I am a graduate of a St. Louis City high school and I have worked with at-risk youth in the city for six years. Therefore, I believe I am equipped to speak with some authority in defense of the St. Louis juvenocrats. Nelly and the St. Lunatics' music is only a reflection of the current crisis within the city. Presently, the Saint Louis City Public School system has a less than 50% graduation rate from its high schools. The relocation of the Chrysler Plant from the city's predominantly Black north side to the far suburban city of Wentzville creates an economic vacuum in terms of both the tax base and employment for the city. The absence of semi-skilled labor opportunities, which denies youth access to a living wage during non-school hours, leads to youth delinquency. Some youth turn to the "underground economy" that is always hiring. For nearly the last 10 years, St. Louis has been ranked in the top ten American cities for murders and other violent crimes. Five of those years were spent among the top five cities.
Ice Cube's now classic album Death Certificate paid homage to St. Louis in the cut "Summer Vacation." The song describes a South Central Los Angeles drug dealer and gang member leaving the saturated drug market of South Central for St. Louis. By the end of the song, young brothers are "dying for streets they never heard of." This reference is to the rise of Bloods and Crips street gang violence in the sleepy mid-western town. DJ Quick quipped in the early '90s that, "St. Louis is just like Compton." This is another riff on the high levels of violence and limited opportunity for urban youth in the city.
Nelly's reference to a "street sweeper" in the album version of Country Grammar has been a particular point of contention for the city police. However, Nelly and the sale of over 5 million records did not cause the proliferation of weapons on the streets. It is linked to poor law enforcement during [Clarence] Harmon's years as the chief of police in the city of St. Louis and poor public policy during John Ashcroft's years as Governor and State Attorney General.
In fact, Nelly still faces the racial bias of black male criminality and he affirms this reality in "Greed, Hate and Envy": "What the hell y'all fuckin' wit me for, the speed limit is 30 and I doing 34," blasts Nelly to law enforcement. Even when young black urban youth are doing the right thing they are subject to a continuum of police harassment, ranging from unwarranted detainments to full-fledged body and car searches. Many African-American males, regardless of background, can attest to racial profiling. As a teenager in the late '80s in St. Louis, I was harassed on a number of occasions by police for being the right color in the wrong neighborhood.
One of the most humiliating experiences of my life took place when my friend and I were on our way to pick up our dates. Before we reached our destination, the police stopped us and frisked us, and one cop went as far as sticking his hand into the underwear of my friend. We were not thugs (and even thugs have rights when they are not criminally engaged). We were two adolescents with fresh haircuts, hoping to get lucky. Nothing we did warranted such a violation of our civil rights and humanity. This took place over ten years ago.
Whenever African-Americans are automatically classified as criminals, lives are in danger for there are some law enforcement officers that are ready and willing to assume their roles as state vigilantes. St. Louis police officers acted in a vigilante capacity when they brutally beat Derrick Bell, a mentally retarded man; when they shot Garland Carter in the back; when they gunned down unarmed Ronald Beasley and Walter Murry. Two of these modern lynchings pre-date the release of Nelly's Country Grammar by at least 3 years.
Thus, Nelly and other juvenocratic Hip-Hop artists are not creating a crisis, they verbalize the conditions in blunt, yet lyrical, rhythms. Moreover, Nelly's lyrics are no more problematic to the city's image than the political machine, which fuels the crisis. In fact, Nelly and the St. Lunatics show a kind of profound love for the gateway city. They constantly mention the city's landmarks while highlighting its contradictions. The mayor's [Clarence Harmon's] denial of the proclamation to Nelly is not only a slight to the highest selling artist for the city since Chuck Berry; it is a denial of the current youth and overall crisis in the city.
St. Louis is as "ghetto" as New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. These de-industrialized cities have experienced the loss of semi-skilled labor, the decline of recreational space, increased youth unemployment, the expansion of the underground economy, and the urban military siege. The urbanization of youth poverty is told explicitly, eagerly, and existentially in the stories of each city's respective urban poets. What is sad yet prophetic is that the Hip-Hop utterances of 20 years ago are still appropriate in today's urban settings. It clearly denotes that very little amelioration in terms of community building has occurred. In fact, the behavior of some cities suggests that there is a denial to recognize juvenocrats as viable citizens in our urban spaces. Will we hear their pain and heed their call to "check ourselves before we wreck ourselves?"
[Excerpted from "Urban Souls," published 2001 by Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou and Urban Press, St. Louis, Missouri. Available at Left Bank Books.]
Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is an ordained Baptist minister, actor, counselor, educator, author and social activist who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, their two sons and another baby on the way.