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Commercial Rap: A Pipeline to Prison?

    In early 2012, a controversial anonymous letter entitled “The Secret Meeting That Changed Rap Music and Destroyed a Generation” hit the internet by storm. The letter, which claims that an unnamed top music industry executive promoted gangsta rap to fill private prisons, was published by hundreds of blogs and websites and was reposted on countless forums, Twitter and Facebook profiles. Across social media, everyone from Public Enemy’s Chuck D to Freeway Ricky Ross had something to say about it. Various YouTube videos were posted to discuss the anonymous letter and translations of the letter were posted in French, Spanish and other languages for international audiences. The Huffington Post even published a critique questioning the validity of the claims made by the anonymous author who, fearing for his well being, provided no names or details that might reveal his identity.

    Many skeptics called the letter a hoax due to its poor writing style and general inconsistencies, yet an overwhelming number of people accepted its “facts” at face value. While I have my own concerns regarding the letter’s authenticity, the core message does touch on a frightening reality which doesn’t require any anonymous claims to prove it as truth. This may be why the letter has struck such a nerve with internet audiences. The private prison industrial complex is very real and the people and entities behind it will go to surprising lengths to sustain it.

    Although I haven’t come across information confirming the music industry’s direct investment in private prisons, it is public knowledge that General Electric, which co-owns Universal Entertainment, the home of Interscope Records and Def Jam, is the nation’s largest weapons manufacturer as well as a hugeinvestor in private prisons. Both record labels are well known for promoting criminal elements through their music, with Interscope’s Death Row Records probably being the greatest purveyor of “gangsta rap” in history. The notion that there may be a connection between a company that glorifies crime as entertainment and a company that manufactures weapons and invests in prison-for-profit is disturbing to say the least.

    But the idea that the music industry has manipulated rap music to glorify misogyny, violence, drugs and materialism is a common belief held in Hip Hop circles. Many artists such as Rhymefest, Wise Intelligent and Too Short have shared their personal experiences which clearly point to a deliberate attempt by the music industry to silence and suppress Hip Hop music with substance. The belief that music (and media in general) can be used as a medium of social engineering is nothing new. In the 1970’s, Black music was already being studied by university researchers to learn how it could be manipulated to ultimately increase consumerism in mainstream markets. In 1990, the release of the book “Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business” also points to corrupt business practices which place profit over ethics.

    What seems to bother skeptics who simply see the anonymous letter as a cheesy conspiracy theory is the lack of verifiable information to back up its astounding claim. Sadly, as unbelievable as it may be, sicker things have happened which were once labeled “conspiracy theories” until the supporting evidence was uncovered and documented. Ridiculing conspiracy theories may be popular amongst self-righteous contrarians, but their mockeries ring hollow in the face of the following real-life documented government conspiracies.

    • The Tuskegee Experiment
    • The CIA-Sponsored Crack Epidemic
    • CoIntelPro

    However, the focus of this article is on the claims that music industry executives invested in private prisons and promoted gangsta rap to influence young people into a life of crime, ultimately leading to higher incarceration and increased profits for those investors.

    Michelle Alexander, civil rights attorney and author of the bestselling book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, lays out the horrible truth about the private prison industrial complex in painstaking details. And while she makes no mention of the music industry’s involvement, the truth she uncovers is much more sinister than our anonymous letter could ever suggest.

    Despite the letter’s elusive origin, is it really so difficult to fathom that a handful of key players in the entertainment industry would plot such a horrifying scheme when the truth is much more twisted than anyone could possibly imagine? But if you still need convincing, the following links should wake you up!

    And the list goes on.

    While there might not have been an actual plot to lead young rap fans to prison, the glorification of criminal or risky behavior in mainstream rap couldn’t possibly have been beneficial for young people over the last two generations. After all, how has “Molly”, mainstream rap’s new trendy drug, been so carelessly promoted by major record companies? Since the beginning of the year, at least 10 songs about Molly have already been released. And while most of us understand that the so-called “War on Drugs”, not rap music, is responsible for the incarceration rate, too many of us seem blind to the fact that Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Trinidad James, Chief Keef, French Montana and all these other rappers are the public spokespeople for an industry that undoubtedly makes money influencing impressionable minds to engage in dangerous (and often illegal) activities.

    This isn’t an attack on Hip Hop. There are countless new MC’s, despite being lesser known then theircommercial counterparts, who are creative, insightful and keep Hip Hop alive. A matter of fact, it seems that in 2013, a change may be on the horizon with a new crop of innovative artists starting to make noise without the help of the mainstream industry. With that said, there are still more Black and Latino men in jail now than at any other time in our nation’s history. We need to move beyond arguing about the validity of conspiracy theories and deal with the reality of undeniable facts. And while rappers need to be held accountable for their images and lyrics, we also need to see who’s behind them, pulling the strings. Our youth are in serious jeopardy and it isn’t merely a theory. We must take an active role in educating and empowering young people with the proper information. Or, we can stay stuck in front of our computers debating and arguing our opinions while the frightening truth about the private prison industrial complex is right under our nose.


    Sebastien Elkouby is a Hip Hop Culture historian and educator. Check out his blog: and his educational program, Global Awareness through Hip Hop Culture.