The Political Work Done by Gangsta Rap

By: Luke Wiley


The term “gangster” was introduced in the early 20th century as a way to label individuals that were gang affiliated, typically given to immigrant or racial groups that participated in criminal activity in cities across the United States. However, as the century wore on, the marker underwent a subtle change in its makeup. The word was shortened to “gangsta,” a common term in African American Vernacular English. While the meaning behind the word and the activity suggested by it remained relatively the same, the groups associated with the term were markedly different. During the 1980’s, the term began to be associated with African Americans growing up in crime-ridden cities, most of whom were gang-affiliated with either the Bloods or the Crips. In this specialized context, the hip-hop subgenre, “gangsta rap,” was born. Pioneers of the genre include Schoolly D, Ice-T, and NWA, each being the subject of substantial media scrutiny for their lyrics. Gangsta rap of the 1980’s and 1990’s was characterized by its violent nature and criminal themes, as the label suggests. Despite the controversy that gangsta rap was the focus of, the subgenre was extremely commercially successful, transcending the context in which the music was created to reach people from all walks of life, specifically middle-class suburbia. While the artists performing gangsta rap may have become popular in the entertainment sector, their music also did important political work by highlighting the inequality that exists in the United States.

(Gets Boys, “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” 1992)

One of the most popular tracks by the Houston-based group Geto Boys gives examples of what one has to do in order to be a gangsta. With descriptions of various criminal activities, including murder, theft, and drug trafficking, one may think the song describes the typical life of an everyday thug. However, when J. Prince enters on the last verse, he raps from the point of view of the President of the United States, suggesting that he is the original gangsta. Despite his “democratically” elected position, the president’s gangsta status is bolstered by his exploitation of “you know who” in the “poor community.” As suggested by Robin Kelley, the gangstas of the cities know that the true original gangstas are the ones in positions of public power. By highlighting this notion, those in disadvantaged communities can better combat their social situation.

(Body Count, “Cop Killer” 1992)

Ice-T, a pioneer of gangsta rap and often labeled as the creator of the genre, understood the role that his music played in the social sector. On his album, O.G. Original Gangsta, Ice-T introduced heavy-metal band Body Count, who released the song “Cop Killer” on their debut self-titled album. Ice-T and Body Count attempted to bring this important political issue to a group that would otherwise not listen. Ice-T has said that the song is sung from the point-of-view of a person who is “fed up with police brutality” (Hang the MC), mentioning individuals like former LAPD police chief Daryl Gates and famously brutalized victim Rodney King. “Cop Killer” sparked significant media controversy, with condemnations coming from as high up as George H.W. Bush, the sitting president at the time. While the song itself is not gangsta rap, Ice-T’s political message embedded in the lyrics of “Cop Killer” was characteristic of his music in the 1990’s.

(Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise” 1995, dir. by Antoine Fuqua)

Coolio’s landmark track was featured on the soundtrack of the movie Dangerous Minds. While this musical commercialization disconnected the message from the larger hip-hop culture (Rhyme & Reason), Coolio’s track played an important role in both the film and society at large. Throughout the 1990’s, various performers and songwriters had romanticized the gangsta image. However, despite the seductive nature of the commodified gangsta, Coolio presented the general public with a realistic image of what the lifestyle was like. The ironic title, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” suggests that there is a blissful element to the gangsta experience. This irony is further highlighted by the music video, which takes place in a desolate school landscape; the setting is meant to be representative of the school that someone in a gangsta’s paradise would attend. Coolio’s plea to the public to realize that the gangsta lifestyle is not desirable is evident throughout the song and music video.


“Hang the MC: Blaming Hip-Hop for Violence” interview with Ice-T by Matthew McKinnon for CBC News

Media “Othering” in 1898 and 1998

By: Luke Wiley

Even throughout our country’s comparatively short lifespan, there have been significant developments in the nation’s political and social viewpoints. Within the one hundred-year span between the 1890’s and the 1990’s, one would typically expect there to be a shift in focus of the social sentiment that pervaded the United States. While this is most certainly the case between the two decades, the underlying themes of the citizenry have remained constant. When analyzing the two decades, one notices the similarities that exist between the time periods in terms of feeling towards marginalized groups. While the targeted minorities may have changed from one scapegoat to another over the course of the hundred-year period we have examined, the tendency of the national spotlight to center on groups that are different than the white majority has not faded from view. During the 1890’s, immigration laws and the burgeoning American empire allowed the fear of immigrants entering the country and America’s duty as civilizer of imperially acquired colonies to enter the sphere of social consciousness. During the 1990’s, mass incarceration and the AIDS epidemic coupled with the murder of Matthew Shepard forced the disadvantaged and impoverished black and Latino communities and the socially marginalized gay community into the public eye. The American majoritarian need to “other” ostracized communities has become second nature, shifting the focus from group to group over the course of the hundred years we have examined.

News Comparison

1898 proved to be an extremely significant year when looking at the topic of American empire. It was in this year that Spain ceded many of their holdings in the Caribbean and the Pacific to the United States, with specific news coverage being focused on the bloody conflict for independence in the Philippines. A news article from the Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune on October 18th, 1898 attempted to frame the war in the Philippines not as one of “conquest” but of “liberation and order,” for the purposes of protecting “humanity and civilization.” As suggested by Kristin Hoganson, regardless of the United States veils their attempts at empire building as beneficent, America simply replaced the Spanish colonial masters (Hoganson, 14). The use of the struggle of the native against a colonial oppressor made for excellent reading in the late 19th century, allowing people a look into the lives of exotic communities, inherently “othering” their cultural experience. By crafting the colonial native as someone who needs to be saved, the oppressed can never attain a level of equal status as the American majority.

Philippines Cartoon.jpg

(“Something Lacking,” 30 July 1898, from John J. Johnson)

(This photo depicts the Philippines as an underdeveloped part of the United States Imperial System. The small nation wonders “where do I come in on this,” referring to his place in the folds of American society and empire. This cartoon visually portrays media “othering”)

The 1990’s presented a much similar problem with a much different demographic. As the decade wore on, an upswing in both crime and mass incarceration occurred throughout the United States. Set up by the Nixon and Regan administration’s War on Drugs, the American prison industrial complex grew at an alarming speed. These disadvantaged communities suffered at the hands of federally funded, brutal police forces that jailed black and Latino bodies at astronomical rates when compared to their white counterparts. However, as reportedon in an article from the Los Angeles Times on October 18th, 1998, the violence enacted on minority populations continued at incomparable degrees in California prisons. The article states that California’s cases of deadly force used to stop prison fights outnumber the entirety of the nation by a ratio 2:1. The article’s focus on minority populations in prisons suggests that these communities have higher rates of incarceration in states like California. The association of marginalized minority to t criminal becomes a pervasive notion throughout the media in the 1990’s, as suggested by the examination of news coverage of the LA Disturbances in Burn Motherfucker, Burn.

           The examination of marginalized communities in American media is telling when attempting to create a narrative on the experiences of minorities. When looking at Filipinos (or other colonially acquired nations) in the 1890’s or blacks (and Latinos) in the 1990’s, the prominence of “othering” becomes apparent; crafting an image of the minority as lesser to be used to justify violent or otherwise “civilizing” actions towards them by the majority. The use of this tactic is as old as the Republic itself; the specific group’s focus is what changes as time passes.

Editorial Comparison

As the 19th century wore on, an increasing number of European and Asian immigrants entered the United States, both through legal and illegal means. The national sentiment towards immigrants turned increasingly sour over the course of the latter half of the century with many rigid immigration laws being passed regularly by the United States Congress. With the increase in immigration to the United States, an insidious fear crept into the minds of the white, majority citizens of the nation. With the growing levels of trepidation about what these newly inherited immigrants would do to the country, the national focus shifted towards raising awareness of the invading menace. As witnessed in an article by the North American on October 18th, 1898, there was resentment towards the loose law enforcement regarding immigration. The idea that America was allowing more “undesirables” into the country worried the majority populace. As aresult, the majority population created an “Us vs. Them” mentality, effectively “othering” immigrant communities, pitting themselves against each other. While the immigrant’s attempts at naturalization were oftentimes benevolent, as suggested by members of the Chinese Equal Rights League in their appeal, the white majority saw it as a threat to the American way of life.

The latter half of the 20th century saw an increase in the visibility of the homosexual community on the national stage in the United States. After the events at the Stonewall Inn, the gay liberation movement became much more present and vocal in the media. However, the AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century deepened the fear of homosexuality in the United States, equating the preference to a disease. In this national climate, two men posing as homosexuals lured a young man named Matt Shepard to his death in Laramie, Wyoming. As suggested by David Leavitt, writing for the New York Times, the “hate-mongerers” are taking the place of the declining AIDS virus, killing men that partake in homosexual activity. Leavitt’s piece tries to examine the “hate epidemic” in an effort to make sense of the senseless killing of Matt Shepard and countless other gay men and women in the United States. Leavitt’s article gives a firsthand look at hate towards homosexuals in America, how he cannot hold the hand of his partner in public without fear of death being thrust upon him. Sadly, Matthew Shepard had to die for the nation to look at the way we collectively view homosexuality as an unnatural disease.

Matt Shepard Photo.jpg

(No title, 21 Mar. 2014, from Paul Berge)

(This cartoon portrays one of the most recognizable hate groups in America, the Westboro Baptist Church, searching for the funeral of Matt Shepard. Their protests and slogan “God Hates Fags” became infamous in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. They’re seen here emerging from the sewer, where they belong)

Each of these editorials provides a unique look at disadvantaged groups in their respective decades. Immigrants and homosexuals in America have very little in common when you look at them from a surface standpoint. However, when you examine how they were portrayed in the national spotlight, as unnatural, diseased, and dangerous to American values, the emergence of majority “othering” becomes clear once again.

Newspapers Cited

Arax, Mark, Gladstone, Mark. “Only California Uses Deadly Force in Inmate Fights.”

Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) 18 Oct. 1998: n.p. Web. 17 Nov 2017.

“Investigation of Immigation.” North American (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 18 Oct. 1898: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 17 Nov. 2017.

Leavitt, David. “The Hate Epidemic.” New York Times (New York City, New York) 18 Oct. 1998: n.p. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 17 Nov. 2017.

“Must Give up Philippines.” Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) 18 Oct. 1898: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 17 Nov. 2017.

American Imperialism as a British Echo

By Luke Wiley

During the last decade of the 19th century, various political actors shifted the United States foreign policy towards a system known as “imperialism.” Imperialism as a system of governance involves the extending or expansion of a nation’s power or authority over another country for cultural, economic, or territorial gains. However, the rapid expansion of the system of American imperialism did not happen in a vacuum; one of the reasons often attributed to the speedy colonial acquisitions perpetrated by the United States is the competition against their own former colonial masters, Great Britain. While a good portion of the developed part of the European world was taking part in empire building, the American system emerged as a global player, despite the fact that the country was still relatively new. However, American imperialism did not simply appear out of thin air; the blueprint used by our nation for empire expansion was set before them by their bygone controllers. By crafting their imperialist plans out of the British system, the United States had a leader to follow in the world of empire. While the American system of imperialism was a direct descendant of Great Britain’s, the United States Empire eventually took on a life of its own after emerging out of the British shadow. Civilization Image.png

(Joseph Keppler, “From the Cape to Cairo,” Puck, 12/2/1902)

This cartoon displays an angelic woman, draped in an all-white robe, appropriately labeled “Britannia,” flying the flag of civilization. This woman leads the “civilized” gun-toting British soldiers (red coats) and potential colonists (craftsmen with tools) into battle against the banner-flying “Barbarians,” characterized by their spears and lack of clothing, who are of African heritage (the Cape and Cairo, two locations in Africa). This piece is an adequate introduction into what Imperialism is all about. The cartoon displays what is perceived by the viewer to be the noble and heroic endeavor that pervades imperialism. In this cartoon, “civilization” as an ideal is being brought to a people that have lived the entirety of their lives in a backward and savage state, even at the expense of numerous dead (splayed out in front of Britannia) that pave the way. The British saw their government’s attempts at educating and developing the African peoples’ way of life as beneficent, which, in reality, it hardly was. The United States saw these efforts of the British and decided to take them a step further, performing similar actions in gaining colonies but also acquiring strategic military bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. This notion is seen throughout the Amy Kaplan article, “Where is Guantanamo?” about the United States’ extralegal way of colonial base incorporation.


White Man's Burden Image

(Victor Gillam, “The White Man’s Burden,” Judge, 4/1/1899)

This cartoon displays two individuals trudging up a hill with large loads of perceived “savage” peoples on their back, ultimately trying to reach the peak, labeled “civilization.” The two individuals are the personification of the British nation, John Bull, and his United States counterpart, Uncle Sam. Each of their loads is stuffed with racist caricatures of the people they hold sovereignty over (Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, and Cubans). Each painstaking stride by John Bull and Uncle Same keeps those in their basket, the people they are sheltering, away from the dangers of the rocks, labeled “vice,” “ignorance,” and “barbarism.” As suggested in lecture, the mindset that these “savage” individuals need nations like the United States and Great Britain to achieve “civilization” was persistent throughout the dominating countries (Lecture, 10/2). Gillam’s cartoon shows the American model of Imperialism, focused in the Caribbean and Pacific islands, as a literal follower of the British system, focused in Africa and Asia. American shadowing of British Imperialism was mostly based in the vastness of their Empire and the shared commonality of their languages (Kramer, 1320). In a show of good faith to their old colonial rulers, the United States labors to keep their “protected” peoples safe, an endeavor that would be smiled upon by their former subjugators.


School Begins Image

(Louis Dairymple, “School Begins,” Puck, 1/25/1899)

The final cartoon displays the most significant stage in the transformation of a unique American Imperialism. In this cartoon, Uncle Sam lectures his new students, natives of nations that the United States has annexed during the Spanish-American War. Uncle Sam tells the students to follow the example set by the class before them in order to gain a place in American society. A key factor in the class scheme is the blackboard in the back which states that the best Imperialists, England, did not wait for the groups they were attempting to civilize to consent, an important aspect of American Imperialism. Even though the United States was ceded a majority of these colonies by Spain, they still had to fight alongside the Cuban revolutionaries, creating a bond that did not exist between an empire like Great Britain and her colonies. However, the continually subjugated factions of the American populous (African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese) occupy different secondary positions in the room and outside the building, whether they are workers or students that are lagging behind. This cartoon shows American Imperialism in its final form; the nation attempts to bring oppressed people into their folds through means of cultural suppression. As a nation, the United States strips people of what makes them unique in an attempt to assimilate them into a homogenous society with the promise of eventual self-government.

Kramer, Paul A. “Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880-1910.” The Journal of American History, Mar. 2002, pp. 1315–1353.