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December 18, 2007

What do gangs and hip-hop have in common? Council members ask an expert how to keep hip-hop youth away from violence and crime

One of hip-hop’s early classics was “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, that latter better known today as international movie star Will Smith. We may forget that Smith’s career began in hip-hop, as a scrawny Philadelphia rapper who mulled over the suffocating effect of being misunderstood as a young person.The song, today more likely to be taken ironically, hit a universal note. Even now in its raunchier versions, hip-hop’s cultural narrative is one that consistently seeks social mobility and begs for understanding, if brazenly shoving off acceptance.Hoping to connect parents, educators, mentors and law enforcement officers — who often misunderstand hip-hop or are unapprised of its culture — to the young people who follow it religiously, Metro Councilwomen Barbara Shanklin, D-2, and Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, brought national youth violence speaker Shawn D. Jackson here last week to conduct three workshops on the influence of hip-hop on Metro youth.The councilwomen are also curious about connections between hip-hop culture and some of the gang-related crime in their districts.“What we’re trying to do is bridge the generational divide,” said Hamilton. “A lot of time there’s a message in the music. And you may miss the message if you don’t understand.” Each of Jackson’s sessions began like today’s hip-hop artists start their careers — with the featured artist as an exaggerated character. Jackson appeared as a persona named “Shubee,” clad in baggy pants, an overblown hoodie and shiny medallions dangling from his neck. With an authentic New York street accent to match, Shubee marched around providing Hip-Hop 101 on urban slang, associated personalities and gang signs. Different audiences reacted mostly the same way: visibly intoxicated by the ghetto voyeurism. Some people were noticeably uncomfortable, but when Shubee led a call-and-response chorus of “Errbody” and “Ya feel me,” even the teeth-grinders loosened up.After a brief intermission, Jackson reappeared in a clean-cut suit and discussed, among other things, being an Atlanta police officer once shot in the line of duty. Jaws dropped.“The visual lesson is to show them the old adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’” he said later.Jackson’s gift is that he delivers hip-hop’s contradictions. While artists may rap album after album about their ghetto lifestyle, Jackson noted, most successful rappers immediately flee the ghetto for the suburbs. In short, he forces enthusiasts to cut through the fog and critics to suspend their prejudice.But Jackson walks a fine line, according to Louisville hip-hop manager Divine tha Instagata. “I saw a hip-hop cop giving information about what’s going on in our community,” Divine told LEO. “Pretty much, a (subtle) attack on the hip-hop community.”Divine’s “hip-hop cop” is a reference to the notorious Derrick Parker, a former NYPD officer who admitted that his police department monitored artists and maintained an extensive surveillance program on them regardless of things like criminal history. The closest hip-hop cop for Louisvillians was Ray Barker Sr., the benign former LMPD officer known as “Sir Friendly C.”Divine admitted Jackson’s presentation was well intentioned and provided useful information for parents and mentors unacquainted with the maze of hip-hop style and language. But like many, he is wary of where these conversations may lead. “Don’t go to someone who is going to help put us in a situation and incriminate us,” Divine insisted, referring to the association the workshop made between hip-hop and youth violence — particularly gangs. Jackson rejected the suggestion that he is gathering intelligence to harm hip-hop. Rather, he said he is pointing out that hip-hop needs to take responsibility — along with parents — in educating and motivating its followers. Jackson highlighted hip-hop’s entrepreneurial spirit as a primary example of its positive effect. Whether hip-hop influences its believers to commit crime, Jackson hesitated to say.“I can’t tell you hip-hop makes someone go and shoot somebody,” Jackson told LEO. “But you can’t go anywhere uneducated. You can’t survive in the streets uneducated.”“It doesn’t matter how much we understand hip-hop, if we don’t have meaningful and authentic relationships with kids who are hip-hop, if we don’t have their backs, then they’ll fall victim to the same problems,” said Aletha Fields, an instructor at Iroquois High School who attended Jackson’s last session, last Tuesday at Newburg Middle School. Where this conversation will lead is unclear. Thus far, the $4,000 the Metro Council spent to invite Jackson fits into no existing plans for dealing with gangs, hip-hop youth and whatever intersection is between them. When asked if programmatic or policy follow-ups are in the works, Hamilton said they haven’t looked that far forward. For now, the sponsors said they’re satisfied with sparking a dialogue they believe is long overdue. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com