The Ghost of Mandela: Mortal Men, Rappers, and the Desolation of Free Speech

by / 0 Comments / 146 View / April 14, 2015

“Ask Obama, I can’t even pay / for a doctor for my momma.”

“Ain’t nobody selling records / n—-s selling their cars.”

“Over a little bread / that’s when friends start beefin’.”

“Your baby mama on your back / telling you to go sell crack.”

“Crack ain’t selling / so a n—- gotta rob.”

“His little daughter’s sick / and she ain’t got a health plan.”

Those are sample lyrics from a rapper by the name of Ronald “Ra Diggs” Herron. That comes from his song “We All F—– Up,” and, yes, it is terrible. Those lyrics are almost as bad as the music video that accompanies it, which I unfortunately watched for the purposes of this article, and now I cannot get it out of my mind. Please send help.

First, though, send help to Ra Diggs. He is 33 years old, and has been sentenced to 12 life sentences plus 105 years (which seems like overkill) last week in New York City. He was found guilty of all 23 charges against him, which range from racketeering to drug trafficking to gang-related killings, all of which span from 2001 to 2009.

On the surface, that sounds stupendous. The Criminal Justice system caught, processed, tried, and convicted a dangerous criminal, and now said criminal will, even if he is a cat, be off the streets forever.  Right?

Well, yes. And no. The funny thing about this is, all of that may be true. But the way New York City reached that conclusion is perfectly summed up by the title of Ra Diggs’s aforementioned song.

Remember those horrible lyrics at the top of this article? Well, not only are they pretty tame when it comes to rap, especially in regards to gang violence and street life, but they are also part of the evidence used against Ra Diggs that found him guilty of 12 life sentences plus 105 years. And that is a problem.

I do not pretend to know if Ra Diggs is actually guilty of any or all of the 23 charges he was found guilty of. That isn’t the issue, though, because using rap lyrics to judge the content of that person’s character—both criminal and social—has become an increasingly worrisome trend.

Take Tiny Doo, who I can only imagine is related to Scooby. He is facing life in prison for essentially making an album. If you think that is an oversimplification of his most likely complex case, it isn’t. He has a lack of a criminal record, but, due to the lyrics of his album, faces nine counts of participating in “criminal street gang conspiracy.”

This story is effectively more disturbing than Ra Diggs’s, because California, where Tiny Doo is being tried, is essentially spitting in the face of the First Amendment. The basis of the charges are that “rap music, it’s just another form of communication that gang members use,” as Dana Greisen, the San Diego gangs division chief prosecutor so eloquently stated.

Basically, if Tiny Doo (real name: Brandon Duncan) is an active member of a gang and knows about its general past or present activity, and is thus benefitting because of that knowledge, it is then a conspiracy and he can be convicted due to that.

This attitude falls under scrutiny, though, mostly because it is pretty clearly racist. The “conspiracy street gang conspiracy” law that Tiny Doo is being charged with is in marked contrast to conspiracy as California has traditionally defined it.

Fortunately, the charges against Tiny Doo were dismissed. Perhaps more importantly, the ordeal Duncan went through will not have an effect on what he writes about. “If you want to hear my music,” he said, “it’s not promoting anything. I’m not telling anybody to commit no crime, I’m not telling anybody to do anything. It’s just artistry. I’m painting a picture of an urban community.”

But why was Tiny Doo being charged for writing about crimes he did not do? Nearly every rapper who has ever rapped has talked about something illegal or violent, but let’s focus on the racial aspect of this, and turn our attention to the most famous white rapper, Eminem. Eminem made his name by writing horrible things he’d do to women, such as rape and murder:

 “Put that s— away, Iggy / you don’t want to blow that rape whistle on me / Scream! / I love it.” –threatening to rape Iggy Azalea

“’Oh, now he’s raping his own mother / abusing a whore” –boasting about raping his own mother, who he calls a “whore.”

“I put wives at risk with a knife like this.” –threatening to murder several women with a knife.

“F— that, take drugs, rape sluts.” –he throws in that last act as an afterthought, as if there’s no reason why he wouldn’t do this.

So here’s the point when comparing Eminem with Tiny Doo and Ra Diggs. How come Eminem, who’s lyrics are more offensive and more violent, is an unquestioned free man? How come, beyond the attention-grab of that Iggy Azalea lyric, he has never had any real pushback, and the other two have had—or could have had—their lives thrown away?

This isn’t just a factor in the criminal courts, either. Nitpicking at someone’s lyrics has affected someone in the court of public opinion. Take Common, for instance, whose invitation to the White House in 2011 launched outrage and headlines such as this, courtesy of Fox News: “Michelle Obama Hosting Vile Rapper at White House?”

You may be asking at this point what exactly his crime was. Was he a member of a gang, perhaps?

Nope. He wrote a song and a rap-poem. The latter was deemed too violent for Fox News. In it, he alludes to burning then-President George W. Bush over the war of Iraq, as well as questioning whether or not the government truly cares about young black people.

In the song, entitled “A Song for Assata,” Common talks about Assata Shakur, who currently lives in Cuba under political asylum after escaping prison in 1979. He went to visit her there, and then wrote the song, where he depicts a tale of police brutality and an unfair treatment under the Justice System.

Fox News took this as Common emphasizing with a cop killer, and thus should not be allowed in the White House. They don’t care that Bono and Bob Dylan all wrote songs emphasizing with cop killers, and they were invited to the White House. They also don’t care that Ted Nugent is a reprehensible piece of human filth, and considered a “friend of Fox News,” while Common is considered an upstanding artist and person.

It’s hard not to see this as some of these people are black, and some of them are not. In Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly, he uses the first half of his closing track to push aside thoughts that would normally be characterized as paranoid:

“If I’m tried in a court of law, if the industry cut me off

If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car

Would you judge me a drug-head or see me as K. Lamar?”

Now, though, it seems a legitimate question. The crux of Lamar’s song is this: will you—my fans—stay by me, no matter what happens?

It becomes an important question when you look at a case like Ra Diggs, or even Tiny Doo. It’s easy to chalk it up as a violent person is being put away for being violent. In fact, future Attorney General Loretta Lynch said pretty much that in Ra Diggs’s case, stating the verdict would put to end a life of “brutal, unrelenting violence.”

And that may be the case for Ra Diggs. But it is a problem when someone like Tiny Doo can’t make an album without having his life on the line. When Common can’t go to the White House because he once wrote a song about a Black Panther activist. And especially when this attitude is purely racially motivated, and something as essential as free speech is thrown away because a type of music might make you uncomfortable.