“In his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots” speech, Brother Malcolm X warned, “If some of you understood what a revolution really is, you wouldn’t use the word. Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution destroys everything in its way.” I have reason to believe that many politically minded college students, hip-hop artists, and other members of our community, mistakenly refer to themselves as “revolutionary.”
One problem we face in discussing anything revolutionary, is that the term and its implications are confused. Naturally, this society’s elite benefits from our confusion in this regard as they have no interest in losing their power or prestige.Language, which provides us with definition, clarity, and therefore direction, is a key tool used to misdirect our energy. Many of us in the Hip Hop community facilitate our own confusion when we take words and change them to suit our interests.
For example, our word “gangsta” evolves from the word “gangster.” A gangster is a thug who uses any means necessary to enrich himself. A gangster by definition is selfish and territorial; they do what they do for themselves, their turf, and their “gang.” A gangster’s actions or interests often go against those of the community. Why? Because gangsters exist not to advance and advocate for the larger community, but to empower and enrich themselves.
Interestingly, gangsters (and wannabees) portray themselves as anti-establishment, but in reality, they mirror the values of our governing bodies. Self-serving violence, monetary greed, repression of dissenting voices/ideas, and control of territory are key qualities of our government. In similar fashion, gangsters control territory, suppress freedom of expression, and use violence to impose their will upon people who are weaker than themselves. Contrary to popular opinion, gangsters do not oppose the status quo; they actually support it. The only difference is that they do so without “legitimate” or legal protection and support.
What is it then that we common folk find so attractive about gangsters? Certainly their general disregard for the law, law enforcement agencies, and societal norms fascinates us; they do things most of us are too fearful or powerless to do. A member of La Cosa Nostra enacts his/her own form of retribution against violators, rather than trusting the flawed court system to do so. The Bloods or Crips don’t write grants to federal and private agencies for money to secure their needs (they couldn’t if they wanted to). They don’t sell candy, have bake sales or perform songs and dances for money…they steal it from others or sell drugs to procure it. Street gangs don’t petition the police department to protect their territory, they use force to do it themselves.
Their proactive stances, level of organization, willingness and ability to protect and provide for their own, and refusal to place trust in societal institutions is, well, attractive. This explains the continuing romance the American public has with gangster movies and the tendency for so many rap artists name themselves after iconic gangsters (or in Jim Jones’ case, psychotic cult leaders).
Some Black organizations astutely recognized the political potential existent within local criminal elements and attempted to recruit, reform and absorb them (the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party come to mind). And in some cases, this strategy worked. Typically though, the gangster element continued their criminal activities as members or allies of the recruiting organization. For example, the “ Philadelphia Black Mafia” continued to distribute heroin, perform murders for hire, and extort other drug dealers in the 1970s, even as official members in Nation of Islam Temple #12. The Black Panthers in Chicago attempted to form an alliances with the Blackstone Rangers – also known as the Black P. Stone Nation or El Rukns – a politically minded street organization with criminal elements. The Rangers were heavily influenced by the Panthers, Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, but became dismantled due to CointelPro, leadership rivalry and continued criminal activity.
Whatever our romance with the gangster lifestyle may be, the fact remains that living an illegal lifestyle alone and becoming rich and powerful from it, does not make one a revolutionary, unless their motivation and actions are intended to benefit the people and to challenge their collective oppression. And while all human beings are capable of redemption or political transformation (as we saw with Malcolm X or more recently with our outstanding Detroit-based organizer Yusef Bunchy Shakur) reforming the gangster element is far more difficult and developmental than we realize.
WHY GANGSTERS ARE NOT REVOLUTIONARY
I say all of this to say that we cannot confuse being “gangsta” with being revolutionary. Perhaps we need a redefinition of terms. A revolutionary seeks total liberation of the people from all forms of ignorance, and oppression. A revolutionary seeks humane treatment of his/her people and has no tolerance for discrimination on any basis. A revolutionary seeks to expose and discard elitist and brutal authorities.
When we approach the conversation from this perspective, we realize that gangstas are not revolutionary, but reactionary. They have internalized the false teachings of their masters, leading them to hate themselves, devalue and abuse women, disregard family responsibilities, and personify in every conceivable way the white supremacist roles and perceptions of Black people.
A reactionary will read and quote Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, then go out and sell drugs in their community, justifying it as “a way to survive.” This contradiction is magnified …Read more on Author’s site