When Philip K. Dick was conducting research for his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the book that would become Blade Runner—he came across the diaries of an SS officer at one of the Nazi concentration camps. "The screams of children keep me awake at night," the officer once wrote dispassionately, as if it were a nuisance along the lines of a noisy neighbor. This repressive dissociation, this lack of empathy for the suffering of his fellow human beings, provided the inspiration for the dramatic conflict between the humans and replicants in Blade Runner. In a system where the horrific happens every day, it's disturbingly easy to rationalize the status quo.
This week The New York Times published an article on the travails of Bobby Shmurda, the Epic Records recording artist now facing serious time and held on $2 million bail for "gang conspiracy and gun charges." In the piece, Shmurda's lawyer suggests that his record label's seeming unwillingness to supply bail money is hypocritical: “These companies for years have capitalized and made millions and millions of dollars from kids in the inner city portraying their plight to the rest of the world. To take advantage of that and exploit it from a business standpoint and then turn your back is disingenuous, to say the least.”
Shmurda's lawyer is stoking a common criticism of record labels who fund, then capitalize upon, street rap: that the companies benefit from societal dysfunction, but never pay the cost. It's a tension that goes back decades; while Interscope's Jimmy Iovine pocketed the money at the top of a lucrative pyramid, 2Pac paid for his success with his life. Many artists and commentators have criticized the major label system over the years for its role in perpetuating a dynamic where boardrooms benefit from dramatic street stories while averting their consequences. Today, a cursory glance at social media reveals numerous arguments that Shmurda's label has a moral obligation—if not a business one—to front the $2 million bail. After all, they profited from Shmurda's outlaw image.
Of course, reports suggest that Shmurda was already in trouble well before Epic intervened, propelling his "Hot Nigga" single into the upper reaches of Top 40. The Times suggests the city of New York had been investigating his GS9 clique since 2013, prior to Shmurda's meteoric rise. Ebro Darden, who first played "Hot Nigga" at Hot 97, tweeted at the time of the arrest that "Shmurda told me they were coming for him the moment we played his tune… Was trying to get what he could while he could." The details of Shmurda's deal with Epic—specifically, how much he and his family have benefited from the record's success—aren't widely known, although it's hard to believe a record like "Hot Nigga" would have been propelled to mass popularity without Epic's muscle behind it; today, major labels remain the primary movers behind what singles receive national airplay (a problem of its own, but beyond the scope of the discussion here).
The focus on Epic Records is scapegoating, a response to our collective guilt over the rapper's tragic situation.
But the label's decision not to supply Shmurda's bail money has simply made them an easy target for a bout of social media self-righteousness. This is not to suggest that this campaign is wrong per se. If public anger at the label washing its hands of Shmurda will force Epic to backpedal, then more power to them. No one needs to waste time sympathizing with those executives who temporarily confused a business investment for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program; they made the bed in which they sleep. But the continued attention to a music label—as if there were some kind of guidance they could have offered that would have helped the rapper avoid all this trouble—is naive. The focus on Epic Records is scapegoating, a response to our collective guilt over the rapper's tragic situation—a situation that is replicated day-to-day across America, with or without hit records.
After all, when the fallout from Shmurda's arrest first hit the wire, social media was filled with mocking reactions and memes. So much so that Meek Mill, feeling defensive on his behalf, was inspired to tweet in response:
This a different era when people laugh at a kid losing his freedom! #weirdos and I'm not up for comments yall different than us!— Meek Mill (@MeekMill) December 18, 2014
This kind of disrespect isn't harmful because it lacks decorum; there was also plenty of sympathetic hand-wringing surrounding his arrest that was just as thoughtless. The entire discussion is built upon a false choice, one that speaks to our broader treatment of the people—particularly poor people, especially poor people of color—who are shuttled into our penal system. The "left" would argue that Shmurda was a product of circumstance, an innocent young man who is a victim of broader social ills—as if, if we solved the problems of poverty and racism, this lifestyle would have no pull. The "right" argues that the "left"'s reading denies Shmurda agency; that he made his choices, and now must pay the cost. If those choices happen to include gun crimes, he must be crazy, a monster—so much the better that he's locked up.
Both sides see Shmurda's behavior as pathological: the "left" as a result of circumstance, the "right" as a conscious decision. Either way, the end result is dehumanizing. Shmurda is not a victim of circumstance working in a broken system, nor is he crazy. Quite the opposite: Bobby Shmurda is a rational actor within a system working exactly as it's supposed to. Pathologizing Bobby Shmurda, as we pathologize everyone shoveled directly through the school-to-prison pipeline, is our own moral justification for imprisoning so many young people: a release valve, a logical shortcut to rationalize having denied him and so many others the same opportunities we've received.
The lifestyle Shmurda was drawn to is not separate from the one depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street. That film, though derided for reveling in the very real pull of capitalism's urgent imperative to earn money and live a lavish lifestyle, ultimately pulls back in the film's last scene and turns the camera upon the audience. Solving poverty—if such a thing were possible in the current system, which it certainly is not—does not free anyone from the temptations of wealth and success. If it did, there would be no multimillionaire CEOs; or if there were, they'd come directly from Shmurda's neighborhood, not the Ivy League. Bobby Shmurda was chasing the same dream American capitalism has promised everyone else. Whether he was aware or not that the deck was rigged is beside the point.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him at @somanyshrimp.