This program examines the correlation between gang activity and the music many youths are listening to today, “gangster rap.” Bill Moyers speaks with Sgt. Ron Stallworth, who heads the unit dealing with gangs at the Utah Division of Investigation. Sgt. Stallworth is the author of Gangster Rap: Music, Culture and Politics.
MALE VOICE: I know we gotta die one time, but I hope to die peacefully.
MALE VOICE #2: All I saw around me was poverty.
MALE VOICE #3: By 14, I was deep into the gang.
FEMALE VOICE: We'd get in fights, we'd shoot people and stab people.
MALE VOICE #4: No one cared, years of violence, years of being violent.
MALE VOICE #5: People don't think sometimes, they just react.
FEMALE VOICE #2: I'm scared, I'm not gonna lie.
MALE VOICE #6: I don't want to be another statistics.
MALE VOICE #7: I would like to be part of the solution.
FEMALE VOICE #3: I wanna be somebody.
MALE VOICE #8: I don't wanna die, I wanna live. (NOISE)
BILL MOYERS: I'm bill Moyers, no one really knows how many young people actually belong to gangs in America, but in reporting our series on violence, I was surprised at how many young men in women in prison told me their only real sense of family came from belonging to a gang.
It was, as a gang member, that they had committed their first and sometimes, only crime. In Utah, I met a 20-year veteran of law enforcement who is in charge of the unit that deals with gangs for the State Division of Investigation, Sergeant Ron Stallworth finds a close correlation between gang activity in Salt Lake City and the music known as gangster rap. His knowledge of gangs and the music they listen to has brought him many invitations to testify before police, civic groups and the United States Congress. (MUSIC) Some people say that the media have exaggerated the influence of gangs and the size of gangs, the membership of gangs and that really, a very small percentage of crimes are committed by gangs, very few of the homicides relatively are committed in that gangs are not as powerful as they are presented in mainstream media, what about that?
RON STALLWORTH: There's an element of truth to both sides. I think that gangs do have an influence in the mainstream, throughout mainstream America — far beyond what we imagine. Evidence of that is the fact that we have a gang problem in Salt Lake City, Utah, or in — in the heartland of this country.
Areas that stereotypically have never ever had a gang problem. And — it's important to recognize that gangs are a culture in and of themselves. Gang behavior is a learned behavior, it's not genetically inherited; and therefore, if you can learn this behavior, you can unlearn it. But what has been confined previously to the inner cities of this country, the downtrodden of this country, the minorities — of this country have now branched out and are impacting mainstream, rural white America.
And I believe, sad to say, that's one of the reasons why you have the — national response effort that is in place now. And — and there's a history being that, too. If you look at what has gone on in the past with the so called "war on drugs" starting with — President Nixon and the — and the heroin epidemic of the '70s, bring it — fast-forward to the — '80s and the crack cocaine epidemic, now let's fast-forward even further to the '90s.
The parallels have all been the same. It wasn't until any of these problems branched out and hit mainstream white America that you saw a government response of the magnitude that you're seeing now where gangs and all the other issues where drugs are concerned. And — and — and sad to say, that's an indictment against our society, but that's what has happened and there's a history behind it.
BILL MOYERS: Are there white gangs in Utah now?
RON STALLWORTH: Oh, yes, yes. A lot of — in Utah, a lot of our gang members — interestingly enough, are good, middle-class, white Mormon kids, and you would think because of the conservative nature of the state and the religion — the traditional family values that are — that are — routinely practiced, as a result of the religions beliefs here, you would think we wouldn't have that problem.
But that's not true, and that shows you the impact that this problem is having all across this country. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. And one of the things I — I mentioned back — when I testified in the Senate of February of this year, was that stereotypically, I should not have to deal with a gang problem in the state of Utah, because — the stereotype of a gang member is minority — generally, black, Hispanic — individuals, coming from a low-income — background.
Single-parent environment, that parent is usually mother, 'cause father flew the coop a long time ago. Well, that doesn't apply, the stereotype does not apply in Utah, because 93% of our population is white and 85% of it is — of the dominant — Mormon faith. So stereotypically, we should not have a gang problem in this state, but we have a significant one, per capita, it's — it's as bad as that in Los Angeles County.
BILL MOYERS: What counts for me? What's happening in America, as you see it, as one police sergeant — looking at it from the ground up, in a sense — what's happening in America that has brought about this phenomenon?
RON STALLWORTH: A lot of it has to do with — the breakdown of the family — you hear the routine things, the breakdown of the family, the — the — value structure that we've all, in — in the past, been — indoctrinated with. That's — that's kinda been torn asunder, because the family unit is no longer in place.
The — the nuclear family is no longer in place. I think that has a lot to do with it. But then, you go a bit further, and you look at the — the economy. I honestly believe that — the policies of the Regan Administration helped to contribute to a lot of this problem.
When they started tearing apart the programs like Head Start and — and — and food programs in — in the — inner city schools, a lot of these kids had nothing to — to fall back on. And — if you have nothing to fall back on, you resort to kind of like a jungle mentality for survival. And I honestly believe that's what has happened in the large part of this country. When you have that basic breakdown, these kids have just reached out for anything they could latch onto.
I like to equate what's going on today — where gangs are concerned, in — in terms of what went on when I was — a teenager during the Vietnam War era — we had the war to protest back then, I'm talking the late '60s, early '70s — we had the war to protest.
Women burned their bras, the rest of us burned our draft cards, we marched down with — "Down with Tricky Dick," things of that nature. That was our form of protest and rebellion. The music of that time reflected that, except it was — of a peaceful nature.
And when you talked about violence directed at — on the street, it was generally directed against institutions of government who were a part of the war effort; very rarely, if ever, was it directed against individuals. That's changed now. We don't have a (UNINTEL) if you will, that we can attach to, and so, the kids of today have reached out to this thing called "gangs," and they've made this thing called gangs they're — they're — they're baby, so to speak.
And so, they are — are becoming gangsters, they're expressing the ideals, the walk, the talk, if you will, of the gang culture, as it has been expressed and — and demonstrated over the — the — decades, if you will, in East Los Angeles, in South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, they're expressing these ideals a norm for their culture.
They don't have a Vietnam to protest. And — and as a part of expressing these ideals as — as a part of their culture, they're also picking up the gun. And therefore, you have the violence that's out there; and the violence is being directed not against institutions of government, per se, but against themselves and the average, innocent — bystander, who they call "mushrooms," because they're so insignificant they just brought it up where they shouldn't have belonged. So you kill a mushroom, big deal, big deal, that's my theory on it.
BILL MOYERS: How did you, a police sergeant, get interested in investigating music?
RON STALLWORTH: In 1989, when we formed out gang effort, I started seeing — kids on the streets of Salt Lake City — again, and I put this in quotes, "good, middle-class, white Mormon kids" who are expressing themselves in terms of gang cultural values.
And I started asking them, "What do you know about being a gang member? Where are you from?" I expected them to say Los Angeles or some place like that; instead, they were saying they were from Salt Lake City, Utah, or Oram, Utah, or Provo, Utah. Again, traditional places that had not had a problem like this and really should not.
So I, again, asked 'em, "What do you know about bein' a gang member?" and they told me, "From the music we listen to." I said, "What music?" They said, "Rap music." I said, "What kinda rap music?" They said, "Gangster rap." So at that point in time, I started listening to gangster rap music.
BILL MOYERS: Now you're listening to this gangster rap, what did ya hear?
RON STALLWORTH: What I heard was intense rage on the part of — the young black males that were putting this music out. I heard — them expressing, basically, the gang ideals, the gang value system, that value system encompasses — a kind of — a xenophobic attitude towards — a society, in general.
They believe in their own little world; their own little world is what's important. Anybody not a part of that world is considered foreign and therefore, an enemy. They believe in — the violence and racism that dominates this country. They believe that they are being oppressed by the political — white political power structure that dominates American society, from Washington all the way down to the municipal levels.
And therefore, if they are being oppressed by that political structure, they have no tie to that structure and they want that structure to be — done away with. I heard these kids talking about women in terms of — very demeaning terms as — "bitches and hoes — whore." And — that is the norm in their world in terms of referring to — to women, especially the woman, according to them, who is kind of a money grabber, all she wants from a man is material possessions, that's who they classify as a "hoe."
Their mothers, their — their — their family member, female family members who they like and have respect for, they consider "ladies, women," everyone else is either a bitch of a hoe. I was hearing these kids talking about — killing cops, that's a very dominant theme, killing cops, especially the black cop.
Why the black cop? Because we are viewed as sell-outs to — to our — our racial heritage; we have chosen to stand side-by-side with our white brother and officers, wear a badge, enforce the laws of the land, but those laws of the land are dominated and controlled by the white, racist power structure. Therefore, we are viewed as sell-outs to the system; therefore, they want us dead. All things being equal, they would — they — the way they advocated in the music, all things being equal, they would rather see me, a black cop, dead, than see you as a white cop, dead. After they kill me, then they'll go after you.
BILL MOYERS: I can understand if that's their world, why these lyrics speak to them in the inner city. But how about the appeal of gangster rap to the larger white community? It's the white kids who are buying all this music, is it not?
RON STALLWORTH: 70% to 75% of the music, according to the music industry surveys — are — is being purchased by — mainstream — mainstream, middle-class white youth. One of the things that came out of the Senate hearings this past February was that in 1992 — the last year figures were available, approximately $10 billion were — was grossed by the American music — industry.
Of that $10 billion, approximately $737 million and $1.37 billion was from rap music. There's no doubt in my mind, the bulk of that came from gangster rap music because of the popularity. It is the most popular genre of — rap music that's out there today, as we speak.
And — you talk about the popularity — this music appeals to the rebellious nature of these kids. Remember what I said earlier, they don't have a cause to latch onto, to rebel against; and so, when you go through that natural state of rebellion that all of us have gone through in our — in our lives at — at the teenage years, this has given these kids — an outlet, if you will.
It's expressing the anger that youth traditionally feel towards the — adults and the establishment, but it's expressing it in a way that has never been expressed before; they are using the strongest, most graphic, most explicit language to get that message across. So these kids are just following a rout — a routine pattern that has always been in society, in my opinion, in terms of — youthful rebellion. But where rap music, gangster rap music is concerned, they're not taking this music that is basically defining the value structure that has long been in existence in the inner cities of this country, but now, these kids are taking that value structure and applying it to themselves and it is becoming part of mainstream popular youth culture, in general.
So therefore, you have the white kids, who have this appeal, this allure that — that they're taking what has long been in the inner cities by the black and Hispanic — kids, and now, it's become theirs.
BILL MOYERS: Doesn't that diffuse it to some extent? Because what's real to the inner city kid in the music becomes just entertainment, fun — a ride for the middle-class suburban kid who's listening to it. It can't speak to his or her real life.
RON STALLWORTH: This music started in the inner cities by inner city kids for inner city kids, it was never meant to go mainstream. They were writing music about their world for themselves, but the white kids started listening to it and liked what they heard. They liked this rage, they liked this rebellion, they liked this expression, this defiance.
And so, they grabbed hold of it and made it their own. So now, you have white kids who are expressing the ideal of the inner — what had been the ideal of the inner cities, it has now become their ideal, as well.
BILL MOYERS: What — what's — what's scary about that to — to — to me, is that as you say in your book, there — the themes of gangster rap are so obvious, they glorify the gang lifestyle, the mentality, they glorify violence, they glorify racism, they glorify the psychotic, psychopathic personality. They — they glorify the black male sexual stereotype as a quote, "super lover," they glorify, as you said, the sexist, misogynist attitude toward women.
They — they glorify all of these destructive values and — and — and behaviors, and in so doing, they become a powerful form of entertainment. Now how do you make sense of that? What's — what's it say about our (NOISE) society?
RON STALLWORTH: That's why — I — that's one of the reasons, probably the main reason, I don't indict this music or indict the kids putting the music out. They are reflecting what has been the norm of their world, of their particular society, namely the — the — the environment that they have grown up in.
All of these things that I describe as primary themes, all of these things are norms for these kids because they are exposed on a daily basis, if you will, to this violence, to this attitude of racism and sexism. This is their perspective on the world. When you hear this music, you are hearing, in many respects, the autobiography of the person that's putting this particular song or that particular album out.
He's describing the world as he has seen it, as he views it now, and as he views it to — to continue to be in the future, unless a change takes place. What I'm trying to get the public to understand is that these kids are merely reflecting their world, and we need to stand up and listen to what they are saying.
It's not a pretty picture. They're painting a very ugly portrait of what American society is; there is a lot of truth to what these kids say, whether you agree with it personally or not is not the issue. We need to listen, and that's one of their criticisms about the mainstream is that no one has been listening to us. That's why when the so-called — uprising, the rebellion, the revolution in Los Angeles in April 29th, 1992, the Rodney King Riot, as we popularly call it, they view it as a rebellion and uprising, a revolution.
Why? Because they had been saying all along, "America, listen to us, conditions are bad for us, no one pays attention." And when those four LA officers — got off not g — were proven not guilty by the jury, the — the — the call ran out, "No justice, no peace."
So therefore, they — the — the inner city community that these rappers had been talking about, they felt no connection to this society, to this political structure; they felt no connection at all, they felt like they had absolutely nothing to lose. They exist under a col — what they call a "colonial siege mentality," s — the same way, in fact, it has been equated be some of these gangster rappers, the same way we, as — as a people existed in 1776, under British — rule, where we were an oppressed people, we colonials were oppressed.
So what did some of us do? We dressed up like Indians, we poured tea in the Boston H — Harbor, boom, a new nation was founded called the United States of America. Well, that's how a lot of these kids feel. They are not connected to this country and its oppressive, racist policies.
Therefore, when that call went out, "No justice, no peace," they r — they reacted in the only way they knew how, they destroyed that which was nearest to them, because they knew the government was gonna even come in and fix things, anyway. You take a prisoner in — in a jail cell, when he rebels, when he lashes out against conditions that he doesn't like, he destroys his environment. He tears his bed up; he destroys and possessions that may be in sight, 'cause it's all he has. Well, that's exactly what happened on April 29th, 1992, the people destroyed that which was closest to them, and they were making a statement. They were saying, "America, conditions are bad for us, we have no — we have no voice in this society, we are alienated, disenfranchised, somebody better stand up and listen to us."
Wh — what I'm trying to get across through my lectures and through the stuff that I write on this subject, is that for too long, have we, as mainstream America, responsible — so-called "responsible citizens," too long have we pushed these kids away from us. We had better learn to embrace them, to pull those 'em inward, because they do represent a very powerful voice in this society.
BILL MOYERS: That voice, expressed through the music, is only further alienating the dominant white culture; so isn't the gap growing larger and vaster because of the rap music?
RON STALLWORTH: Probably, because — and I would agree with that, and probably because the — the vast majority of white, mainstream culture is not taking the time to listen and trying to understand. All they hear, when they hear this music — all they hear is a four-letter word — a profanity here, or — or a negative reference to — people here or there, racist — racist lyrics and so forth.
They're not hearing the message that's coming before that and the message that comes after that. These kids are — are expressing this — message in the strong, graphic, explicit language, the profanity and such that they use, they're doing it for a reason.
One, it's a marketing tool, that's what the kids of today want to hear; they want to hear this strong expression of — of their discontent flow with four-letter words and with graphic, explicit references to the male/female anatomy. They want to hear it that way. So it's in essence, a marketing tool on the part of the rappers. Secondly, this is the language that a lot of these kids routinely — communicate with.
We — we tend to forget that that is a different world altogether than what you or I may be accustomed to from the — the backgrounds that we come from and where we exist right now in — in our lives. You go to any creative writing course in this country, at any university or private school, they will tell you, "Write about that which you know."
That's your strong point; that's the basis for your — for your understanding of — of world — world events. These kids are merely writing about that which they know, their world, based on their understanding and perspective of it, but they have this thing called "rap music" right now that's a monster. So they came at an ideal time; they're writing about their world, they're putting out their music and they're talking about their world as they understand it. And yet, we condemn them for that.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that this hard music, music about violence, glorifying violence, calling for the killing cops, do you think the music causes kids to commit violence?
RON STALLWORTH: I think the music is reflective of the anger and attitude that goes on in that community; take away the music, the anger and the attitude will still prevail, the music may reinforce it a little bit, but in and of itself, I do not believe that music is causing the violence.
And that's why I — I am not angry at this rappers, per se. I don't like a lot of their negative messages, as I've mentioned; I don't like what they're saying about women, especially black women, I don't like what they're saying about killing cops. I really don't like what they're saying about over — overthrowing the — the governmental institutions, no matter how warped some of 'em may be, (LAUGH) I don't agree with it.
What I am s — what I don't like is the fact that — the fact that is it the — fat cat music executives that control this industry, that in popularizing gangster rap music, we have learned that it is people sitting at the top of these — musical corporations, who are dictating to the bottom level, to these kids, that if you want to be signed to a contract, if you want to be a success, you've gotta come out hard.
You've gotta be hardcore; you've gotta deliver this message in — in a strong, graphic, explicit way; otherwise, we won't sign you. So you get a kid coming from the inner city who's never had nothing, if he had a chance to achieve something, why shouldn't he come out and start talking this way, acting this way, dressing this way? Because he'll become a millionaire, because a lot of these kids have — branched out. They are mainstream entertainers now, they're no longer confined to the rap industry.
They're making movies; they're doing — television commercials, TV series, they're putting out their rap music, they're endorsing products, they're opening their own line of — businesses, they're — opening their own — music — studios, record labels. They — they have branched out from the confines that they — have been accustomed to, and now, they're mainstream entertainers, they're corporations in and of themselves.
BILL MOYERS: The ironic tragedy is that the rappers do the music that expresses the rage that reflects the true reality; they make a fortune from it, but the reality doesn't change.
RON STALLWORTH: No, it really doesn't. However, one of the things I wrote about in my — my follow up book — 'cause there have been significant developments in gangster rap since the Rodney King uprising, is that a lot of these gangster rappers are now giving back to the community. They — they've achieved their fortune or are achieving their fortune, they are still connected to the community. Many of them — still live in the community, the — the inner cities that they came from.
A lot of them are starting to throw money back into — community improvement projects. Now whether they're doing this out of a genuine concern for that community or whether they're doing it to promote their own image and more — more — more to legitimize themselves in the establishments, I — I don't know.
BILL MOYERS: Do you advocate outlawing this music?
RON STALLWORTH: Rather than ban or censor it and then make these kids richer, let's study it, because they are telling us — they're — they've giving us — a window, if you will, into their world, about why the behavior pattern that governs inner city — the inner city environment among — blacks and Hispanics, why that has become so popular and is now out in the mainstream. They're telling us about this subculture called gangs and — and what its influence has been on their lives and why they, in fact, have the — fatalistic attitude about — their existence that they do.
Do you — talked to a young man earlier who said that — he believes he'd be dead by the age of 21; that is so indicative of the gang culture of today. These kinds honestly believe that by 21, no later than 25, they will be dead, so they want to achieve all that life can provide for them now.
They don't have time to wait, because they won't — there won't be a time for them to — to achieve any of this. So all of this stuff is being expressed in this music and I feel it's important that we study it, rather than push it away or ban it, censor it, embrace it. Learn from it.
BILL MOYERS: You're not condoning their violence, not exonerating it, not justifying it —
RON STALLWORTH: Not in the least; there is no excuse for a lot of the things that these kids are doing to one another, to society in general, especially to innocents — innocent citizens out there, no excuse for it whatsoever. But we have to understand and we have to — find some kind of common solution.
Pushing these kids away from us is not the answer; we've got to learn to open our arms, embrace them, these are our children. These are our babies whether we like it or not. And I — I mean, our — in — in — in the — overall scale of things, not just the black kid, the white kid or whatever, all of these kids represent our future, and we've got to stop pushing these kids away from us, we've got to give them an opportunity — a sense of hope for the future.
This transcript was entered on April 21, 2015.