THE LINE between fantasy and reality is becoming dangerously blurred in the rap music world.
In the past few months, several rappers whose songs have offered a glimpse into the crime, despair and violence of inner-city life have themselves been labeled criminals. Many of them are perpetrators of the hard core "gangsta rap" that glorifies murder, mayhem, misogyny and drug abuse.
Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg is riding a wave of crossover success unprecedented for hip-hop performers.
His rise to fame as co-rapper of the movie soundtrack "Deep Cover" featured him menacingly chanting "It's 1-8-7 [the police terminology for murder] on an undercover cop." His second collaboration with producer-rapper Dr. Dre, "Nothing But A 'G' Thang," became one of the smash hits of the summer and his trademark "Bow-Wow-Wow-Yippie-Yo-Yippie-Yeah" was being repeated by kids everywhere. He reinforced his image as a "hard" rapper from the streets in his debut album, "Doggy- style," which entered the charts at No. 1 and sold 800,000 copies in one week.
But Snoop Doggy Dogg is getting even more fame than he bargained for. The 22-year-old rapper, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, will soon stand trial with two associates for the shooting death of Venice gang member Philip Waldemariam.
Newsweek recently featured Snoop Doggy Dogg on its cover with the headline "When is Rap 2 Violent?" He stands at the center of a controversy over whether the images in hard-core rap are abetting the trend toward a more violent society. The question is whether rap merely mirrors the violence in the streets or actually incites it.
The incident with Snoop Doggy Dogg is just one of an apparent trend of young rappers acting out their anti-social messages. Rapper Tupac Shakur, whose mother is a former Black Panther who negotiated her release from prison while eight months pregnant with him, has boasted in interviews that he was in jail even in the womb.
Mr. Shakur may soon be headed there again. He has been charged with shooting two off-duty police officers during a traffic dispute in Atlanta. In New York City last month, he was arrested and charged with holding down a female companion while two of his friends sodomized her.
Ironically, his latest single, "Keep Ya Head Up," is a pro-feminist paean to black women.
"I wonder why we take from our women," raps Tupac. "Why we rape our women. Do we hate our women?" Such lyrics seem out of tune with his image as a gun-toting "Mac Daddy" who has countless women waiting to sleep with him.
The list goes on. New York-based rapper Flavor Flav has been charged with attempted murder. J-Dee, of the Los Angeles rap group Da Lench Mob, could face a life sentence if convicted of the murder of his girlfriend's male roommate.
Both Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dogg fit the image of gangsta rappers. Both are products of broken homes and both are former convicted felons. Their songs chronicle their fascination with money, "blunts" (marijuana cigarettes), "Glocks" (semiautomatic handguns) and sex.
These young men's arrests add to their mystique, help them sell more records and therefore take on the character of badges of honor in the rap world. They have taken the art of posturing beyond entertainment into the real world of bullets and death.
Rap itself will go on trial soon. The widow of Texas state trooper Bill Davidson is preparing to sue Tupac Shakur and his record label. Her husband was shot and killed by a teen-ager who claimed he was influenced to murder the trooper by Mr. Shakur's recordings, which include lyrics about shooting police officers. The teen-ager, Ronald Ray Howard, was listening to a tape of Mr. Shakur's moments before Trooper Davidson pulled his car over.
The rap industry maintains that the music is merely a harmless expression of what is happening in cities. But not everyone agrees. Communities are striking back. The National Political Congress of Black Women has started a petition drive to convince record companies to halt production of songs that denigrate women and glorify violence.
Church and community groups are holding protests against vTC explicit lyrics in hard-core rap. This summer, the Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City drove a steamroller over tapes and CDs in protest of the sinister messages in some songs.
Omar Bradley, mayor of Compton, Calif., the city that many consider the birthplace of gangsta rap, recently refused to grant a permit for the filming of a rap video until the producers agreed not to portray guns or scantily clad women.
Baltimore radio stations are following the example of stations in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco by refusing to play songs that contain offensive material. Record companies and artists are even getting into the act by releasing "clean" versions of their songs for airplay and purchase.
All of this does not speak to what is behind hard-core rap, however. Young men are feeling the crunch of a slow economy and are succumbing to the lure of fast money. Drugs and sex are an escape from the negative images of inner-city life.
Gangsta rap is not the disease, but a symptom of a larger problem. Young African Americans are desperately seeking a voice to adequately express the rage and pain of being black in this society. The songs speak to the socioeconomic depression of African Americans and tell tales of growing up in a society where 50 percent of all children with AIDS are black and over 60 percent of all deaths of black boys ages 15 to 19 are caused by guns.
The only difference between the rappers who are committing crimes and the young offenders in our cities is the amount of money they are making and the exposure they are receiving. Both are rebelling against the reality that black men are in crisis in this country. Only when this fundamental fact changes will these young people have something to really sing about.
Lisa Respers is an editorial assistant in The Evening Sun's Carroll County bureau.