart of why artists like YG and Game are calling him out. But just how mad can anyone really be at Tekashi for his so-called, “false flagging of gang affiliation?

YG and Game are the two biggest artists to be upset with Tekashi for being a “fake ass Blood,” as Game deemed him. Game called out Tekashi for ”[disrespecting] my city & a rag I put in my pocket, lost countless homies, relatives & my own brother over.” YG co-signed him. They’re right, but they’re also hypocrites, too. If they’re going to call him out, will they call out the other artists whose red-flagging feels just as contrived? They’re both cool with Chris Brown, who started wearing red and hanging out with Bloods after his pristine, heir-to-MJ image was tarnished by his violation of Rihanna. The Virginia native went from singing for teenyboppers to bragging, “I took her to Fruit Town to meet my OG” on Tinashe’s “Player.”

Game is so cool with Lil Wayne that he once voluntarily jumped in Wayne’s conflict with Young Thug. But, with all due respect to Wayne’s musical contributions, we can’t deny that he only started wearing copious amounts of red and using Blood lingo in the midst of his music career. It’s worth noting that this was the very juncture at which his career skyrocketed.

There’s also Soulja Boy, who went from playful jingles like “Crank Dat” to fighting gang members in the middle of Compton to defend his alleged gang ties. Perhaps it’s just a consequence of being a young, misguided artist in LA, where gang members want access to the entertainment industry and artists want to look tough by affiliating themselves with them. It’s an unholy alliance, for sure.

That said, the music industry converging with the streets is nothing new. The mob ran the early music industry. Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight was unabashed about his Blood ties. Jimmy Henchman, one of the biggest music industry figures of the 90s and 2000s, was convicted of money laundering and running a bi-coastal drug operation with drugs mules bringing in product through music equipment packing cases. Jay-Z, arguably the most accomplished rapper ever, rhymed about turning “an eighth to an ounce to a whole ki to the ROC.”

Hip-hop has a symbiotic relationship with the streets, as rapping and breakdancing started as a means for youth to have something positive to do and settle their rivalries in a productive manner. By the late ’80s, those youth began rapping their first-person narratives of survival, often funded by former street figures looking to go legit. The transition created classic music, but as hip-hop evolved and tone deaf people began to control the mechanisms of hip-hop, the gang lifestyle began to appear more like a marketing gimmick than anything substantive. Success in mainstream rap has become less about artists telling authentic stories and more about selling an image.

Which brings us to artists like Tekashi. In the same manner that the blatant prejudice of the Trump’s administration woke many Americans from their centrist haze, hip-hop (on a much smaller scale of importance) needs an artist like Tekashi to be as ridiculous as possible. The young artist transitioned from a social media troll into a hip-hop star. With songs like “Gummo” and “Kooda,” the Mexican-American artist sells his cocksure brand of bangin’ on wax to shows full of mostly white teens. In an era when artists are looking for any visual edge to differentiate themselves and flouting gang ties is as marketable as ever, Tekashi is the (im)perfect storm. He’s the human “Bompton” shirt of hip-hop whose mere presence exposes just how trivialized the gang lifestyle has become in pop culture.

You’d pretty much have to be a nudist to be more visually disruptive than the rainbow-haired, rainbow-grilled, egregiously face-tatted Tekashi. And the fact that he looks like that while screaming Blood anthems and doing videos with hoards of gang members around him puts the ridiculous juxtaposition on full display. That’s why he can rhyme about being a “Billy” bad-ass, then mock people for getting mad at “a kid with rainbow hair,” as he often refers to himself. He’s thought-provoking, even if inadvertently. He makes me wonder how much people will accept from a hip-hop artist with enjoyable music. He makes me wonder how far the envelope can be pushed, and whether the executives who promote artists like him even care about the consequences.

The lack of tact shown within pop culture indicates that those in power may not care very much. Red rags and ”B” hand signs in pictures are now mere visual accouterments. Major corporations like Viacom’s VH1 jokingly refer to themselves as BH1 to promote Cardi B on Love And Hip-Hop. Outlets like Vice make satirical articles about things YG can’t do because he’s Blood — such as drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and buying a pack of Oreos. At this point, would you be that surprised if you saw an old white man crip walking in a Tide commercial?

The irony is implicit in articles like Vice’s and Kendall Jenner wearing “Bompton” shirts. But embracing that paradox means you’re complicit in the trivialization of continuous Black genocide. Violent crime has risen four years in a row in Los Angeles (after it reached its lowest point in the last few decades), with gang-related violence always a significant portion of that total. The gang atmosphere persists because of civic apathy, conditioned by hundreds of years of white-dominated power structures pushing Black and Brown people into impoverished communities and leaving them to fend for themselves.

According to Bruce George, founder of The Bandana Republic — a literary anthology by gang members and their affiliates — Blood stands for “Brotherly Love Overrides Oppressive Destruction” and Crip stands for “Community Revolution in Progress.” They started as groups protecting Black communities from cops and white supremacists during the Civil Rights movement. It’s the government-engineered heroin epidemic in the ‘70s that devolved the LA-based Bloods and Crips from neighborhood protection organizations into what we see today.

The New York-based Blood factions were started in New York jails and prisons because the Black prison population was being oppressed and assaulted by the Latino population. That division occurred because of anti-Blackness and racism that’s as endemic to America’s identity as fireworks on the 4th of July. These so-called gangs didn’t start because someone stepped out of their house one day and wanted to look tough. They were formed in response to still-relevant societal ills. I wonder how many people who attend “Cripmas” parties are aware of that.

That truth has been mishandled by a society that once painted artists like Snoop Dogg and N.W.A. as menaces — but have now turned their successors into parodic mascots as society has become more desensitized than ever to America’s faults.

There are dozens of popular rappers who claim to be Bloods or Crips and unabashedly flag in some of their most well-known songs. Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N—-” was an ode to his allegedly Crip-affiliated G$9 crew, and hip-hop fans all over the country rapped every word of it. You can’t even play or sing along to YG’s new “Suu Whoop” single in certain neighborhoods. But while YG pushes neighborhood pride, he’s also working with Nipsey Hussle (a self-professed Crip) on a joint project in an effort to show unity amongst the gangs. YG and Nipsey both were literally born into the lifestyle and know how bad things could veer left if they acted as brazenly as Tekashi has.

Nipsey clearly didn’t even want to dignify Tekashi’s existence, as he walked off the Everyday Struggle set once he saw the mercurial rapper on the topic list. To someone who actually lived the life, asking about Tekashi is probably like asking a hip-hop head about “Weird” Al Yankovic — a nonstarter. But, plenty of people are interested in Mr. “Gummo.” His music videos have accrued millions of views. In just one weekend, Tekashi’s Breakfast Club interview is on pace to be the show’s most viewed — and the show has had Jay-Z, Kanye West, Dave Chappelle, and other legends as guests.

It’s hard to believe that Tekashi’s label TenThousand isn’t successful in large part because of the attention he’s accrued with his “come test my gangsta” gimmick and isn’t looking to keep the foot on the pedal. The rapper says he had “no co-sign” like Offset or G-Eazy, who he mentioned were on some of Cardi B’s hits, but you don’t need that when you have Elliott Grainge — the son of Universal Music Group Head Lucian Grange — backing you along with Ari Emanuel of the William Morris agency, one of the most powerful agencies in entertainment. He’s going to be as big as his powerful superiors want him to be, which is a scary prospect considering the power he already has over teenagers.

Tekashi’s Day 69 outsold Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap in first week sales. Nipsey markets himself as a symbol of Black independence instead of a lampoon of gang culture. Perhaps Nipsey stayed independent so long to avoid a label that would ask him to exploit his affiliations.

Tekashi rarely mentions his high-powered plug. He’s usually seen in videos and Instagram posts with other people reputing themselves to be gang affiliated. Lately, I’ve been wondering who serves as the bridge between the dudes who are with him in the streets and his label. Is there anything responsible being said in the boardroom? What conversations could they be having as they see him in conflict all over the country? Is the label at all worried about his well-being due to his audacious red-flagging? Perhaps they merely see him as another “bomb” who “represents the senseless savagery that white people see when the news speaks of [gang] violence,” like Rhymefest once referred to Chief Keef.

What’s more troubling is that whatever Blood-affiliated figures lurk behind Tekashi and put the figurative battery in his back are complicit in the misrepresentation of the lifestyle they once lived — all for a dollar. People who’ve done crimes are often lauded for finding a way out and transitioning into entertainment, but how much can they be celebrated them when they’re co-signing artists who they know are caricaturing their struggle and misleading youth? I don’t want this to be a “rap is the devil” article, but hip-hop’s sway on impressionable minds can’t be ignored. That’s why people who know better, yet allow artists to “pay-in” or leverage their industry status to promote gang culture, are basically flooding the same counterproductive energy in their community as when they were doing crime — it’s just a more abstract effect.

Once again, an element of Black culture born out of destitution has been co-opted and exploited for corporate gain. Once again, there are people within the community who are complicit in its exploitation. With YG and Tekashi songs ringing off all over the world, it’s impossible to reign things back in and stop Hollywood teenyboppers who enjoy YG’s music from mimicking him in cringe-worthy social media posts. The white teenagers who dominate Tekashi’s shows aren’t going to stop patronizing him, even if they read more pieces like this. But we can put the pressure on their parents, who seemingly live to make a dollar off of the vicarious Black experience.

While the money pours in from records like “Billy,” the wayward youth who inspired it are going to continue to lose their lives and freedom all over the country. That’s not Tekashi’s fault, but the wealthy white people who push his music all over the world are in positions to eventually reverse that circumstance — if they cared about Black and Brown lives beyond their lucrative prospects. High school shootings are a hot-button issue across the country for good reason — but when 31 Black people are shot in Chicago in a weekend, the outrage doesn’t engender national marches. When rumors arose of LA gang members initiating “100 days and nights” of killing in South Central in 2015, it wasn’t CNN breaking news.

Ignorance of Black issues is no surprise, but that also means that these labels don’t have the right to carelessly promote pre-packaged, boardroom-approved depictions of gang life. The cycle will likely continue, however, because so many impoverished people will continue to do whatever it takes to make a dollar. From phony rappers to gang members co-signing nonsense to greedy label execs, they’re all complicit in this clusterf*ck. At this point though, will any of them be willing to back away from the table?

Around The Web

×