I spoke this weekend to a group of aspiring college students in a group called "Black Achievers." The group invited me to speak, because I talk regularly about the value of education as well as confronting the structural obstacles that make it difficult for our kids to find success.
One thing I brought to the table that the students and their parents might not have expected, though, is the need for us to confront the destructive elements of hip-hop culture, which teach our good kids that "keeping it real" is something that should be done at all costs, even when it causes them to lose their lives.
The reason I brought this issue to the forefront of the discussion was because of young women like Afrika Owes (pictured).
Afrika is a 17-year-old who was once headed to an Ivy League school, but rather than going to anyone's university, she may be spending most of her adult life in prison.
Afrika was recently arrested for being part of a drug ring controlled by her boyfriend, who allegedly ran the operation from the penitentiary. "Head shots only," he would reportedly tell her from behind bars as he detailed how he wanted people to be executed.
"She loves him," a source said in court, "and she's prepared to adjust her Ivy League dreams around him."
According to police, Owes and her boyfriend were part of the 137th Street Crew, a gang in Harlem that is being charged with selling crack and other drugs in the community. They were not only charged with dealing drugs, but also with bringing in young women to carry their weapons for them. The men allegedly ran the drug operation from Rikers Island prison.
"She's a good girl," said Karen Owes. "This may be what's happening right now, but we're going to get through this ...She's well-liked and well-loved."
Afrika is hardly the kind of young woman you'd expect to be involved in any kind of illegal activity. She'd won a poetry contest and a scholarship to Deerfield Academy, a prestigious prep-school with a tuition cost of $43,800 per year. She was also a vocal member of the school's Black Student Coalition.
"She was a highly ambitious girl," said prep school pal Lotanna Uzo. "Everybody knew who she was. Everybody liked her ... always had a smile on her face."
The indictment, which is 51 pages, presents Afrika in a Bonnie and Clyde role with her boyfriend, Jaquan "Jay Cash" Layne.
She was jailed during the month of February as part of a crack down on street gangs in the community. Rev. Calvin Butts, a prominent pastor in Harlem, has spoken out in support of Afrika without saying that she is innocent. According to Pastor Butts, the young woman was led astray and he says that the church is going to investigate.
Writers such as Thomas Williams have claimed that hip-hop culture is a driving force behind the incredibly bad choices being made by women like Afrika Owes.
Williams points out songs like Beyonce's "Soldier," which tells young women that they should desire men from the street and that a way to show loyalty is to stand by that man even as he makes choices that might get you both killed.
He also accuses black scholars like Cornel West and President Barack Obama of legitimizing the street hustler mentality with public validation of rappers like Jay-Z and others, who readily brag about their days of selling dope on the corner.
As a fan of hip-hop myself, I cannot entirely endorse the position of Mr. Williams, but I certainly understand where he is coming from: life and art imitate each other. I, too, am tired of seeing yet another overly tatooed wannabe thug, with his pants sagging below the waist, thinking that carrying a gun and impregnating women every other month is the proper way to live.
Many hip-hop artists have been positioned by corporate America to mass market self-destruction to African-American males, and our boys are buying into it.
The same is true for the persistent images of black male athletes in media, leading to nearly every black boy wanting to either bust rhymes or shoot jump shots for a living. Young girls like Afrika, who already have a natural attraction to exciting bad boys who often end up in prison, are also sucked in to this cultural tornado that leads to the loss of valuable black human capital.
At the same time, we must realize that Afrika Owes' incredibly poor decisions are not reflective of the majority of young people her age. Instead of simply blaming hip-hop for giving her an incentive to make poor choices, we can also conclude that she is a typical "good girl gone bad."
This year alone, white Ivy League students have been busted in drug rings at both Columbia University and Cornell, so we can't presume that a black kid who makes good grades should somehow be immune to the disease that is blatant stupidity.
Making Afrika's plight a matter of race or a clear-cut indictment of hip-hop as a whole would be incomplete. There are millions of hip-hop fans who are no less influenced by the music than they are by a typical mafia movie. For black folks who are trying to find our collective soul, we are somehow led to believe that having educational or economic success automatically makes you into a good and productive human being. In many cases, one has almost nothing to do with the other.
The verdict? Afrika's story is simply sad. We'd be lying to ourselves if we didn't acknowledge the fact that the very worst of hip-hop has created a generation of kids who are quicker to open the bottle of Cristal than they are to crack open a textbook. We all fully understand that in our culture there is work to be done, and millions of otherwise productive young minds have been effectively poisoned.
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Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. To follow Dr. Boyce on Facebook, please click here.