A performance by rapper T.I. came to an abrupt end before it even started on Wednesday night, when shots were fired backstage at the New York City music venue Irving Plaza, leaving one person dead and three, including Brooklyn rapper Troy Ave, wounded. On Thursday morning, New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton addressed the incident in a radio interview during which he reheated a set of talking points that seemed to have fallen out of fashion, even in conservative circles, more than a decade ago.
During the segment, which aired on AM news station WCBS 880 and was captured byBuzzFeed, Bratton described the violence at T.I.’s show as an inevitable byproduct of hip-hop culture—or, as he called it, “the crazy world of these so-called rap artists.” Bratton, who is 68, referred to rappers as “basically thugs” who “celebrate violence” that “oftentimes manifests itself during their performances.”
Asked by host Wayne Cabot whether he had thought these kinds of “problems in the rap world and the thug culture” were a relic of the 1990s, Bratton said no, and invoked the 2014 arrest of “Hot Boy” rapper Bobby Shmurda on conspiracy charges as one reason he never let himself get naïve about the dangers of hip-hop.
“Him and his cast of characters were involved in a whole series of crimes and shootings that we allege,” Bratton said of Shmurda, who was the subject of a lengthy GQ piece published yesterday. “No, this world has not reformed.”
It may seem almost banal at this point to condemn curmudgeonly braying about “so-called rap artists”: More than 12 years after Bill O’Reilly took Cam’ron to task for rapping about “pimping and bitches, among other things” (thus prompting Cam’ron to utter his now iconic retort “You mad?”), it’s obvious to anyone with minimal cultural literacy that dismissing all of hip-hop as a chaotic hotbed for violence is dumb at best and racist at worst.
And yet it would be wrong to write off Bratton’s comments as the irrelevant ramblings of an out-of-touch old grump—just the latest instance of “Old Man Yells at Cloud.” For one thing, this particular out-of-touch old man runs New York City’s police department, which means his beliefs about people who make and listen to rap have the potential to shape the city’s approach to law enforcement.
But Bratton’s comments are worrisome for another reason, too. At a time when a race-baiting demagogue like Donald Trump is ascendant, an influential U.S. senator can give a speech saying the U.S. has an “under-incarceration problem,” and a theory that blames the murder spike in Chicago and Baltimore on Black Lives Matter protestors can gain widespread acceptance, it’s clear that the moment is ripe for a return to the sort of unabashed fearmongering that one would like to think was gone for good.
On its own, Bratton’s casually toxic rhetoric might best be understood as an irrelevant anachronism. Under the circumstances, it makes more sense to see it as yet another instance of old, worn-out ideas getting a second wind. And tiresome as it may be to call out this sort of throwback bigotry and stereotyping, it has enough potential resonance to deserve more than an eye-roll and a “You mad?” It’s worth taking seriously.