Rick Ross: Hip Hop's War on Young Black Men
“People are getting a view of black men that is not only incorrect, but is very dangerous"
The name Rick Ross might conjure images of the large-bellied Miami rapper who stirred emotions earlier this week when he name dropped Trayvon Martin in a new song with Usher, but it was made famous long before William Leonard Roberts II (the rapper’s real name) came on the scene. The original “Freeway’ Rick Ross was the drug kingpin in the ’80s, turning thousands of people on to crack cocaine, from his home in South Central Los Angeles to the streets of Baltimore. It was later discovered that the CIA used his operation to fund their war against the Nicaraguan government. Originally sentenced to life in 1996, he was released in 2009. Ross has now made it his mission to keep black kids off the street and out of prison. He has a pending documentary (Crack in the System, to be directed and produced by Marc Levin, who helmed Brick City and Gang War: Bangin; In Little Rock) and a biopic in the works to tell his story, and he is still suing the rapper for using his name, despite a setback earlier this year.
In the first installment of a two part series we sat down with Ross and his business partner, Antonio Moore, to discuss the lasting affects of the drug culture Ross helped create, why hip-hop glamorizes that life, and how that negative image contributes to violence against young black men, as in the case of Trayvon Martin.
Loop 21: How do you think the music industry glamorizes the drug culture you helped create?
Rick Ross: I think it’s terrible when you have people who have never sold drugs, and never been in the drug game say that they have, and say that they attribute their success to selling drugs. Could you imagine what kind of damage it would do if Donald Trump suddenly said that he accumulated all of his wealth from selling drugs? It would send a message to the people that is crazy. And why would he do it? I mean why wouldn’t he just tell people the real about how he accomplished his success? I mean, most people do.
Loop 21: Why do you think it’s glamorized?
Antonio Moore: I’m a former prosecutor, and what I believe is happening is that nobody wants to deal with the fact that black men are the most imprisoned people in the history of the world. And 10,000 per 100,000 are put in prison now. During apartheid in South Africa, the numbers were like 800 per 100,000 to put it in comparison. The reality is a reflection of that glamour. You have these young men who are cycling through the prison system, and when they come out, they want to see reflections of what they just came out of, and then that leads to a cycle. And then the labels themselves irresponsibly profiteer off that. They put that image out there, then go home to their nice homes where they don’t know anybody who is going to prison.
Loop 21: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The lifestyle then the glamorization, or are they in jail due in part to them trying to emulate that lifestyle?
Ross: If I had to say which came first, the sentencing came first. You have to see this in the historical context, you have to look back at America changing its sentencing law to directly undermine black economic development. It happened after the Reconstruction era, and it happened again during the crack era. Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow, actually pointed out that when Reagan ramped up the drug war, drug crimes were on a decline. So for them to change the law to put more men in prison when drug crimes were on the decline, that tells you that the chicken came first. What came first is that they changed the sentencing. And I think that once you take the drug dealers off the street that have created a market, a demand, that creates another demand for more dealers, because now there’s nobody to fill that gap. And then the money starts to look really good, really tempting to normal everyday people, and it starts all over again.
Loop 21: Does the fact that these people are being put up as folks they should look up to make them think that is an avenue to go down to make money?
Ross: The reality is, in the ghetto, your first hero is more than likely going to be a drug dealer. There are not many blacks in our community who operate businesses. For you to say you want to be your own man and work for yourself, who do you model yourself after? So most of these guys are going to come up modeling themselves after a drug dealer. But at the same time, I don’t think that you should sell cars and get rich and then say, you know what, I made my money from selling drugs, when that’s not the case.
Loop 21: What role do you think that glamorization plays in the way the world views young black men?
Moore: First, I think that glamorization started with Cops, the show, which is the first reality show ever to make it to network television. And what role it plays is that you have a group that already doesn’t have much in savings because of slavery, a group that already is coming fresh out of Jim Crow, and this is the world’s image of what black men are. As a result, black men then perpetuate that image, and recycle it, and take it home, and feed it to their own children as they drive to school.
Loop 21: Do you think that feeds into the image others have of black men?
Moore: Absolutely. I call it the “Sandwich Effect,” which is excessively high prison rates for black men 25 to 30 on one side, and criminal and violent images of black men in hip-hop being perpetuated irresponsibly by labels on the other side, with Trayvon Martin and millions of young black males caught in the middle, trapped in a proverbial cell of negative imagery. It leads to people like Zimmerman not seeing Trayvon for who he was that day — a young boy trying to get home from the store — but rather a distortion based on their preconceived ideas. No other group in history has had to deal with this level of negative imagery.
Ross: I totally agree with that scenario. The image that they’re portraying of us definitely affects the way people look at us, and the way people judge us. When most people meet me, they say, oh, I thought you were this violent, outrageous guy. I didn’t know you were mild mannered and well spoken.
Loop 21: Do you see a connection between that characterization and violent acts being committed against young Black men?
Ross: Absolutely. I think it’s definitely a reflection. Because now they feel if they kill a young black man, that it’s justifiable to do so, because he’s so violent, he deserves it. They basically see one guy who did something violent, and then they put it out as if the whole race is doing that.
Moore: In no way do I find it to be an excuse for Zimmerman pulling the trigger the fact that black men are rapping about crack cocaine and violence. Nor do I find it an excuse for Zimmerman pulling the trigger the fact that so may black men are in prison. But what I do have a problem with is that right now, we have taken the hoodie and allowed it to be an excuse for a greater ill in our society, and that is the fact that black men are not being taken care of. In a sense, they really do need specialized services and treatment. Because what a lot of people are getting in their homes is a view of black men that is not only incorrect, but is very dangerous, particularly given that black men don’t have a voice outside of rap to say who and what they are, and what they stand for. I believe that Zimmerman, when he looked out of his window and saw Trayvon, he saw more than a hoodie, he saw a violent little guy, and we have to ask why, and we have to be honest about the answer.
Loop 21: Antonio, you said that black men need special services. What do those services look like to you?
Moore: The first would be financial services. I think a lot of young black men don’t necessarily know how to manage their money and plan for family in terms of creating a safety net. I think the second thing is, a lot of young black men need family services training in terms of how to be a better father to their children. The third is almost like identity training. A lot of people don’t want to deal with what slavery left behind, but a lot of black men have identity issues about who and what they are, and that’s why this rap music fits so well. They need to learn how to love themselves, how to compliment themselves, how to smile at each other. I believe that in my heart.
Check back tomorrow for Rick Ross' thoughts on his hip hop namesake, the irresponsibility of record labels and holding himself accountable.