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It's bigger than T.I. 

Hip-hop is on trial and everybody's snitching

By the time you read this, the mainstream media will likely have exhausted themselves of the preliminary details of Clifford "T.I." Harris' legal drama in search of the next eye-popping headline. The rapper, tucked away in the confines of his home studio, under 24-hour house arrest, will be diligently putting the finishing touches on what could be the biggest-selling album of his career. And the ATF, or some other branch of federal, state or local law enforcement will probably be gearing up to target the next million-dollar rapper it can catch slipping.

But there's a bigger case that remains unresolved. It involves all the key players, including the rappers and the consumers, the critics and the corporate-owned record labels, even the police and the politicians. Call it "Hip-hop vs. America," as Black Entertainment Television chose to when the cable network aired a two-part town-hall series in September examining some of the recent controversy surrounding the genre.

Or call it the chickens coming home to roost.

Though the first chapter in T.I.'s federal firearms case drew to a close with his $3 million bond release last Friday, Oct. 26, the rap industry continues to dodge bullets in a year that has been full of nonstop drama. Perhaps DJ Drama's arrest on racketeering charges at his downtown Atlanta office was an omen. Since then, everything from violent lyrics and gratuitous sexual imagery in videos to the genre's prolific use of degrading words like "nigga," "bitch" and "ho" have come under fire.

But what came first, incendiary rap lyrics or the incendiary times? That's the multibillion-dollar question, considering hip-hop generates at least that much annually. One thing is certain: With so much money to be made, rap artists aren't the only ones getting paid to exploit the culture. Corporate media and the politicians they lobby also have a vested interest in keeping things status quo. So passing the buck like a hot potato – from Don Imus to hip-hop to 'the America way' to the Civil Rights generation and back to the rappers again – makes dollars and good business sense.

Though there's plenty of responsibility to go around, rappers seem to be the main ones catching the flak. Meanwhile, the media frame hip-hop's pathology as "a black thang," when, in actuality, it's also a vivid reflection of the little white lies America was built on.

"We had sexism and misogyny and violence and materialism in American culture before hip-hop existed," says William Jelani Cobb, who teaches a seminar on hip-hop culture at Spelman College. "In some instances, it's very convenient to just single hip-hop out, but we would really be in good condition if those problems were isolated to a musical genre. They're systemic, they're broad and they're widespread."

Artists are used to blaming society for their ills. But hip-hop entrepreneur and former rapper Percy "Master P" Miller, who sold 75 million records at the height of gangsta rap, took a stand at the latest congressional hearing on rap before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection to say he was ready to work for change by putting out music minus the negativity that got critics such as Oprah Winfrey, Stanley Crouch and the Rev. Al Sharpton so riled up this year.

Sharpton even started a campaign to hold the parent companies of record labels financially responsible for releasing denigrating material.

But rappers such as Levell Crump, aka David Banner, see such campaigns as personal attacks to his livelihood. In response, he called Al Sharpton a "permed-out pimp," and made a diss track titled "So Special" leveled at Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.

Needless to say, the finger-pointing has turned ugly on some fronts as the racially charged debate that started in the wake of Don Imus' offhand remark has turned into a bit of a generational and class-based beef among some within the black community. If there was ever any reason to believe African-Americans were a monolithic entity, the last several months have certainly dispelled that myth.

Oddly enough, it wasn't some right-wing conspirator but a former Black Panther, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who called the congressional hearing with the intent of challenging the industry to clean up its act.

"We're a direct reflection of what [the Civil Rights generation] did and what they did not do," says David Banner, who was surprised to learn he was listed as the Republican Party's witness at the hearing. "Old black folks are upset because now we have the power."

Banner has been at the center of much of the controversy surrounding rap this year, and like the genre itself, he's racked with contradiction. The Mississippi-bred rapper/actor who splits his time between L.A. and Atlanta began his career as a so-called "conscious" MC – his Heal the Hood benefit concert raised more than half a million dollars toward Katrina relief – but became famous for commercial hits such as the sexually explicit "Play."

"I struggle with that," he admits. "Last year, I went through a major depression and part of that was over that. I was wondering if I was doing my people more harm than I was positive. And that's not true. I'm able to touch more people, do bigger things, I'm able to [save] rap in front of Congress, I'm able to do Heal the Hood. You can only change policy if you have power."

Like many in the industry, he's embraced capitalistic ideals in a quest for socioeconomic freedom, by any means necessary. But even Banner is smart enough to realize that the scrutiny placed on him as a young successful rapper means he can't afford to screw up.

"We have to start being smarter about the decisions we make as young black men knowing that now we see what we're going through with T.I.," he says.

In the last year, several high-profile MCs have been charged, and some convicted, of serious crimes: Remy Ma, Foxy Brown, Lil Wayne, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and finally T.I., who was arrested blocks away from the site, and hours before the start of arguably the industry's biggest celebration of the year, the BET Hip-Hop Awards in Atlanta.

While some argue it was meant to send a message, not even T.I.'s most fervent fans are quick to proclaim his innocence. "T.I. is a good person," says 19-year-old Shatice Richardson, who stood outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building and Courthouse with her mother during the rapper's final bond hearing last Friday. "That's wrong what he did, but people make mistakes."

Artists are being forced to grow up and act responsibly in spite of their spoils. It presents a challenge, particularly for those who fashioned their gangster swagger after Tony Montana, aka Scarface, "the patron saint of hip-hop," according to Cobb. But lyrical content, whether fact or fantasy, has a way of coming back to bite MCs in the ass. The notable hip-hop cops, reported to exist within both New York's and Miami's police departments, are known to keep dossiers on high-profile rappers that they update by listening intently to rap CDs.

Cries of conspiracy, however, are tempered by harsh reality. "A lot of these rappers are getting caught up in shoot-outs," says Cobb, referring to incidents such as the one outside NYC's HOT 97 that earned Lil' Kim a perjury conviction. "Unfortunately ... we have black men that are 21 times more likely to be killed by violence than white men in this society. Do we really need a conspiracy?"

Others like Banner think his generation suffered from a lack of compassionate role models and too much criticism. "We're forced to piece our manhood together," he says. "We were forced to raise each other, but we [face] such drastic consequences when we fuck up."

Projecting an alternative image of young black males is part of the mission of hip-hop journalists such as Dennis Byron, who covered the T.I. bond hearings for Hip-Hop Weekly. "I'm with the media, but more importantly, I cover this so I can make sure there's a balance of information put out about hip-hop artists," says the self-proclaimed "old hip-hop head."

"It's very important that we make sure hip-hop doesn't die."

As the big, black SUV carrying T.I. pulled away from the curb outside the courthouse Friday, it was hard to distinguish Byron from any other T.I. supporter. Amid the screams and cheers from lingering fans, the reporter trotted alongside the vehicle for a few steps before shouting: "Free hip-hop."

For links to BET's "Hip-Hop vs. America," Oprah Winfrey's "After Imus" or the congressional hearings on hip-hop, click here.

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