In the last year or two rapper 50 Cent has emerged as a born-again philanthropist of sorts, openly declaring his intention to Feed A Billion kids in Africa in partnership with the World Food Program and swooping in to refugee camps in Somalia and elsewhere to show his face and pose with hungry kids. The photo ops have undoubtedly helped to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis in question–as well as 50’s Street King initiative, most accurately described as ‘semi-charitable.’ Just today a new PSA in support of Feeding America hit the rap blogs, a radio spot juxtaposing 50’s voice with gently-strummed acoustic guitar and the heartland accent of Scott–a beneficiary of the Food Bank program that’s being advertised. In case you had not already picked up on it, the wholesomeness of the project is communicated by the single stalk of wheat sprouting from the Feeding America logo (below).
As if to underscore just how far this new persona has carried 50, both geographically and karmic-ly, from his own roots, the same day Okayplayer and LargeUp contributor Rishi Nath published an excellent piece on the Open City online magazine titled Ghetto Qu’ran. Using Curtis’ own lyrics as a guidebook, the piece sketches the geography of South Jamaica, Queens through the blood-feuds of the “cocaine eighties” in an ongoing oral history project dedicated to the unsung borough. Wheatfields and acoustic guitars are nowhere to be found, and the only feeding going on is the predatory kind, as 50 relates with blunt eloquence in his track “Gunz Come Out”:
Its real killa instinct, kill or be killed
Trust me, you don’t wanna feel how hollow tips feel
F**k around and get ya cap peeled
n***a you know the drill, Brownsville
Flatbush, Crown Heights, Brooklyn Zoo
Feed the wolves, they eat the food
And the hand that fed ’em too
n***a welcome to the jungle, New York, New York
Gangstas use sign language and let their guns talk
In the excerpt reprinted below (after the jump), Nath follows traces the violence which exploded in drug wars between urban legends like Supreme and FatCat –and almost consumed 50 himself, when he was famously shot 9 times at the very onset of his major label career–back to the ethos of “bloody Edgefield,” South Carolina. Although it is hard to reconcile the neighborly philanthropist of the Feeding America spot to the unblinking chronicler of drug violence in “Ghetto Qu’ran,” taken together they add up to a pretty compelling portrait of America–the aspiration, degradation, violence and ultimately the redemption. Or at least a commercial for redemption.
South Jamaica and the Great Migration
The code of honor would persist and deeply influence all those who lived in Edgefield. Honor, along with violence, was part of the region’s heritage.
—All God’s Children, Fox Butterfield
Friction between a rising rap superstar and fading coke don might now seem strange, but it arose from two different neighborhood eras colliding. During the Great Migration, African Americans who came to South Jamaica—harshly described by author Ethan Brown as a “lower class hell”—found few opportunities in an area already marked as poor, and black. Some early arrivals found some city jobs (both ‘Preme and Fat Cat’s parents were MTA workers) but by the early eighties, many had been driven into the drug trade. After a decade-and-a-half, the unsustainable, cannibalistic business of sacrificing one portion of a community to feed another had exhausted itself. The rap business had matured, and Queens groups like the Lost Boyz, Mobb Deep, and Capone-n-Noreaga dug deep into the stories and tragedies of the guns and cocaine era to fashion their music.
Queens was a tertiary destination for Southern migrants. “People [migrated] from places like Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia, with some from Alabama. Migrants would have first moved to Harlem, and later to central Brooklyn. When that got too crowded, or when families accumulated enough means, they eventually relocated to Queens and Long Island to escape the overcrowding,” says Josh Guild, professor of history and black studies at Princeton University. South Jamaica, however, offered none of the hope of nearby Hollis or Long Island.
Although hip-hop aesthetics did much to mask the southern roots of its progenitors—such as adopting European sneaker brands and Black Muslim numerology (“It’s about the modern,” says Guild)—neighborhoods like Jamaica retained much of the migrant character. Even now, small-town churches protrude from buildings, nestle in corners, and emerge from unexpected places along Sutphin Boulevard. Restaurants serving “South Carolina style” can still be found. 50 Cent often used slang and drawl that comported with his Southern competitors. In the introduction to his VH1 special “The Origin of Me”, he tells his grandmother: “When I be talking sometime I use South Carolina slang… I get that from you.”
Even the urban, northern violence of the eighties had its origins in the hyper-violent world of the nineteenth-century South—the white South. In All God’s Children (1995), Pulitzer-prize winning author Fox Butterfield traces the lineage of Willie Bosket, considered the most violent prisoner in the New York correctional system (Bosket committed 200 crimes, including several murders, before he was fifteen). Butterfield discovers that Willie’s black ancestors lived in Edgefield, South Carolina, known then as “bloody Edgefield.” There, the white population murdered each other at astonishing rates, in gun duels and surprise attacks. After Emancipation, they terrorized blacks to maintain their social position. Willie’s ancestors took up guns to defend themselves against this threat, then kept their guns as a way of life. Bosket’s great-grandfather, Pud reportedly said to a foe he trounced, “Don’t step on my reputation. My name is all I got, so I got to keep it.”
The connection to the bloody conflicts in South Jamaica a century later is more than theoretical. Fat Cat and his enforcer Pappy Mason were born in Alabama. In “The Origin of Me,” when 50 returns to his grandmother’s ancestral home to search out his roots, he goes to Edgefield—the same small and hyper-violent South Carolina town Butterfield studied.
The struggle between 50 and Supreme—who himself had begun to produce music—was a struggle for the control of a new economy; between a don who wanted to tell stories, and the storyteller who would become don. In a way, 50 is a link to the era of black American migration to South Jamaica, the violence that befell those who came, and the strange marriage of drugs and music that followed. He may be the last. -Rishi Nath