Are rappers keepin’ it real in the court hiz-ouse?

Earlier this year, rapper Mystikal was sentenced to six years in prison for the sexual battery of his hair stylist. Prosecutors presented a tape confiscated from the rap star’s home in Baton Rouge, in which Mystikal, along with two bodyguards, is seen forcing the woman to perform numerous sex acts upon them as reparations for money that she had supposedly stolen from him.

This is not the first time the mainstream rap industry has had to deal with an incidence such as this. A recent article in The Source chronicles the lengthy history of rappers and their felonious exploits, from Flava Flav to Suge Knight to Jam Master Jay. Often, in cases such as these, we hear the word “trend” applied, as if assault charges come and go as easily as clothing fads. But is this term really applicable? Considering the roster of performers who are now behind bars, or on probation, or dead, it seems as if violence is less a side effect of this industry’s product and more of an integral element.

Of course, this isn’t anything new. Since its inception as a legitimate musical genre, rap has faced endless scrutiny from a countless list of opponents. Presumably, it was the advent of “gangster rap,” borne out of Compton, Calif., which catalyzed an ongoing battle against the questionable and often explicit themes in rap music. Notable examples of this include Ice-T’s infamous “Cop Killer” debacle, as well as 2 Live Crew’s 1990 triumph over obscenity charges. Since then, rap has become much less a testament of strength in the face of adversity and more of a satire, a showcase of decadent pageantry and lavish overindulgence.

Yet, for all of the changes its undergone, the attitude in mainstream rap seems to be the same: there still remains a strict code of character for rappers, one that praises the virtues of personal conquest and demands adherence to all things excessively masculine.

Undoubtedly, it is this attitude that has made the world of mainstream rap a target of both the legal system and a host of censorship advocates. With this ever-growing list of prison-bound performers, one begins to wonder if serving time is a prerequisite for stardom.

Exactly what is the point they trying to get across?

Of course, mainstream rap is not the only genre of music to have suffered a series of legal embarrassments. Johnny Cash, who I would argue to be an unwitting forefather of the gangster rap movement, spent his share of time staring down prison sentences and drug addiction, as have others such as Willie Nelson, James Brown, etc. And it seems only fair that I mention Robert Johnson, who is purported to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar-playing abilities.

Unfortunately for mainstream rap, the indiscretions of most other genres tend to be seen in a much more forgiving — even romantic — light. There’s a certain poetic mythology at work in areas like folk or heavy metal, comparable to the rustic appeal of someone like John Wayne.

Rap, on the other hand tends to wear its ego on its sleeve. What its more reckless representatives might take to be resilience seems more like a slap in the face to the culture it supposedly speaks for, a culture that few really understand.

Then again, one might disagree, arguing that mainstream rap does have a sense of humor about itself; the lyrics are not meant to reflect reality; no one could maintain such an unrestrained lifestyle without the slightest bit of irony.

This seems viable enough, but then it doesn’t account for all of those rappers who have ended up in courtrooms and penitentiaries around the country. And there are way too many to name here. Indeed, the rap industry appears to have pigeonholed itself into an ethical trap: if performers were to admit their songs were parodies of a lifestyle that few people truly endorse, they would be guilty of violating their own edict of honesty, integrity and realism. But if they were to confirm the validity of their lyrics, they would be lending support to their critics and, one might say, doing a disservice to their fans. One way or another, there is an obvious correlation as to whether the lifestyle mimics the music or vice versa. I’m inclined to go with the former.

Now, I admit, I don’t know that much about the world of rap music. I don’t even particularly like rap music. But is music preference even relevant here? It doesn’t seem so. In fact, it might even give credibility to my claim: I don’t have to go any further than a newspaper to learn about the latest exploit of another disposable MC — the most recent being Lil’ Kim, right? The rap industry has grown in size and status since the days of Grand Master Flash, Heavy D and Run DMC: if you’re making as much money as some of the current performers claim to make, then what is the appeal of prison?

Rap’s not the only music genre to have brushes with the legal system, but it certainly is the most notorious. Had the issue centered on the polka industry, I might be writing about those wily, irresponsible, scandalous accordion players.

But as of right now, mainstream rap seems to have done the least out of any music genre to maintain a respectable reputation — not including Outkast and The Roots, God love them. Mainstream rap embraces a very literal lyrical format, the substance of which has evolved very little over the years — only in tempo and meter. Does the growing rate of incarcerations among its performers reflect the industry’s desired image? Maybe. After all, the market keeps expanding.

And it is this attention given by consumers to such a poorly managed and yet highly entertaining industry that prompts the question: where does the fantasy end and the reality begin? I wonder if too much of either one is a bad thing.

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