On Sunday, the New York Times published a profile of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month, sparking ongoing protests.
The piece would have been interesting no matter its contents. After Officer Darren Wilson killed Brown, his body was left lying in the street, and law enforcement officials have tried to reduce Brown to the suggestion that he was a suspect in a theft of a package of convenience store cigarillos. But one phrase in the Times piece set readers off, seeming to boil down Brown’s humanity to proof of some sort of guilt. Brown, reporter John Eligon wrote, “was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.”
There are plenty of excellent responses to this idea, and to the fact that few of us qualify as seraphim, much less as archangels. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias points out that he engaged in a lot of the same behavior as Michael Brown at the same age, but only one of them was shot to death. Others have suggested that the Times was more generous to suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev than to Brown. But as someone who writes about culture, I am particularly frustrated by one part of the piece: the idea that dabbling in hip-hop represented something about Brown’s character.
“He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor,” Eligon wrote. “The content [of Brown's songs] varied. He collaborated on songs that included lyrics such as ‘My favorite part is when the bodies hit the ground.’ But he also derided fathers who ‘don’t pay child support’ and rapped glowingly about his stepmother. He occasionally smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, according to friends. But for his music he adopted a persona to appeal to hip-hop fans, said his cousin, Bryan Douglas, a music producer who was going to help Mr. Brown pursue his music career.”
At a minimum, I am glad to see the Times acknowledge the artistic reality that rappers, like artists in every other medium and genre, put on personas not their own when they are creating fiction. But Eligon repeatedly includes Brown’s artistic dabblings in a series of supposedly troubling behaviors, including drug and alcohol use and a physical altercation. These sentence constructions slur minor artistic ambitions by treating them as vices, and slur Brown by treating his creative impulses as if they are evidence of some sort of criminal impulse.
Police departments and prosecutors have a vested interest in convincing juries that the artistic tropes of hip-hop ought to be taken as evidence that rappers committed specific crimes. Journalists should be suspicious of bolstering a perceived link between rap music and criminal behavior or deficient character, given the ways in which demonizing hip-hop gives law enforcement officials an opportunity to slide on their responsibility to build serious criminal cases.
Eligon and other reporters ought to hold themselves to the same standards. If Eligon had proof that Brown had started smoking pot to enhance his image as a rapper, or if the scuffle with his neighbor had some sort of artistic dispute as its root cause, that might have been interesting to know. But that does not appear to be the case: hip-hop, pot and differences of opinion belong together in the piece because they so often fall together in our minds.
The Times could have published a different profile of Michael Brown, one that portrayed him as someone hopeful enough to imagine a career in hip-hop but practical enough to pursue technical courses that could give him more stable work. This could have been a story about a boy whose artistic interests were proof that his soul was sensitive, rather than coarse, whatever words rolled off his tongue. But an environment in which these were the associations that came easily to us would be one that saw Michael Brown very differently all along.