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Gangsta Rap, Dying in the Street

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

If I were a gangsta rapper, I'd be changing my tune.

Not because congressional hearings on misogynous rap lyrics are slated for next week. And certainly not because a group of church folk held a protest last week at the home of a Black Entertainment Television executive who lives in the District.

No, what would concern me is the money. The hustle and flow are getting too slow. Rap album sales have fallen far faster than those for the music industry as a whole, plummeting 43.6 percent since 2000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It's getting hard out here for a pimp.

Here's my rap on why: Gangsta rap is contemptible, the lyrics indefensible. The rapper isn't credible, just plain old irresponsible. And the public stopped being gullible.

Check out the results of a recent national survey of black, white and Hispanic youths by the University of Chicago. Among the findings:

72 percent of black youths agree that rap videos contain too many sexual references.

41 percent of black youths say rap music videos should be more political.

Majorities of all young people agree that rap music videos portray both black women and black men "in bad and offensive ways."

About 58 percent of black youths (ages 15 to 25) say they listen to rap music daily and watch rap music videos several times a week, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic youths and 23 percent of white youths. That's still a lot of youths. But interest in the genre is clearly waning. In 2006, rap sales were down 21 percent from 2005 and 27 percent from 2004.

This steady decline in demand has been all but obscured by anti-rap protests and misguided calls for censorship.

"We want media and music companies to develop universal creative standards for the music and videos they produce, market and distribute," says the Rev. Delman L. Coates, pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton and leader of an anti-rap group called Enough Is Enough.

On Saturday, Coates and about 500 others, mostly church members, staged a protest in front of the home of Debra Lee, chief executive of Black Entertainment Television. They want BET to ban any show that "objectifies, degrades or promotes violence against women" and "portrays black and Latino men as gangsters, pimps, thugs and players."

And they plan on returning to Lee's home every weekend until BET meets their demands.

Nice try, Reverend. But we call that kind of censorship "Taliban-ing." And it doesn't sit well with the spirit of the First Amendment, either.

"I want the rest of you to come out and let the world know we are not pimps, gangsters and thugs and that our women are not sexual objects, not female dogs," Coates told the group. "We have to stand up and say we aren't taking it anymore."

But will anyone stand up against such movies as "American Gangster," which makes its premiere the first weekend in November? Will anyone be marching to protest Hollywood? Or will they all be inside the theaters watching Denzel Washington star as the gangster?

I'm betting on Denzel.

Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) has scheduled hearings on rap music for Tuesday: "From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degradation."

"I want to talk to executives at these conglomerates who've never taken a public position on what they produce," said Rush, chairman of the House subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection. No doubt that would be an interesting discussion -- if any of them show up. "It's been surprisingly very difficult to get them to commit to appearing," he conceded.

But he's pressing forward nonetheless.

"I respect the First Amendment, but rights without responsibility is anarchy, and that's much of what we have now," Rush said. "It's time for responsible people to stand up and accept responsibility."

The good news is young customers are taking a stand in the only way that really counts: with their pocketbooks. In its heyday, rap easily outsold country and heavy-metal music. Not anymore. Last year, country sold 75 million albums and heavy metal sold 62 million, compared with 59 million rap albums.

For the first time in five years, no rap albums were among the top 10 sellers in 2006.

The message couldn't be clearer: Leave gangsta rap alone. Let it die on its own.

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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