The Function of a Gunshot in Rap Music

The gunshot halts our ignorance.
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The Function of a Gunshot in Rap Music, 2019

Every time a gun goes off in a rap song and gives the listener pause, we have the opportunity to hone in on that sound bite and ask ourselves what can be made of the boom and the following silence. That is, the gunshot has the potential to force a largely detached, white, suburban audience to face itself. The gunshot has the potential to challenge and eliminate the white gaze.

I remember a time when I was in Bushwick, and it was the height of summer. It was sweltering and I was sweating in the apartment home of my then girlfriend. The two of us, and another couple, were crowded in her broom-closet bedroom beside an open window, and we listened as gunshots rang out from across the way. Around the corner, perhaps, or up the block. It doesn’t matter. One of us asked if it sounded like the gun had a silencer. Another said something to the tune of it being the season of “gunshots or fireworks.” 

This is what the white gaze looks like: a commodification of real lives and real deaths, real gunshots, and real fear. It’s toxic and destructive, but I have to believe it can be combated.

I think of Chance The Rapper spitting: “It just got warm out, this the shit I've been warned 'bout / I hope that it storm in the mornin', I hope that it's pourin' out / I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks / And I ponder what's worseand the truth that for some fireworks are just a sound, and summer is only a season. For others, fireworks and summer are warning signs, false alarms, triggers. The gunshot in the rap song brings us all that; takes us there. Makes us alert. Makes us scared. Makes us open and willing to comprehend.

We must believe that people can be made to face their ignorance. Where plenty of rap fans exist in a different sphere from the street dreams and nightmares that make up the DNA of their favorite hip-hop music, every time a gun goes off in a rap song, it has the potential to be political.

The questions are numerous: What are we meant to think when guns go off? What are we made to question? And most importantly, what can we be made to understand? The gunshot forces us to go beyond the white gaze and the commodification. It’s not so easy to ignore or laugh off.

Both 2 Chainz and Boogie have used startling gunshots to begin their most recent albums and make important statements about the gravity of their material. Opening your album with a gunshot not only grabs our attention, but it also communicates that we are listening to serious music that demands our attention and our respect.

What we are listening to is not just entertainment, but is a crucial undertaking for the artist. The shot provides an instant conviction, and as images of life and mortality come to mind, we realize that music is life or death for many artists. So much hangs in the balance when it comes to hip-hop, and it must be treated with care.

Most importantly, the shot reminds us that hip-hop culture is tied to real-world happenings. It is not an imagined thing we consume, but a culture born of real deprivation-turned-innovation, and undeniable Black American resolve. Hip-hop is born of communities that face real struggles, that these raps are not fictions nor are they guides, they are simply hard truths that predominantly white audiences can ignore by sinking into a beat or by pressing the skip button.

The gunshot halts this ignorance. The gunshot forces us to realize we are consuming a culture that is not our own from the comfort of our headphones while real lives are being lost because of the racist systems propagating inequality. The gunshot forces us to recognize that the violence rapped about in hip-hop is not accidental and makes us question what role do we—the royal “we”—play in the violence against the Black body that is so native to the fabric of America. The gunshot blows out our ears and opens our eyes, making us more prepared for the truth of the matter.

In that breath, both 2 Chainz’ Rap or Go to the League and Boogie’s Everythings For Sale play as—at least in part—troubled records. For 2 Chainz, the gunshot on “Forgiven” represents two types of death in the streets, something Chainz preaches against prior to the poem outro. The poem here is critical because it speaks to how easy it is to consume Black culture without having to confront the realities of Black life in America.

'Cause you know them love black boys dancin' / And singin' and ballin' / You know them love black boys' strength / But don't love black boys” goes the poem, that is, until it’s cut off by police demanding the subject put their hands up. That is until the gunshot.

The first type of death we can read here is what Chainz directly conflicts with, in an earnest tone, saying “If you're doin' somethin' to make your parents have to bury you / You may want to slow down.” Connecting the gunshot to this line, we get the sense that state-mandated street violence is obviously killer. Linking back to the title, what Chainz communicates with this motif is that Black boys are given few options in this country to make something of themselves, and the streets may be seen as the best option. Rap of Go to the League hopes to subvert that systemic truth.

The second read of the gunshot places the onus on the royal “we” I mentioned earlier. That is, we are forced to face the brutal reality of police violence against Black Americans. We are also forced to face ourselves when we realize that we are the “them” of the poem.

How easy it is to consume Black culture and not bat an eye to violence against the Black body? If we wish to be responsible consumers and occupy a productive space in the culture, however, we cannot do that. The gunshot shocks us, but it should also be a call to arms. We must be better than the image the gunshot summons.

Similarly, Boogie’s Everythings for Sale album opens with a gunshot that carries multiple meanings. The first and most obvious is that Boogie is murdered in cold blood, mid-sentence. We get this read pretty easily from him saying “I'm tired of questioning if God real, I wanna get murdered already.” 

Much like 2 Chainz’ gunshot, this speaks to the violent reality behind every rap song about drug dealing. This speaks to the truth behind every bar about gangbanging. Hip-hop exists as more than a musical statement, it is a reflection of a community that stands in the face of a ravenous nation. Much like 2 Chainz’ gunshot, we are forced to appreciate that reality. This is a lesson in empathy.

Secondarily, though, Boogie’s gunshot is a commentary on Black mental health, and how it is not taken as seriously as it should be. Listening to the tone of “Tired/Reflections,” the track is frustrated and despondent. Boogie is altogether tired of himself and is airing out his grievances. By the time the gunshot arrives, he has rattled off a list of qualms about his person with a fervor that leads us to believe Boogie could very well be his own murderer.

Particularly, the bar “I'm tired of working at myself, I wanna be perfect already” allows us to conclude Boogie is sick of himself to an alarming degree. So he is on both sides of the gun. Now, the gunshot makes us question how many lives are lost because Black mental health is grossly underlooked.

Of course, Boogie is not the only artist raising these questions. As G Herbo told us last year:

“Acknowledgment, you know? Just acknowledging people with mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress is more so what I’m trying to touch on in Chicago… When you witnessing murders or you in the midst of seeing people close to you get killed in the line of gunfire, nine times out of 10, you become traumatized and that’s post-traumatic stress disorder. People say we’re crazy for behaving the way we behave or doing certain things, or having certain qualities about yourself that people outlaw you… People go through it, veterans go through it and they’re not crazy.”

Opening an album with a gunshot grabs our attention and brings us into the scene of the music, but more importantly, it brings us into the real-world ramifications and reflections that hip-hop music provides.

We want authentic artists that live their truth in every bar, but do we want to face what that truth looks like on a day-to-day basis for these artists?

The presence of this choice is the presence of the white gaze, the ability to remove yourself from the scene of the music and comfortably be an outsider to a culture. The gunshot does not give us the choice, because there should be no choice.

If you want the music, you should have to stay for the reality. It is altogether irresponsible to try to have one without the other.

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