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Covering Up for Killers

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON-Critics of vulgar, violent gangster-style rap music make a mistake when they write off the rap stars as stupid, immoral and self-destructive. They may be immoral and self-destructive, but they're not stupid. As one of my readers observed in a thoughtful e-mail, they're making a rational economic choice.

"I had to stop and ask this question to myself," my reader wrote in an e-mail, "would I call my mother a 'ho' or my sister a 'bitch' if I could make a couple of million dollars and get out of poverty and live a pretty good life? Makes you wanna say, 'hmmm.'."

Hmmm, indeed. In fact, in a line of work that dangles the riches of a Saudi Arabian prince in front of impressionable kids, some rappers will sell out more than their mamas. They'll even cover up for killers.

"Stop Snitchin' " has metastasized into a popular hip-hop generation slogan. Unlike earlier generations of poor ethnic communities that zipped their lips around the police, the "Stop Snitchin' " message is displayed on T-shirts, rap music videos and Internet sites, boosted further by a booming entertainment industry's money and marketing machines.

In an advance copy of a CBS "60 Minutes" report that I received before it airs tonight, the rap star Cameron "Cam'ron" Giles tells reporter Anderson Cooper that cooperation with police would violate his "code of ethics."

Besides, he also says, "with the type of business I'm in, it would definitely hurt my business."

That lopsided logic helps to explain why Giles and his entourage have refused to cooperate even with those police who are looking for the man who shot Giles. Twice.

An attacker shot him in both arms while the rap star was sitting in his flashy blue Lamborghini at a red light in Washington, D.C., in October 2005. According to the Washington Post, Giles managed to drive away, explaining later, "I didn't give up the car because I paid $250,000 for it."

Nevertheless, rumors swirled in local media that Giles might have staged the whole thing to raise his "street cred," the credibility that pumps up music and ticket sales in the weird culture that surrounds his line of work.

Cooper asks Giles if he'd inform police of "a serial killer living next door." No way, says the rapper, "But I'd probably move." Gee, thanks, Cam.

A similarly twisted ethos showed itself after gunfire erupted during a Brooklyn video shoot by another popular rapper, Busta Rhymes, alias Trevor Tahiem Smith Jr., in February 2006. Israel Ramirez, one of Rhyme's bodyguards fell dead. As many as 25 witnesses saw it happen, police say, but none cooperated with investigators and the crime remains unsolved. Is this their idea of serving their community?

Yet, keeping mum can bring rewards. The rapper L'il Kim, for example, went to jail for perjury because she refused to implicate members of her entourage in a shooting. But before she reported to the slammer, Black Entertainment Television made her the center of a "reality" show. It turned out to be one of the cable network's most popular programs, although a crime expert in Cooper's report called it "big business selling death."

Rap is big business. Giles, for example, is distributed through Asylum Records, a subdivision of Time Warner Inc., the world's largest media conglomerate. Rhymes is distributed through Interscope, a label of the Universal Music Group, one of the largest companies in the recording industry.

Other music forms also were created out of painful circumstances. But pioneering blues singers, for example, did not strive to return to the cotton fields. Gangster rappers, by contrast, milk the gangster pose, the appearance of keeping at least one foot in the criminal underclass. The lure of big bucks removes all shame from their game.

When community support erodes, good citizens who try to do the right thing risk severe punishment. The most outrageously tragic example that I have run across in recent years was Baltimore's Angela Dawson. The married mother of five testified against a local drug dealer in October 2002. Two weeks later the dealer set fire to her home as the family slept. Both parents and all five children died.

The killer pleaded guilty to avoid a possible death sentence. According to Juan Williams' best-selling book, "Enough," the drug dealer had vowed to kill Mrs. Dawson for "snitching on people."

"You don't need someone destroying you when your own people are the worst messengers possible," says Geoffrey Canada, an anti-violence organizer in Harlem who mentored Busta Rhyme's late bodyguard. "And this is what black people in America have not come to grips with."

We can turn back the tide. Start snitching.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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