Rolling Loud Needs to be the Last Time the NYPD Criminalizes Artists

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TAYLOR MASI/THE OBSERVER

The NYPD sent a letter to the Rolling Loud music festival requesting that five of the acts be removed stating that they had been involved in recent city violence.

By ALYANA VERA, Staff Writer

The weekend of Oct. 12, Rolling Loud held its inaugural New York City festival at Citi Field. What was meant to be a celebration of hip hop — more than 40 years after it was founded in the Bronx — was tempered by the news that five acts had been pulled at the recommendation of the NYPD.

Just days before the festival, it was revealed that the NYPD had sent a letter on Oct. 9 requesting that performers 22GZ, Casanova, Pop Smoke, Sheff G and Don Q be prevented from playing. The NYPD cited concerns over safety, with assistant chief Martin Morales writing, “The above listed performers have been affiliated with recent acts of violence citywide. The New York City Police Department believes that if these individuals are allowed to perform, there will be a higher risk of violence.” 

Who is considered a threat, and how does the NYPD arrive at this designation? The NYPD’s letter doesn’t cite any specifics in terms of “recent acts of violence,” and the NYPD’s bar for labeling rap acts as a security risk seems low given the department’s fraught history with the black community. 

Hip hop is an undeniably black cultural product — one with deep roots in impoverished, urban areas — and policing hip hop is just another expression of the hyper-surveillance of black communities. Black artists and the crowds they attract get scrutinized more than their white counterparts, and the cultural subtext of this scrutiny is the idea that there is something inherently dangerous about hip hop. 

Villianizing rap is not a new phenomenon, and certainly not one exclusive to the NYPD. For Rose Hill’s 2017 Spring Weekend performance, then-president of CAB Stephen Esposito told The Fordham Ram that it was easier to find an indie artist that fit into “Jesuit values” than a rap act because indie artists use less vulgar and profane language in their lyrics. That year Timeflies, a white rap duo, was chosen to headline. 

Esposito’s quote is not only a broad statement about a genre with extreme variety, but it is also one that plays into the narrative that rap music is aggressive and violent, as the NYPD’s letter does. This letter will undoubtedly have more widespread repercussions for the hip hop scene in New York City. Already, sources have told Complex that other concerts by the artists removed from Rolling Loud have been pulled in response to the NYPD’s letter. 

The fact is that the NYPD doesn’t have to send this letter to every venue that is hosting an artist that they deem to be a safety concern: venues will hedge their bets and cancel shows or refuse to have acts play instead. This has already happened in Boston, where a WBUR report on the hip hop scene found that artists are routinely shut out of venues and opportunities because of concerns about security. 

The report details an instance where one venue applied for a liquor license and was cautioned about noise and security, at which point the owner assuaged the commission by saying he wouldn’t play “dangerous music”: that venue later instated a de facto “no hip hop” policy. Boston provides New York City a glimpse at the future of its local hip hop scene — one that has historically produced the genre’s biggest acts — if the NYPD continues to push the link between hip hop and violence.

The NYPD already has a unit dedicated to designating hip hop shows as “low, medium, or high risk for violence or other crimes,” according to the New York Post. Although meant as a preventative effort, this unit punishes artists before a crime has even been committed with the implicit assumption that crime will occur.

For artists who were gang-affiliated or served time, this means that the actions of their past will continue to haunt them long afterward. For the genre, high police scrutiny means that hip hop shows will be immediately flagged and regarded with suspicion as security risks. The stigmatization of hip hop by the police is a dangerous step towards suppression and censorship: you only need to look to the treatment of drill in the UK to see how this plays out.

Drill, a genre of rap started as a cultural export from Chicago, has become characterized by its blunt, often caustic portrayal of inner-city life. Its rise has charted along with a spike in knife crime across the UK, and in the face of mounting public pressure to address the violence, the police have turned drill into a scapegoat. 

The Independent reported that Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick directly linked the recent rise in knife crime to drill, as she said of the genre, “you will see these are associated with lyrics which are about glamourising violence, serious violence.” Under her leadership, the police have requested that YouTube remove as many as 60 drill music videos based on their ability to “incite violence.” 

Drill artists have also had their lyrics used against them in court and even had their lyrics censored, all in the name of preventing violence. Of course, this all relies on the shaky premise that a rapper’s song content is factual, a standard that is not applied to artists in other genres. The Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport detailed the extent to which over-policing has affected artists in a report that revealed the persistent prejudice against “urban acts.”

In the report, rapper Shaodow describes one of his shows getting canceled at short notice after the venue heard his music; the venue cited concerns about having their license revoked for hosting him because of the music he played. Small venues are pressured by both the police and the local licensing authorities to avoid hosting hip hop acts, making it hard for these acts to book shows. In a statement to the committee, Jane Beese, the head of music at the London venue The Roundhouse, said “There is still an amount of what I believe to be institutionalised racism, which is hindering that scene rather than allowing it to flourish.”

The effect of seeing hip hop as violent, or promoting violence, can be seen in both Boston and the UK; this negative association has suppressed the local music scenes in their respective areas. Further letters from the NYPD that assert a link between music and crime could cause the same to happen here in New York City. Venues may start to turn away local acts, and the police may gain further authority over an artist’s work, from what they can say to where they can play. Rap is the biggest genre in the United States right now, with New York City natives like Cardi B and A$AP Rocky routinely topping the charts. If the NYPD continues to send the message that hip hop is dangerous, they risk running the genre back underground in the very city that birthed it.