As students in Baltimore begin a new school year, I'm not expecting Fetty Wap, Meek Mill, Drake or any other rappers on Billboard's Top 40 to start dropping singles reminding kids about the importance of starting off the school year strong, working hard and sticking with it.
Seventeen years into teaching high school in Baltimore City, I've come to regard rap as a curse on black kids. Unhealthy messages exist in many music forms. Rap, however, has one ruinous message that is unique to the genre: unabashed, runaway materialism.
This summer popular rap videos on BET, MTV and VHI show Drake chiding teachers, "I spend a day what you make a year"; Chief Keef gloating, "Boy yo ass betta not be broke, I spent 4 bands on a cloak"; and Fetty Wap fanning stacks of cash as proof of what "real n***as" stand for.
Many of the students in my classroom live in neighborhoods plagued by violence, addiction and unemployment. As these teens go about the process of deciding the kind of people they want to be, what do they get when they flick on the TV or radio, pop in their ear buds, or catch a friend's ringtone? Rap lyrics that offer them a tricked-out vision of the world where people are to be measured and judged largely by the clothes they wear, by the things they can purchase and by their capacity to gratify themselves.
There are, of course, some terrific exceptions. Nas, Mos Def, Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco are all talented, socially conscious artists. Sadly, though, the industry seems reluctant to promote such performers.
A conversation I had with a student last spring illustrates my concerns. I'll call him "Nathaniel." He's 17, quiet, likable and sharp. He was hanging around my classroom during lunch when he began boasting to me about all the money he's making from his strip (the corner where he sells drugs). He'd been to the mall a few days before and had bought himself a new jacket and sneakers. He was feeling good. That's a big gamble for a pair of tennis, I said. A little shrug went through his shoulders. He wasn't interested in talking risks. Instead, he said, "you know people break their necks to talk to me, Mr. Schwartz." I told him he had a decency and self-possession that put people at ease. "They're not gonna do that if I come outside in ran-down Adidas," he said.
I acknowledged that we all want, to some extent, the approval of our peers, myself included. Then I reminded Nathaniel of the grim stories he'd shared earlier in the school year of murdered or imprisoned friends or relatives. He had it covered, he assured me. I coaxed him to see his role in sowing destruction and grief on the very block where he'd grown up. "It was already like that before I come up," he answered. Finally, I said, "Look, God forbid any harm should come to you, Nathaniel, but let me ask you, if it did, what would you want people to remember about you?"
He hesitated and then he said, "That I shined. That I wasn't average." His answer was sincere and familiar, but I was still incredulous. "You've got be kidding me, right? You mean to tell me that if the earth opened and swallowed us both right now, you'd want people to remember you for the things you bought at Towson Town Center — your possessions?" He was unapologetic. "Where I'm from, that's all kids care about."
For some rappers, telling us about their pricey acquisitions may have started as a way to celebrate making it. And, after all, successful rappers deserve their turn on top. But it's gone too far for too long. The party's over. It's time for someone to cop to this mess. And who better to take the diseased bling out of the genre than the chart-topping icons themselves? Rick Ross, spit some slick lines imploring young men to think long term, finish school and read more books. Gucci Mane, go ahead and rhyme for integrity, humility and patience. Lil Wayne, use your mic to tell teen boys that it's OK if you don't have a pocketful of money. And in a genre that often prizes masculinity, Meek Mill, tell me what kind of a man would leave Nathaniel to the poverty and drift of West Baltimore without a decent word of counsel?