Recently, one of my students whom I’ll call “Michael,” a Baltimore senior nearing graduation, came into a class I teach a few minutes early. Michael is smart, friendly and hard-working, and I was happy to see him. Lunch was winding down, and Michael set his phone on the desk and sat with his ear buds still in. I pulled up a chair and asked what he was listening to. He spun his phone my way. On the screen was an image of the rap artist, Lud Foe.
“Is he big time?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Michael assured me, nodding.
I told Michael I would check him out. “He better not be bull,” I warned, playfully.
“And you better be ready,” Michael countered.
Michael was right. Many listeners — especially middle-aged ones like me — will likely find Lud Foe’s lyrics disturbing. At home, I pulled up a song titled “Hit a Lick.”
Hitting licks is slang for robbing people. I first learned this expression several years ago when a despondent student told me her brother had hooked up with the wrong crowd and was “out there, hitting licks.”
I was once a lick that got hit. In 1990, my brother and I were robbed in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C. where he then lived. Although this happened long ago, having a fat-barreled pistol pressed to my cheek created an indelible memory.
Any hopes that Lud Foe might take a stand against robbing people was quickly dispelled. Nineteen seconds in, he raps “Talking 'bout guns, we got a lot of those… I just hit another lick, I just took a ni*** sh**.”
Lud Foe’s lyrics are punched out with a percussive pride that heralds his desperate, ride-or-die bravado. “Four-five with the grip, I put it right to his lips” — his message is depraved, but his flow is eerily casual.
And, yet, for an instant, some part of me began to thrill to this anti-hero’s worldview. I found myself admiring the long-shot pluck of a ghetto kid who refused to be thwarted. In this way, the song can feel empowering. I can only imagine how intoxicating Lud Foe’s displays of nerve and toughness would’ve been to me at 17.
And that’s the problem.
Many of Lud Foe’s listeners are growing up in the same kind of rough circumstances he dealt with. Some have just as little to lose as he once did. Drawing from the pain and pathos of his own upbringing, Lud Foe offers his most vulnerable fans — what? A reckless, DIY hack to the hardships of poverty? Slick rhymes that laugh at the emotional trauma, or worse, armed robberies inflict on victims?
None of this is surprising. Hailing from Chicago, Lud Foe is not just a rap artist. He is a driller. And drill music, which emerged from Chicago, reflects the life-and-death struggles of that city’s most troubled streets.
An informal survey of students suggests Chicago drill artists — such as Lud Foe, Chief Keef, Montana of 300, G Herbo, King Louie and Lil Durk — have plenty of admirers locally in Baltimore, especially among young men. And while each of these artists has his own aesthetics, they’ve all penned songs that celebrate hitting licks.
This can’t be good, can it?
When I share my concerns with students, they tell me I’ve got it wrong. “No song is going to make someone just start robbing people,” Michael said.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Last November, a student of mine was arrested for armed robbery and carjacking. In January, in an unrelated case, another student was charged with a similar crime. Both remain in Central Booking, awaiting trial. I remain surprised that either might’ve stuck a gun on somebody; neither seemed the type.
A recent headline in The Sun reported “assaults, robberies by juveniles on the rise.” Moreover, this month, the home security provider ADT analyzed FBI crime data and determined that Baltimore has the highest rate of robbery among U.S. cities.
I don’t worry about Michael. I’m confident he’s going to make good decisions, no matter his musical tastes. Ditto for most young men at my school.
But could songs that glamorize armed robbery influence some already-beleaguered teens? Does the music of drill artists have a place in conversations about real-life street crime in Baltimore? Are drill artists like Lud Foe poet-innocents — just benign chroniclers of their own experiences?
For some drill artists, using a gun to rob people may confer power and, even, prestige. But to me, peddling songs to kids that promote violent, predatory behavior might be the biggest crime of all.
Adam Schwartz (email@example.com) is a writer and teacher, who has taught high school in Baltimore City for 21 years.