I’d ask young Black men why it’s more important to be “gangsta” than it is to be academically successful. Why are Black men that are successful considered sell-outs, and how do you expect equality to occur, in Britain, when this is the case?
Answer – Male point of view
Your suggestion that Black men aspire to be ‘gangsta’ is a false and dangerous narrative. If you spoke to 10 Black men from all ranges of the socioeconomic spectrum, you would very quickly realise that the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle is not an aspiration. The media often presents Black men as ‘gangsta’ because that is precisely the content privileged people demand.
This glorification of the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle in the media is due to the lucrative demand of non-black audiences. In 1991, by tracking record sales, American record labels discovered what is now common knowledge and continues to haunt the Black community. They found that male, primarily affluent white suburban youths were ‘devouring’ sensational tales of gangsta criminality and constituted the majority of the genre’s market share. They demanded narratives of ‘black-on-black violence, vicious misogyny and copious drug use’. Scholars highlight that the lucrative profits derived from the white youth continues to underline the marketing of rap music and ‘gangsta culture’.
The reality is, there is no link between one’s race and being ‘gangsta’. The social indicators for violent crimes are consistent around the country and have been for over 200 years; poverty, exposure to violence and domestic violence, lack of education and time spent in care. Moreover, studies have found that almost half of the people in prison were at some point in care as children or expelled from school. Race is not the prime indicator or even a valid indicator for propensity to be ‘gangsta’. The World Health Organisation recently dubbed Glasgow the ‘Murder Capital of Europe’. The Scottish government responded with a comprehensive public health-focused action plan which addressed the socioeconomic inequalities which lead to violent crime. Today, Glasgow is witnessing what the Financial Times call, a dramatic fall in violent crime.
No one can deny the existence of Mexican drug cartels, Chinese, Russian and Albanian mobs and the Italian Mafia, yet race is not put forward as a primary cause of these criminal enterprises. This weekend alone, at three illegal raves in the North of England, there were at least three reported stabbings. These stabbings are likely to be considered ‘gangsta’, however, the victims and the perpetrators were race was rightly not emphasised as the prime cause for the commission on the crime. In the same respect, it would be disingenuous to say crime committed by a Black person was primarily due to their race. However, that is how these stories are often portrayed by the media.
I have to reinforce that your assertion that it is important to be a ‘gangsta’ in our communities is absolutely incorrect. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of Black parents are highly strict and solely focused on their children’s educational success. Nevertheless, they face a constant battle that other communities do not. Studies have found that Black students are the most likely demographic to outperform the grades predicted by their teachers in their exams. This highlights a very real problem which haunts Black boys throughout our education; people often impose artificial limits on our potential and we are rarely pushed beyond those. These are the types of issues that underlie systemic racism. Despite this, Black British students with African ethnicity who receive free meals in London; the poorest sector of the youth, academically outperform white children of the same socioeconomic bracket at GCSE level and Black pupils are more likely to go to university. Nevertheless, race is not offered as the primary cause of these apparent successes. Again, suggesting that academic underperformance is race-based is to ignore a torrent of significant external factors that are impacting the academic attainment of these children. Think about access to opportunity, not race.
Socioeconomic factors are the main cause of the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle. Certain communities struggle to make ends meet every day, so if a ‘gangsta’ comes along and flashes their ill-gotten gains at the youth of these communities, it may appear to be the miracle they’ve been praying for. It is important to remember that these ‘gangstas’ are not likely to be at the top of their criminal organisation, they are likely to be at the bottom of very structured criminal enterprises. These enterprises purposely target poorer and disenfranchised communities as they know the allure of money has a greater effect on those who are suffering without. In his Sunday Times bestselling book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, British-Caribbean author and historian, Akala, recounts tales of his local ‘gangstas’ forbidding him to follow them down a life of crime and encouraging him to focus on his studies. Nobody grows up wanting to be a ‘gangsta’. It is essential that we address the socioeconomic factors that may force the youth into the lifestyle.
To address your point regarding Black men being ‘sell-outs’… This is the complete opposite of the truth. In the British corporate sector, Black men all over the country dedicate a huge amount of time to mentor, advise and lecture young Black men on how to make it in the city. They are and have always been, seen as heroes. Systemic racism has held back the Black community in the UK, but we are working every single day to support those who are not as fortunate as us and progress together.
Answer – Female point of view
This perception is something that truly needs addressing!
I, Elsa, look at my Black male friends and absolutely none of them aspire to the ‘gangsta’ life that you are referring to. They have all been pushed and have pushed themselves to excel in their education. Their parents would ground them if they got anything less than full marks! As a result, these men are some of the strongest, intelligent, witty and caring people I know and none of them are considered ‘sellouts’. However, the media paints a very different picture of what it means to be a Black man in the UK.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o said, “Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn’t sure it was a possibility”. Representation is everything. The more people that look like you that you see succeeding in positions you’d like to be in, the more possible it seems for you to succeed too.
Writer, musician and activist, Akala, develops this point in his book ‘Natives’, where he talks about going into schools in the UK and asking young Black boys what they would like to be when they are older. The vast majority answer footballer or rapper, whereas, in countries such as Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Ethiopia, the answers vary a lot more, as they see themselves reflected across society and not just on the football pitch or rapping. The ‘gangsta’ stereotype is a huge barrier many Black men have to break through to get anywhere.
The media has painted a picture of gangs being synonymous with ‘Black culture’ whatever ‘Black culture’ may be. If you look at the top 50 most violent cities in the world, the vast majority are in the Americas, where, due to political corruption and instability, many financial collapses, as well as huge class divides, there is a higher rate of people turning to organised crime instead of starvation. There are no more than three cities in Africa – the continent that houses 17% of the global population – that make it into the top 50 most violent cities, all of which are located in South Africa, a country where until very recently the racial and class divide was firmly embedded in their political system and aggressively enforced.
In the UK, unfortunately, ‘gangsta’ life is a reality for many people considered to be of a lower class, however, this is regardless of race, as a person can only have so many doors slammed in their face before the reality of needing to support their families means that they become victims of their surroundings. This is true for many poorer neighbourhoods in cities across the UK from Southampton to Glasgow. This is absolutely not a question of race, but a question of class. However, a lot of the media loves a scapegoat so they have painted it as a ‘black’ issue as it avoids addressing the actual issue which is poverty, lack of opportunities and class division.
In the case of Black people becoming successful, I don’t believe that they are seen as sellouts, but I do believe that they have had to hold their tongue and not react to racial insults and setbacks they are confronted with on the way to the top. This being said, this is far from the reality of all the estimated 1.3 billion Black men and women in the world today. It’s like saying that your reality and aspirations are equal to that of all White People, which is also not true.
I’d also like to comment on your last point which is, ‘How do we expect equality to occur?’ The truth is that equality was never part of the plan here in Britain. This is something that is blatantly obvious through centralised power. Britain was not designed with social equality in mind. Our class divide goes deeper than skin colour, however, imagine all the barriers faced by working-class families that have been trying to build themselves up for centuries.
Take a small jump back 20/30 years ago and look at how black footballers were treated, even though they are deemed as “heroes”. They regularly endured having banana skins thrown at them on the pitch, and receiving bullets in the mail. Even today it is still all too common to have black players receive a cacophony of monkey chants.
Any type of acceptance of black people in modern society is very new and limited to only a certain few. There are still plenty of doors that are still to be opened up for black & ethnic minority groups in this country. They are way behind their white peers – so a lot needs to be done until equality can occur, but it is possible.
I would recommend that you listen to and read the lyrics of rappers such as Stormzy (especially in his album Heavy is the Head), Akala and Dave (check out his song Black) who are highly respected intellectuals who spread knowledge and discuss eloquently what is is to be Black and British today.