I met those young men in 1999, when I spent a year student teaching at a local alternative middle school.
Like Dink and Hershel, Chief Keef is a fearless anti-hero from the streets, in whose seen-it-all sneer we can catch a reflection of the hopelessness that persists in America’s ghetto. When opportunity is scarce, life is cheap. Dink and Hershel were murdered on the streets of Milwaukee in 2002, before either of them had graduated high school.
Gun violence is the leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 15-24, and the legacy of inner city violence infuses the history of hip-hop culture. In the early 2000s, we were still on guard from losing Biggie and Pac to the East Coast/West Coast war. Cultural tastemakers battled each other for supremacy. On one hand, we had culturally-conscious heroes – Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots … and on the other, we had the Cash Money Records and the Hot Boys, comprised of Lil Wayne, Turk, BG, and Juvenile.
The students at my school were rolling with the Hot Boys … BIG time. Their influence on inner-city Milwaukee was amazing, and complete. Street culture shucked off Jheri curl, wave nouveau and Philly Afros and replaced them with braids, gold teeth, Reeboks, and Girbaud jeans. At heart, I was on the side of the culturally-conscious movement, but I felt the Hot Boys’ message. Although my young students might never realize the celluloid dreams in the Hot Boys videos, High Culture was emulating Street Life, and the get rich, die young lifestyle was an all-too-perfect reflection of hood reality.
There were two ways a child might end up in my classroom: because of extreme learning disabilities, or because of problems with authority. Sometimes two or three years older than the average eighth grader, the “problem” students in my class had already mastered the art of survival. They didn’t need a resume, because dope dealing, armed robbery, and pimping were career options the hood was all too ready to make available to them.
Why not? These students were from Milwaukee, and lived in some of America’s most segregated and impoverished communities. I would never agree with them, but it was crystal clear why they adopted the mantra of get it now. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. Between shootouts in the streets and Wisconsin’s record-setting incarceration rate among black males, there was a good chance my young students would not be around later to enjoy life.
My students, just like Lil Wayne and now Chief Keef, scare mainstream America because we believe them when they say that they have nothing to lose. They force us to come to grips with the fact that inner-city America is a violent, self-cannibalizing place.
More than 100,000 people have died from gun violence since I stopped teaching, but mainstream media has been slow to pay attention to the violent realities of inner city America. Unfortunately, as gun violence became more common outside of the hood, we’ve all been forced to wake up to the reality that hopelessness, plus gun access, creates tragedy.
While policymakers need to stop tripping and legislate universal background checks, it’s vitally important that we not wait for Washington. Our children have been presented with a worldview that puts them on a path towards self-annihilation. In most hoods, it’s easier to find weed than work, and even our brightest young minds, who personally face all odds and succeed, succeed, succeed, might be walking home one day and catch a bullet in the back.
I am a teacher at heart, and teachers don’t point fingers: they raise hands. Anyone who cares about the hood needs to step up, right now, and empower our youth to tell their stories. If we inspire them to push through the negativity, to choose love over violence, we can transform our communities in a way that no legislation will ever match.
Chief Keef is still learning – he hasn’t graduated yet. As Talib Kweli said, “I’d rather him gang bang on records than in the streets, and if you gang bang on records, at some point you grow.” If a legendary gangster rapper like Snoop Lion can turn his artistry into a conversation about gun violence’s devastating effect on his community, then we can all dig deep and empower talented young men just like Chief Keef to change the black male narrative. My organization’s #NoGunsAllowed campaign, inspired by Snoop Lion, is just one way that we can pay tribute to the loved ones we have lost, while teaching hope to those who can still learn.
Rob Biko Baker is the executive director of the League of Young Voters