• Thu. Dec 8th, 2022

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Young Black rappers are dying at alarming rates. The problem isn’t their music, experts say.

The fatal shooting of rapper Half Ounce has ignited a familiar conversation about gun violence, rap culture and whether there’s a responsibility for record labels to protect their artists. 

The 32-year-old rapper, whose real name was Latauriisha O’Brien, was killed in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood Monday, just weeks after rapper PnB Rock was fatally shot during a robbery in the same city. These rappers are part of a string of artists who have died by gun violence, with at least one rapper being fatally shot every year since 2018. With other high-profile rappers such as Drakeo the Ruler, who was fatally stabbed in 2021, and Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle also fatally shot in 2019 in Los Angeles, there has been some conversation on whether cities with a prevalent gang presence have become a dangerous place for those directly involved in the hip-hop community. Earlier this year, legendary emcee-turned-actor Ice-T issued a warning to “young rappers” who were coming to Los Angeles for Super Bowl-related festivities.

But experts say the problem is much more complex than that. Elaine Richardson, a professor at Ohio State University who specializes in African American cultures, literacy and hip-hop, said it’s important to prioritize systemic issues when we discuss the killings of rappers. 

“It’s a reflection of the problem of gun violence in the larger society, and violence in general in America. You have to think critically about oppression and the larger context we live in,” she said.

Gun violence is “a part of the condition of Black people in society, everything that is dangerous and harmful to the larger society. There’s always going to be a disparity in our communities. It’s all systemic, it’s a part of the way society is structured,” Richardson added.

In the aftermath of such killings, questions often swirl about corporate culpability, particularly claims that record labels push artists to assume “tough guy” personas, while failing to protect them from the violence they promote. It’s a question that has consumed the hip-hop community since the fatal shooting of DJ Scott La Rock in 1987, considered to be the first high-profile shooting death of a major hip-hop artist. La Rock, who was part of the influential hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, was fatally shot outside a Bronx apartment complex that summer. 

In the case of PnB Rock, whose real name was Rakim Hasheem Allen, fans speculated whether his former record label, Empire, took out a life insurance policy on the rapper. This claim has not been substantiated by NBC News. Bobby Fisher, the vice president of artists and repertoire (A&R) for Empire, said the label only worked with the artist briefly on his hit single “Selfish” in 2016 and had no significant connection with him afterward. Rappers including King Von and Young Dolph, who Fisher said worked with or distributed their music through Empire, were fatally shot in recent years in Atlanta and Memphis, Tennessee, respectively. Fisher said neither fans nor label officials ever get used to such violence and called the deaths “traumatizing.” 

“I think anyone who signs an artist, there’s a component of compassion to make sure your artist is safe. However, you can’t manage your artist 24/7,” Fisher said of claims that record labels should do more to protect rappers.

NBC News could not confirm the exact relationship the aforementioned artists had with the label.

He noted that there’s only so much label officials can do to keep artists safe without controlling their personal lives. “They’re out doing shows, they’re going to be with their loved ones. Most of the time, artists come from impoverished neighborhoods that they go back to trying to show support and love. You can advise as much as possible, in areas of work, you can provide security. But artists have their own lives outside of being artists,” he said.

When news of a rapper’s death makes headlines, a sharp critique of hip-hop tends to follow. In February, New York City Mayor Eric Adams condemned drill rap after two artists, Jayquan McKenley and Tahjay Dobson, who was known as Tdott Woo, were shot dead in Brooklyn. “We pulled Trump off Twitter… yet we are allowing music, displaying of guns, violence,” Adams said then, vowing to urge social media companies to remove videos featuring drill music from their platforms. Last month, The New York Times confirmed with management and label representatives that Adams had three drill rappers removed from the city’s Rolling Loud festival over fears of  potential violence. 

Scholars like A.D. Carson, an assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south at the University of Virginia, have called out efforts to vilify rap music and use the music genre to reinforce stereotypes and mythologies about Black people. He wrote in an essay for The Conversation that rappers’ display of hypermasculinity and even violence are meant to signal “a kind of authenticity,” adding that  “those who still seek to vilify rap might do well to focus on the sources of the crisis of violence in America rather than blaming the music that reflects it.”

Chuck Creekmur, the CEO of the hip-hop-centered media site AllHipHop, shared similar sentiments. 

“There are a lot of nuances that people don’t necessarily take into account when looking at rapper deaths. I personally believe it’s indicative of what’s going on in our communities in general,” he said. “There’s this prevailing notion that rap artists have the most dangerous job, but I don’t subscribe to that.”