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News & Events Archive

Brown Bag Lecture series. . .

“Black Zombies: Conceptions of Death in Rap”

Presented by Langston Wilkins, first-year MA student in AAADS
April 13, 2007

Langston Collin Wilkins has followed the progression of rap music since he was a child in Texas. Focusing for his brown bag talk on the gangsta rap of 1988 to 1997, he stated that "death is the true black sheep in every family." Death cannot be contained or defeated. It claims all races, all peoples, and, he added, it is a recurring theme in gangsta rap.

Because it reflects the circumstances of a collective group and the horrific violence that characterizes too many lives, Wilkins said, gangsta rap during this period should be seen as documentary rather than as biography. Death is an artistic symbol in rap of what happens to black men in American society. Gangsta rap celebrates street life in the ghetto, documenting tragic but everyday events in the lives of some of America's most marginalized citizens.

Wilkins categorized three types of "death" that are represented in rap - and at times in the lives of the rappers themselves. Using several rappers to illustrate his points, he demonstrated the themes of physical death," "mental death," and "social death." In a PowerPoint presentation, he showed the rap lyrics on screen while playing snippets of actual performances.

Whether physical, mental, or social, the deaths presented in rap are rooted in a disconnection from society, especially from mainstream America. All are characterized by early drug use and early physical death or long-time incarceration. Murder is a recurring theme, as well, usually taking place without hesitation or question.

Wilkins chose Tupac Shakur to illustrate the theme of physical death. Tupac's music often depicted death and predictions of death. He spoke often of his own mortality, writing of his own funeral (although, contrary to his lyrics, he was cremated). Tupac's obsession with death reflected his place in the outside world. Other rappers seemed obsessed with physical death too, including Notorious B.I.G., whose lyrics of depression showed his readiness to die and his acceptance of death. To this day, the actual deaths of Tupac and B.I.G. stand as the main icons of that period of gangsta rap.

Wilkins said that mental health has been a taboo concept in the African American community, and the need for mental health assistance is viewed negatively. In addition, he said, there has historically been low access to health care of all sorts. Yet, in rap, depression and suicide, the incidence of which is high among young black men, are common topics. He cited "Mind Playin' Tricks" by the Geto Boyz as the "preeminent mental health song in rap." He gave Ganksta NIP as another example of a rapper using "mental death" in his lyrics.

Physical death and mental death, said Wilkins, are products of the conditions that keep African Americans from living the "normal" American life. But it is, he said, the social area that contains the most threatening conditions. The ghetto, being disconnected from mainstream America, becomes separated into a kind of social death that encompasses both the physical and mental death. This social death is reflected in the works of rapper Ice Cube. Ice Cube critiques ghetto life and social conditions and expresses the anger that fuels the self-destruction of young African American men. Wilkins used Ice Cube's "Bird in the Hand" as a primary example of that anger, as when Ice Cube says that "a bird" (cocaine) is "better than" a Bush (U.S. president).

Wilkins ended his talk by reiterating that rappers represent the ghetto-ized black men who are daily succumbing to the conditions that lead to social, mental, and physical death. He also noted that, while not included in his topic, the issues of commodification of rap music and musicians and the representation of women in rap lyrics and the "thug life" are significant - and he plans to pursue those topics in future.