What Are The Lessons To Be Learned In The Tekashi 69 Saga?

Last week, Tekashi 69 testified against his former Nine Trey Gangsta Blood set associates for three days in New York federal court, detailing the crimes they allegedly committed, and his culpability in some of them. Last November, he was arrested along with the New York-based Blood faction in a sweeping RICO indictment. After just a day in custody, and a realization that his former comrades wanted to “super violate” him, he decided to cooperate with the FBI in an effort to lighten his eventual sentence.

Last week’s testimony was a revelation for those who had not read the case’s previously released court documents. If this was the last act for the self-proclaimed “kid with rainbow hair,” he went out exactly the way he lived over the past 24 months: strangling the social mediasphere and news cycle.

There was hysteria over him supposedly “outing” Cardi B, Jim Jones, and Trippie Redd as gang members — despite all three previously acknowledging their ties. There was intrigue as he divulged the inner workings of the Nine Trey set. People joked about him calling Jim Jones — who just released the well-regarded Capo album — a “retired rapper” and, perhaps accidentally, deeming Blood member Mel Matrix the “grandfather” of Nine Trey before clarifying that he was a “godfather.”

His testimony was a spectacle unlike anything ever experienced in hip-hop history. Being a documented government informant would be career suicide for a rapper once upon a time. But there’s a chance Tekashi could receive a lenient sentence, once again pursue his music career, and become a test case for how career-damaging “snitching” really is in 2019. How will the public receive him? Many people have suggested that his story deserves a documentary, book, or biopic. Maybe that’s true. But more immediately, the circumstance deserves a deep, reflective discussion.

His story wouldn’t be frontpage news without a click-hungry hip-hop media who continuously covered his antics (despite his sexual interaction with an underage girl), the record label who co-signed them, and the gang who enforced them in a scheme that blew up in their faces. If hip-hop fans weren’t captivated by drama and trainwrecks, he would have never achieved the cultural visibility that encouraged the next artists to court drama as a marketing plan.

Revolt published an article entitled “Tekashi 6ix9ine’s rise and fall proves there’s no future in frontin.” But that’s not true. 69 was foolish enough to fall in too deep with the Nine Trey set, but had he maintained a healthier distance from their crimes (like other artists who unabashedly wave red and blue flags), he would still be on Instagram inciting violence all over the country — and almost every hip-hop outlet would still be covering the drama for the clicks and shares to be garnered.

While his plight is being framed as a cautionary tale for young artists, it should also stir editors, writers, and other rap media personalities to be more discerning about what we choose to cover. 69 has repeatedly admitted that he only “trolled” to such an extent because it attracted attention. We didn’t have to give to him, especially since it egged him on to spread radioactive energy in social media-curated conflicts with Chief Keef, YG, Game, and others. I previously wrote about the under-considered toll of rap beef, with entourage members fighting and shooting each other in the throes of ego-based conflict. 69’s case includes repeated shooting incidents involving artists like Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Chief Keef, Casanova, and others. How would we feel if one of those artists was seriously injured behind his madness?

The case transcripts show that the Instagram clips that so many outlets shared of 69 screaming threats and urging people to “test his gangsta” could have easily turned into solemn, contrite coverage of another shooting death in hip-hop. Our complicity in stirring the pot should encourage media members to be more responsible and less opportunistic when it comes to covering drama that doesn’t have anything to do with music. But as the current coverage of Young Thug and YFN Lucci’s rift shows, when it comes to drama, the hip-hop community is always laughing until we’re crying.

It’s a cruel irony that Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed this March, offered one of the most rational takes on 69 when he urged the public not to react to his “clown sh*t,” because “you got people reacting to how the public reacting to Tekashi disrespecting them.”

He was right. The media’s torrent of Tekashi coverage was merely reflecting the cultural zeitgeist. So many people were fascinated by 69. He, like few other artists, demonstrates that gang culture has not only assimilated into pop culture, but it’s also become sanitized and ripe for mockery. Both the Nine Trey Bloods who backed him and his former label TenThousand Projects conspired to push the limits of absurdity, and the social experiment blew up in their face. Perhaps his current circumstance is simply natural order because the gang lifestyle isn’t a game.

Cardi B flouted her Blood ties for as long as it was beneficial for her image. But when 69 implicated her as a gang member, and she felt the heat of a potential gang conspiracy charge, she denied Nine Trey affiliation. That’s exactly what she was supposed to do. But it’s time for people in the industry to realize they can’t have their cake and eat it too. The NYPD has been sweeping up people in gang indictments for reasons as innocuous as taking photos with other suspected gang members. There are police units in New York and other metropolis’ specifically targeting rappers. That it’s time for both artists and executives to be more discerning about how an artist’s gang ties are acknowledged and marketed.

Black people already have a conflicted perception of gang culture without greedy capitalists meddling with it. Some people understand that many gangs started as community protection organizations in the ’60s and ’70s, and slowly devolved into warring factions after the crack epidemic. The overwhelming majority of people don’t condone the lifestyle, yet understand its function for poor kids who’ve been figuratively left behind in underserved communities. But many of the white people who were joking on Twitter about Martha Stewart being Nine Trey Bloods don’t understand the dynamics or care to. They don’t get to mock a lifestyle cultivated by Black kids that they don’t care about any other time, especially if they’re not interested in relinquishing their various privileges to uproot the economic inequality that breeds crime. Similarly, record executives like TenThousand’s Elliott Grange need to face more direct criticism for the moral compromise of funding and marketing a lifestyle tied to death and bondage that they will never suffer themselves. Grange is just the latest rich white man to be making hand over fist off of an artist of color that they exploited for every penny they could. How do we change this dynamic?

While labels and streaming services profit off of his music, 69 and his family have expressed fears that members of the Bloods will harm them cause of his cooperation. Will he be in danger if he’s released and refuses witness protection, or will it be back to business for the professional “troll?” T.I. told Big Boy’s Neighborhood that he feels like 69 will be able because “it’s a bunch of rats walkin’ around right now.” TDE President Punch also tweeted that “I don’t think the kids who was/is really rocking with that kid’s music care ANYTHING about a street code.”

It could very well be true that his core fanbase of suburban teenagers doesn’t care about his cooperation. But what about the DJs, radio hosts, producers and potential feature artists who have direct experience with the justice system? 69 allegedly hired Kintea “Kooda B” McKenzie to shoot at Chief Keef over a petty social media beef. And without regard for either Black men’s lives, he eventually sold Kooda out for a lesser sentence. One doesn’t have to abide by a “street code” to acknowledge how morally low both actions were. After all the fighting the music industry collectively did for Meek Mill, and the increased awareness of the prison industrial complex’s horrors, how could the hip-hop community truly support someone who tried to kill one Black male for basically no reason, then entrenched the incarceration of another to preserve himself?

Time will tell what the next chapter, if any, will be in the 69 saga. Perhaps he’ll vanish into the witness protection program and become a preposterous footnote of hip-hop history. Or maybe he’ll receive a lenient sentence and embark on a second act to further entrench his legacy as hip-hop’s clown jester in residence. But whatever happens with him, he’s already imbued just about anyone who calls themselves a hip-hop lover with a bevy of lessons to think about going forward.