November 10, 2005
Hip-Hop’s Code of Silence Hurts Police
By Gelu Sulugiuc
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When rapper Lil' Kim was sentenced to a year in federal prison this summer for lying to a grand jury about a Manhattan shootout, she was lionized by media covering the hip-hop music scene for not "snitching."
Even as prosecutors confronted her with security camera tapes showing her standing next to one of the shooters, she lied about who was involved.
The media hoopla helped the rapper enter the Billboard chart at No.6 with her latest record "The Naked Truth," released shortly after her incarceration in September.
Criminals have always relied on a code of silence to evade prosecution. But calls to "stop snitching" have grown louder in hip-hop, which grew out of black inner cities to become a huge influence on youth culture across America.
Critics say this taboo on "snitching" or informing is now part of hip-hop's mystique and makes it increasingly hard for police to solve violent crimes in inner-city neighborhoods.
"The cultural shift that it is acceptable to tell people not to come to court to testify imperils the criminal justice system," said Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham.
Many hot hip-hop artists glorify crime and violence in their music. The "stop snitching" calls have helped sell records and magazines while branding those who cooperate with law enforcement as traitors.
The message is that drug dealing and shootings are normal and it's more noble to go to jail than to talk to police.
The phrase "stop snitching" gained mainstream attention when DVDs with that title showing scenes from inner-city life surfaced in Baltimore last year.
"We've got a lot of rats up here we want to expose," a man says in one scene. "There ain't too many of them because we deal with them."
NBA star Carmelo Anthony is shown laughing while another man threatens informers. Anthony has said he was an unwitting participant in the DVD.
The slogan "stop snitching" has begun appearing on T-shirts across America to the dismay of anti-violence groups such as Men United for a Better Philadelphia, which encourages crime witnesses to cooperate with police.
"Your life is at stake," Bilal Qayyum, the group's co-chairman, said of the risks of not cooperating with police to solve crimes. "If you don't step up, it could be you or your family tomorrow."
But cultural pressure not to talk to police is effective, said Judge John Glynn of Baltimore City Circuit Court, adding two-thirds of violent crime witnesses recant or refuse to testify in his court.
"If a kid lives in a culture where being a thug is supported, he's going to feel much more comfortable not cooperating with the authorities," he said. "Most people go along and take the easy way out."
Baltimore is full of examples of what happens to some people when they try to testify about crimes they have witnessed: 16-year-old Edwin Boyd was killed in a hail of 13 bullets after he witnessed a murder in 2003 and became a prosecution witness.
The rise of hip-hop culture has heightened the phenomenon by transforming street thugs into role models, critics say.
Popular hip-hop magazine The Source lamented Lil' Kim's prosecution. "She didn't do anything. She didn't pull no guns. She just told a little fib," it wrote in its October issue.
In July, the magazine XXL boasted "exclusive interviews with hip-hop's incarcerated soldiers" and promised to publish a yearly "jail issue." Most of the rappers portrayed were in jail for an array of violent crimes, from murder to armed robbery.
Calls to editors at The Source and XXL requesting interviews were not returned.
"XXL named it the jail issue, but every issue of a lot of magazines might as well be called the jail issue," said rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy, who had hits in the 1980s with politically astute albums such as "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back."
"Somebody who might want to play gangster or thug is being reflected as being the guideline for the culture, and to me that's wrong," he said.
Rapper 50 Cent, known for his hit album "Get Rich or Die Tryin"' and who regularly boasts of his numerous gunshot wounds and his drug-dealing past told Reuters, "A snitch would be the worst thing that you could be in the neighborhood. If you tell on them, they don't want you around."
Public Enemy's new album "New Whirl Odor" with its positive message doesn't sell nearly as well as new rappers such as Young Jeezy, whose hit debut "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101," glorifies drug dealing and gang life.
The rise of the "stop snitching" culture comes as violent crime among juveniles in the United States is rising.
Federal Bureau of Investigations data showed a 2.4 percent drop in the murder rate in 2004 compared to 2003, but the number of juveniles arrested for murder rose by more than 21 percent over the same period.
That trend prompted the FBI to make combating street gangs a top priority, along with counterterrorism. But community support is key to that effort.
"I support snitches," said Chuck D. "If a person is cancerous to society, then a snitch sometimes is the best solution, with an army behind him."
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine.)