WASHINGTON -- Critics of vulgar, violent, gangster-style rap music make a mistake when they write off rap stars as stupid, immoral and self-destructive. They may be immoral and self-destructive, but they're not stupid. As one of my readers observed in a thoughtful e-mail, they're making a rational economic choice. The reader wrote: "I had to stop and ask this question to myself: 'Would I call my mother a 'ho' or my sister a 'bitch' if I could make a couple of million dollars and get out of poverty and live a pretty good life?"
In a line of work that dangles riches in front of impressionable kids, some rappers will sell out more than their mamas. They'll even cover up for killers.
"Stop Snitchin'" has metastasized into a popular hip-hop slogan. Unlike when earlier generations of poor ethnic communities that zipped up their lips around police, the "Stop Snitchin'" message is displayed on T-shirts, rap videos and Internet sites, boosted further by the entertainment industry's money and marketing machines.
In a CBS' 60 Minutes report on this community cancer, the rap star Cameron "Cam'ron" Giles says cooperation with police would violate his "code of ethics." Besides, he says, "with the type of business I'm in, it would definitely hurt my business."
That explains the refusal by Mr. Giles or his entourage to cooperate with police even when law enforcement officials are looking for the man who shot the rap star in both arms while he was sitting in his Lamborghini at a Washington intersection in October 2005.
60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper asked Mr. Giles if he'd inform police of "a serial killer living next door." No way, said the rapper, "but I'd probably move." Gee, thanks.
A similar ethos showed itself after gunfire erupted during a Brooklyn video shoot by another popular rapper, Busta Rhymes, in February 2006. Israel Ramirez, one of Mr. Rhymes' bodyguards, fell dead. As many as 25 witnesses saw it happen, police said, but none cooperated with investigators and the crime remains unsolved. Is this their idea of serving their community?
Yet keeping mum can bring rewards. The rapper Lil' Kim, for example, went to jail for perjury because she refused to implicate members of her entourage in a shooting. But before she reported to jail, Black Entertainment Television made her the center of a reality show. It turned out to be one of the cable network's most popular programs.
Other music forms also were created out of painful circumstances. But pioneering blues singers, for example, did not strive to return to the cotton fields. Gangster rappers, by contrast, milk the gangster pose, the appearance of keeping at least one foot in the criminal underclass.
Without community backing, good citizens who try to do the right thing risk severe punishment. The most outrageous example among many that I have run across is Baltimore's Angela Dawson. The married mother of five testified against a local drug dealer in October 2002. Two weeks later, the dealer set fire to her home as the family slept. All seven family members died.
The killer pleaded guilty to avoid a possible death sentence. According to Juan Williams' best-selling book Enough, the drug dealer had vowed to kill Mrs. Dawson for "snitching on people."
"You don't need someone destroying you when your own people are the worst messengers," says Geoffrey Canada, a nationally recognized anti-violence organizer in Harlem.
We can turn back the tide.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.