By Robby Roks
“Keeping it real” is considered to be one of rap’s mantras and reflects the musical genre’s longstanding and complex relation with authenticity. The authenticity of rap artists – or “realness”, to put it into rap and street vernacular – tends to hinge on whether rappers (still) have a connection to the streets. Rap’s musical history – as I document in a forthcoming chapter in an edited volume on Music and Crime (Bovenkerk & Siegel, 2020) – illustrates that street and gang cultures are etched into the historical fabric of rap music, dating back to the origin of the musical genre in the public spaces of inner-city neighborhoods in the United States. Although some of these early (gangsta) rappers were embedded in street of gang culture and criminally involved, others grew up in crime and gang-ridden neighborhoods and were able to translate their dire circumstances into first-person narratives, without necessarily being part of the street or gang milieu. Moreover, the violent and misogyny in rap’s lyrical content was not just “a message from the streets”, but also “a message from the suits” in pursuit of monetary success on this newfound musical market. These foundations of rap music have spawned a musical culture in which themes of criminality and violence are considered genre conventions, similar to action-packed Hollywood movies.
In some cases, rappers’ performances could not be further from the truth. The recent controversy surrounding Brooklyn rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine – real name Daniel Hernandez – serves as a prime example. Since 2016, Tekashi 6ix9ine used his social media savviness to rapidly construct a “larger-than-life reputation as a proud public menace, a self-described “super villain” whose mere presence seemed to attract drama and gun violence”. This imagery is well captured in the lyrics of the song ‘‘Billy’ (2018) that has Tekashi 6ix9ine, in his distinctive, aggressive rap style, rapping about murder and being surrounded by groups of killers, as well as an abundance of references to gun violence. The video of ‘Billy’ (2018) – which to date has almost than 350 million streams on social media platform YouTube – features Tekashi 6ix9ine with his defining rainbow-colored hair and tattoo-covered face standing amidst a crowd of rowdy young black men who, judging by their red bandanas and hand signs, claim to be members of the Bloods. Backstage footage of the video shoot, carefully edited into the music video, shows the presence of law enforcement officials during the recording of the video. Based on the lyrics of ‘Billy’ (2018) and the accompanying video it seems like Tekashi 6ix9ine personifies the contemporary gangsta rap persona.
However, as New York Times journalist Watkins and Coscarelli (2018) painstakingly document in their article ‘The Rapid Rise and Sudden Fall of Tekashi 6ix9ine’ things were not as they seemed. Calling it “cautionary tale for hip-hop”, Watkins and Coscarelli (2018) show that Tekashi 6ix9ine went “from a lost Brooklyn teen, to a viral social media star, to an accused violent member of the Nine Trey Bloods”. In fact, Tekashi started rapping after the internet fame and “he appeared to pursue gang life to bolster his musical endeavors”. Moreover, as Watkins and Coscarelli (2018) describe “gang affiliations lent authenticity to a rap career rooted more in sensationalism than in biography or in raw talent”.
In November of 2018, Tekashi 6ix9ine was arrested on federal racketeering charges, amongst other things for drug trafficking offences, his alleged involvement in committing a number of violent crimes – including an attempted murder and armed robbery – and for being part a gang known as the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. In early 2019, Tekashi 6ix9ine pleaded guilty to the racketeering conspiracy and eight other charges for which he could face a minimum of 47 years in prison and which might even, in case of a maximum sentence, mean life imprisonment.
During this trial transcripts were made public, documenting how Tekashi 6ix9ine testified against fellow gang members of the Bloods. On social media, Tekashi 6ix9ine’s “snitching” – street slang for communicating with law enforcement agencies for a reward or reduced punishment– earned him the nickname “Tekashi Snitch 9”. Several high-profile rappers used their social media accounts to publicly voice their discontent about this a practice defying the code of the street, and in general the Internet had a field day creating a variety of hilarious memes. In general, the consensus among global rap audiences was that Tekashi 6ix9ine would never be taken seriously again as a rapper, if ever he would become a free man. However, because the rapper pleaded guilty and helped in convicting several gang members, in December of 2019 he was sentenced to serve just two years in prison.
In April 2020, Tekashi 6ix9ine, who reportedly suffers from a pre-existing asthma condition, was released from federal prison and set to serve out the remainder of his sentence under home confinement due the threat of the coronavirus. On May 8, 2020, the rapper almost broke the Internet. First by releasing his new record Gooba on YouTube, hitting over a 100 million streams within the first week. Even more impactful was his live session on Instagram. During this brief video, Tekashi 6ix9ine did not lose his antics and defining trolling behavior during his time in prison. Next to showing off both an array of expensive jewelry, he addressed the issue of snitching by stating:“Where was the loyalty when you were caught on the wiretap trying to kill me, where was the loyalty when you were trying to kidnap my mother, where was the loyalty when you stole a million dollars from me? Where was that? So who broke it first? I get it, don’t fight fire with fire. I’m sorry, but what did I do wrong?”. On May 12, 2020, he put the same line of reasoning up to vote on a poll on Instagram.
Some might argue that Tekashi 6ix9ine’s snitching is justified. Others might see it as yet another example of the way street culture is misused to gain notoriety and accumulate status and wealth. Tekashi 6ix9ine’s spilling the tea, both during trial and in his recent social media posts, might backfire. Although the rapper is currently in witness protection, people already leaked his whereabouts on social media, forcing a relocation. For criminologists, Tekashi 6ix9ine presents us with an interesting case highlighting the performativity of street credibility, and the intertwinement of rap music, the streets, gangs, violence, and eventually also law enforcement agencies. Specifically, it shows us that under the strains of hip hop’s global popularity and commercialization, and the current performativity of social media, “keeping it real” seems to have morphed into the act of “keeping it hyperreal”, with a quest beyond authenticity in constructing street credibility. Or, in the words of Tekashi 6ix9ine during his live session: “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t. Look at the viewers, look up. Two million. Numbers don’t lie”.