Farrakhan and the Beefs of Rap

Salim Muwakkil

Television viewers could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in dismay when they happened upon a conversation between Minister Louis Farrakhan and rap star Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins on November 3. Right there, on BET’s most popular youth show “106 And Park” (and later broadcast on MTV), a septuagenarian leader of an ascetic religious group was breaking proverbial bread with a popular rapper whose favorite word seems to be “murder.”

The pairing was not as bizarre as it seemed. Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan and hip-hop go way back. The minister believes that hip-hop artists have a profound impact on African-American life and culture. The respect is mutual; Farrakhan’s voice has been popping up on rap records since the genre’s earliest years and rappers ranging the spectrum (from “conscious” to “gangsta”) often speak his praises on record and off.

Growing concerns of runaway violence being fueled by feuding hip-hop artists prompted the minister’s prime-time appearance. In early October, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons asked Farrakhan to help mediate a simmering and increasingly dangerous “beef” between Atkins and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. He asked if the effort could be recorded to amplify its national impact and Farrakhan agreed.

A spirit of aggressive competition has been integral to hip-hop music from its inception. Historians of the genre note that the rap music, break dancing and graffiti “tagging” that comprised hip-hop’s formative elements were created in part to sublimate the violence plaguing the neighborhoods that gave it birth. Some of the earliest rap hits featured so-called battle rhymes. The spirited rivalries in the 1980s of KRS-ONE vs. MC Shan, LL Cool J vs. Kool Moe Dee, or U.T.F.O. vs. Roxanne Shante, kept fans glued to their radios to catch the latest “dis” records.But rap’s critics and fans both fear that the battle rhymes and beefs have gotten out of hand. Hip-hop (now embodied primarily by rap music) no longer seems concerned with sublimation.

As Exhibit A in the case against these dissing contests, commentators often point to the still-unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur on September 7, 1996, and Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace on March 9, 1997. The two rap icons’ transformation from friends to bitter rivals triggered an East Coast-West Coast feud that fueled deadly animosities in communities already crippled by excessive violence. That experience made it clear to observers that rap beefs sometimes have deadly consequences beyond the recording studio.

In 1997, Farrakhan gathered a group of hip-hop artists and activists in Chicago to call a truce in the destructive beef that likely took the lives of Wallace, Shakur and countless others. He said at the time that hip-hop often got a bad rap for reflecting what society would prefer to hide, but that artists also had a responsibility to be balanced in their portrayals.

Farrakhan’s recognition of hip-hop’s cultural validity was unique among old school black leaders, most of whom dismissed the genre as a faddish and vulgar aberration. Many analysts blame those clashing verdicts about the music’s value for a growing generational divide within black America.

At a hip-hop summit two years ago in New York City, Farrakhan urged performers and record executives to be more responsible for the effect of their words. He said hip-hop artists were black America’s new leadership. “One rap song from you is worth more than 1,000 of my speeches,” he told the crowd. “Will you accept your responsibility as a leader?”

Farrakhan was called back into the fray by fears that the Ja Rule/50 Cent clash could become deadly or trigger wider feuds. Atkins agreed to meet Farrakhan first and, according to a Nation of Islam spokeswoman, Jackson also has agreed.

Atkins complained to Farrakhan about intense public pressure to keep his beef with Jackson hot. “The public makes it so that we have to keep assaulting each other,” Atkins said. He said wanted to write other kinds of lyrics but the “public started to give me ridicule.”

Farrakhan urged Atkins to lead rather than follow the public and teach them that there’s more to life than beef. He also condemned the record companies for encouraging conflicts between artists. His most salient point, however, was that enemy forces are closely watching hip-hop culture.

“A war is about to come down on the rap community,” Farrakhan said during the nationally televised conversation. “When you and 50 throw down, it goes all the way down into the streets,” he added.

“The media takes the beef between you and 50 and they play it, they jam it, they keep it going,” Farrakhan told Atkins. “Why would they keep something going that could produce bloodshed? There is a bigger plot here, Ja, and this is what I want you and 50 and our hip-hop brothers and sisters to see.”

This line of argument is a familiar one for Farrakhan, who has long warned that black youth are being demonized by popular culture in order to weaken the black community. He contends the demonization process that has filled U.S. jails and prisons with nearly a million black people is being aided by hip-hop’s gangsta posturing. Many viewers were astounded to see this argument being pushed in prime time.

Hip-hop has produced some odd juxtapositions, but none beats Farrakhan on MTV.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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