One night in 2004, my college boyfriend called me from inside a closet in a north Toronto housing project. It was the time of day that can be described either as late night or early morning, and I instinctively knew my role in the routine phone chain: Let his mom know he’s all good. He was hiding from several squad cars’ worth of police, who had busted down the door to his friends’ house in search of drugs and brown-skinned men to cart off. It was a raid that presumably followed an investigation, but it was also a well-publicized piece of performance linked as much to politics as it was criminal justice. Appearing tough on crime pays.
The next morning, local media replayed footage of the scene: A handful of boys and men, some roused from their sleep, were paraded in handcuffs. One of them had not been given time to get dressed; he was perp-walked wearing only a pair of boxers. Some of those boys had committed crimes, others hadn’t. Regardless, few had been given any reason to believe they could build a life for themselves beyond the streets. A cliché becomes a cliché by first being a basic truth.
The images from that night a decade ago, and eerily similar ones that span years and geography, are all I could think about when a photo of the arrest of Brooklyn rapper Bobby Shmurda began circulating late last week. Bobby, his rap partner and childhood friend Rowdy Rebel, and a dozen other members of their GS9 crew were rounded up at New York City’s Quad studios, facing 69 charges to which they all have pleaded not guilty. Bobby himself faces five charges on eight counts, including narcotics and weapons charges, conspiracy to commit second-degree assault, and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder.
His lawyer, Howard Greenberg, disputes the allegations, linking Bobby’s case to the mandate of the so-called hip-hop police, a nebulous, if not mythical, NYPD task force thought to focus on rappers and their entourages. “He doesn’t have time for this bullshit; it makes no sense. He’s making more money legit than it’s possible to make, it’s crazy. My guys are legit, end of story. Give me a fuckin’ break. But he’s a target,” Greenberg told XXL.
“Let me give you some context,” Greenberg said. “The government hates rap and the government hates rappers. They target these guys and construct a narrative around them and then they rationalize the narrative in order to get an indictment. I had said previously, it’s a bunch of bullshit.”
The news of Bobby’s charges first came to my attention on Twitter in the form of a series of cheap jokes premised on the arrest photo and lyrics from his breakout hit “Hot N—.” Some immediately treated the young rapper as a punchline, turning his awkward posture in the photo into a meme. But for many of us, for whom Bobby can be any number of boys we’ve known and loved, the photo was a collective heartbreak. We see generations’ worth of pain, fear, and desperation. We see the effects of a state that spends more money per capita on prisons than it does on education. We see a system that will indict a 20-year-old for selling crack but not a police officer for choking the life out of a citizen. We don’t see a joke.
Bobby’s arrest is more a disappointment than it is a surprise. In “Hot N—,” the song that launched his now-stalled career this summer, Bobby raps that he’s “been selling crack since like the fifth grade.” It’s either a hyperbolic boast, a casual statement of fact, or both. The song quickly became a viral hit, accelerated by six-second Vine clips mashing up a clip of his now-famous “shmoney dance” with unlikely songs. Pushed by the Internet, it reached radio and club DJs and peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard charts. Within a few summer weeks, “Hot N—” had become an inescapable pop-culture phenomenon and Bobby landed a major record deal.
Still, his street involvement was no secret—he acknowledged in interviews that his music was a representation of his corner of East Flatbush, which he described as full of gangsters. Despite all the gun talk in “Hot N—,” everyone wanted a piece of him and his magic. Night after night, we threw up fake gun fingers in the club, benefiting from the misery that spawned the song, without having to reckon with how it came to be that a fifth grader could be working a corner.
The primary question of Bobby’s brief career so far has been whether he will last. Was “Hot N—” just a one-off hit? Did he get lucky? Does he have any real talent that will propel him further? Is his record deal with Epic the beginning of a sustainable career, or just a symptom of an opportunistic industry ready to latch on to a potential money-maker?
When we ask these questions, what we’re really asking is whether Bobby and his crew are enjoying 15 minutes of doomed Internet fame, or whether they have stumbled on something akin to salvation, something signifying an escape from the trap that is cyclical poverty. In nearly every interview with the 20-year-old, he refers to the notion of making money legit and of finally getting off the block.
In an August interview with The FADER, Bobby talked about being able to take care of his father, who is locked up somewhere down South. “Now he ain’t gotta be hungry no more, he know a n— got him. What he been through, we all been through that shit.”
Earlier in the summer, during an appearance on Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning, Bobby and Rowdy acknowledged the circumstances of their ascent. “You gotta understand where we go back to. We can’t get that full excitement until we get them big houses, big cars, and we got everybody with us off of the block,” said Rowdy, crystallizing the pair’s perspective on the future.
“I don’t want to sell drugs. I’m tired of getting in trouble. I’m tired of being on the block,” Bobby said.
And, in a rare moment of lucid reasoning, Hot 97’s Ebro spoke about Bobby and Rowdy like they’re not in the room, summing their situation this way: “Music might be the only thing that’s gonna save these two young men’s lives.”
There are millions of stories that end with black boys in jail cells. Sometimes my old friends cross my mind, along with the insides of courtrooms, precinct numbers, legal terminology quickly learned out of necessity. I don’t think of them often, though, because unlike Bobby Shmurda and boys like him, I have the privilege of suppressing memories that aren’t convenient. The closer Bobby came to sustaining a life through music, the realer that once far-off dream became, the more those inconvenient memories would have receded for him, too.