On the eve of Halloween while teaching a Berkeley class of second graders, the discussion naturally turned to the costumes the kids planned to wear on Halloween day. One of the boys grinned, with arms crossed and head tilted to the side.
“I’m gonna be a gangster!” he declared. Most of the other children laughed in excited delight. A few stole glances at me to see whether I approved or not.
I tried to keep the feeling of shock and dismay from appearing on my face. I didn’t want to seem harsh or judgmental. I simply wanted to know why this was the young boy’s choice.
“What’s a gangster?” I led.
Some of the children laughed a bit nervously, not quite sure how to define the word.
“What’s so good about being a gangster?” I prodded.
“Gangsters are cool,” one boy proclaimed.
“Yeah,” another agreed. “They have money and guns and bling and they get the ladies.”
Both boys and girls giggled at that.
“Are you gonna have a gun?” one boy asked the proclaimed Halloween gangster.
“Yeah, but not a real one,” he replied. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have even a play gun at all,” I said. “Someone could think it’s a real gun and you could get into real trouble. You know, guns just lead to violence. And I’m not so sure you want to look like someone who does violent or hurtful things.”
After a moment of silence a few other kids offered descriptions of their less dangerous costume choices. I then had them all go to their desks and draw themselves in these costumes. The illustration on this page came from one of two boys who drew themselves as a “hip hop gangsters” (their term).
I collected their drawings and had them follow me to my desk. Both drawings depicted them dressed as a rapper named “50 Cent” and firing a gun, complete with bullets spewing from its barrel. One drawing showed a falling hand dropping its gun. Both had curse words written across the top.
A profound feeling of sadness overtook me as I looked into their handsome brown faces. They were actually very sweet boys; sensitive and polite. They reminded me of my own son. And they reminded me of two fourth-grade boys I had taught in Richmond two years ago. I had the class imagine where they would be ten years from now and draw that scene. One boy drew himself in a prison. Another drew his father shooting him to death.
“What do you think of these words?” I gently asked.
They looked at me quizzically and shrugged, seemingly oblivious to any sense of wrongdoing or inappropriateness.
“What would your parents or families think of these words?” I asked. “That’s how my uncle talks,” responded one. “When my father’s home, he uses those words, too,” said the other.
These boys come from communities bombarded by images full of saggy, prison-style pants, bling, grills, degradation of women, homophobia, the glorification of fast money and smoking guns. I’m not saying that all rap or hip hop is negative. Some of its poets are intelligent, well-informed and talented. However, those who receive the most air-play are decidedly not.
I recently learned that one of the most popular local hip hop radio stations, KMEL is also owned by mega-conglomerate Clear Channel, which also owns talk radio station KNEW, home to numerous right-wing, racist and homophobic radio “personalities.” Coincidence? I think not. Their programming is targeted to specific audiences for specific purposes—ultimately to make a profit through advertising. By virtue of playing lyrics with predominantly negative, self-destructive messages, Clear Channel contributes to making anti-social attitudes and behaviors the “norm” in many communities which are most isolated and in need of information and assistance.
When I weed through all of the election materials piled up by my front door, I wonder which of these candidates, which of these measures are going to help these kids and their families? Of course, Measure A comes closest. As an artist and writer, I’m happy to see school money going to fund the arts, libraries, music and other enrichment programs. However, what I really want to see is more money set aside for family outreach and education. You can have the most wonderful library in the world but if a child isn’t accustomed to picking up a book, what good is it? It seems to me that most of the neighborhood groups coming out against Measure A are comprised of adults who can afford to send their children to private schools and/or supplement their children’s education with all sorts of opportunities and experiences and/or adults without school age children who prefer not to spend their tax dollars on ours. What many do not get is that it is imperative that we care about all of Berkeley’s children, not just those who look like us or live in our neighborhoods. If we don’t exercise care now, we will definitely care later when these same kids grow up to become problems in our society. Each one can be so much more than that.
When I got home that day, I showed the drawings to my 12-year-old son and one of his friends. They laughed.
“I don’t like 50 Cent. Who’s 50 Cent? I’m all about the dollars!” My son joked. When they understood that I had some serious concerns, they became more serious as well.
“That’s just what they grew up by,” Jason’s friend said. “I used to be bad like that ... they just want bling and money because they probably don’t have anything ... they steal and smoke and stuff cause they’ll do anything to get attention.”
“Yeah,” said Jason. “And the songs brainwash you into thinking that stuff is cool.”
“What would you say to one of these kids if he told you he wanted to grow up to be like 50 Cent?” I asked.
“I’d tell him ‘if you think he’s cool, then you’re not cool.’”
“Me too,” Jason chorused. Smart boys.
Parents need to be taught how to parent. Children need better role models than 50 Cent. And we all need to redefine “cool.”