Authenticity or Depravity? Murder and Mayhem As Entertainment

Those of us in the “flyover” region of the Midwest were treated to a horrific spectacle yesterday clearly illustrating how sick our “culture” (and I use this word in its broadest possible sense) has become. Dennis Greene, 31, was convicted by a jury of murdering his 28 year-old wife, Tara. Greene was sentenced to life in prison for nearly decapitating the junior high school math teacher and mother of their seven-year old son, Chi’An, who witnessed the murder.

If this is not enough, there is more to the story. After the murder, Greene fled to his hometown of Chicago hoping to evade authorities. There he shot a “rap video” where he boasted of “killin’ da bitch” and “cut her neck with a sword”. A much-edited version was released last night on the local evening news, including the following lyrics:

I was waiting on Tara. The (expletive, expletive) made me mad.
I had to end her life. Now I’m sad.
I really don’t care about tomorrow. The bitch made me mad.
She kept at it and I had to take her (expletive) life.
It’s just Dennis Greene and I ain’t got a (expletive) wife.

Notwithstanding Mr. Greene’s Shakespearean flare for lyrics, we also were invited to view the irritable throat-cutter smoke a joint, dance, and wave his arms in the infantile manner so germane to this particular genre of “music”. After all, the “bitch” had made him angry. What else could he do?

According to the Cincinnati Post’s report his attorneys attempted to prove he acted under extreme emotional disturbance, which would have dropped the charge to first-degree manslaughter and his sentence to 10 to 20 years. But the jury of eight women and four men after viewing the videotape refused to buy that argument. Apparently, they had trouble with the “authenticity” of Greene’s “urban” experience, and decided life in prison might be in the best interest of everyone, including Greene’s young son, who according to the grandparents and parents of the victim is said to be in fear that Greene might return to do him harm.

Perhaps one of the more disturbing and depressing aspects of this tragedy is that it should not serve as an impediment in Mr. Greene’s pursuit of a music career.

If you think this is far-fetched, think again; the November 17th issue of Advertising Age, a trade magazine in the marketing and advertising fields, recently honored “The Ad Age Marketing 50, 2003: The Top Brand Success Stories Of The Year” where “Since 1992 the editors of Advertising Age have identified and profiled a select group of marketers whose vision, drive and innovation are major milestones of the year’s brand success stories.”

One of those honored was Steve Berman, senior executive – marketing and sales, Interscope, Geffen, and A&M Records. If you are not familiar with Mr. Berman, he is the man largely responsible for inflicting the paragon of virtue and model citizenship known as “50 Cent” (known to his mother as Curtis Jackson) on the listening public:

‘He had done so much to heat up the streets,’ says Mr. Berman, one of the architects of 50 Cent’s ascent. ‘He was well on his way.’

[Berman] says the meteoric rise of 50 Cent began with authenticity. 50 Cent has it: rap sheet, former second-generation drug dealer and multiple gunshot survivor (nine times at last count, leaving one to lament the decline, like so many other things, of marksmanship in this country). He also helped to build his own buzz before he’d ever put out a record, by circulating his mix tapes and working the hip-hop circuit as his own goodwill ambassador.

Even the writers at Advertising Age join Mr. Berman in taking every opportunity to employ the argot of convicts and illiterates in their praise of his marketing coup:

You can buy advertising, but you can’t buy street cred.

While I am still trying to process the cognitive dissonance of trying to imagine 50 Cent as a “goodwill ambassador”, it has become plainly evident that there is no dark corner of the psyche our consumerist culture will not plumb in order to make a buck.

Or is there?

Take the case of one Anerae Brown, who styles himself “X-Raided”. Brown has managed to produce several albums, all but the first from his prison cell where he is currently serving a 37 year sentence without possibility of parole for the savage, cold-blooded murder of Patricia Harris. Harris, a middle-aged school employee and grandmother active in the PTA had held a birthday party for her grandchildren earlier in the day. In the early hours of March 15th, 1992 after William, her husband of twenty-five years, left for work, Harris encountered four youths in her hallway including “X-Raided” and was shot in the chest and subsequently died.

For those who might have doubts as to Mr. Brown’s guilt, it appears he shares a penchant for the confessional with Mr. Greene:

Letting fools know X-Raided ain’t playing
Tha Murder, yeah, I got something to do with it
Cause I shoot cha punk ass in a minute.

Welcome to the nihilist void of the violent, misogynistic, and racist lyrics of rap. This Miltonian endeavor was recorded on his second album “Xorcist” over the telephone from his current residence in a California correctional facility. Still, this hardly curbs the enthusiasm of his fans and critics:

If you’re a fan of hardcore/gangster rap and want to hear some true heartfelt music… pick up Unforgiven! Possibly the best rap CD of 1999!

Now this is one rapper who hasn’t recieved (sic) the props he deserves. X-Raided is the siccest rapper on the West Coast since Pac. He keeps it real, that’s why he don’t get no radio play. The man’s in the pen, steady thuggin, puttin it down for that G life.

Heartfelt music? And where does one go to buy the works of this steady thuggin Cole Porter of the penal system? Why, of course! And, I suppose any other major record chain in the United States. It would appear there is gold in murder and mayhem – capitalism in its finest hour.

While “street cred” and “authenticity” are fine, there’s nothing quite like the veneer of respectability academia can bestow. For several years now, classes in hip-hop have been integrated into university curricula across the country with course titles such as “Hip-Hop Artistry and Social Activism” offered at the University of Illinois.

The defenders of this artistry of social activism often display the convoluted intellectual and moral contortionism of the hard-line Stalinist. bell hooks (aka Gloria Watkins), Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York, offers one of the more tortured defenses of “gangsta rap”:

Gangsta rap is part of the anti-feminist backlash that is the rage right now. When young black males labor in the plantations of misogyny and sexism to produce gangsta rap, their right to speak this violence and be materially rewarded is extended to them by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Not to be outdone, Cornel West, currently the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion at Princeton University and rap artist, defends the rapper R. Kelley:

Our Brother R. Kelly has some issues, and we will pray for him, but he is a musical genius. He is aware of his history. Throughout his “Chocolate Factory” album, you can hear Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.

Has some issues, does he? The “musical genius” in question, R. Kelley has now been indicted twice for child pornography. West wrote in the introduction to his Cornel West Reader:

I am a Chekhovian Christian…By this I mean that I am obsessed with confronting the pervasive evil of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery.

Apparently Dr. West has a rather fluid notion of just exactly what constitutes evil and “unjustified” suffering. Rational individuals find child pornography repugnant and most would refrain from declaring its perpetrators geniuses. I would be curious to hear what the esteemed Princeton professor would have to say about Patricia Harris or Tara Greene’s murders; would it be construed as “unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery?”

My opinions will be countered with the objection that I am a middle-aged, white male and I simply “don’t get it.” After all, I am part of the “ongoing hegemonic appropriation” of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and therefore not entitled to an opinion. It will surely be remarked my assessment of Tupac Shakur’s “poetry” is unduly harsh and Eurocentric in its focus because I do not believe it stands on the same level with Auden, Eliot and Yeats.

But, think before you answer.

The point is that I do get it. As a reporter, I have had the misfortune of encountering the victims of assault, rape and murder through my work in the past. Harder still, I have spoken with the loved ones who survived them. Only the most depraved among us could possibly glory in the devastation this violence leaves in its wake. Membership in the human race is certainly questionable when one profits from this misery and degradation of others.

With that said, I have no doubt that Mr. Greene’s future is assured. He certainly has the “street creds” now and is empowered to the hilt with the “authenticity” marketers find so essential. I ask only one thing of you when you purchase his first “breakthrough” CD with all its “authenticity” and “urban” grittiness, please try to imagine the horror of seven-year-old Chi’An Greene watching his mother’s throat slit from ear to ear.

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