“…Beat the p**** up, like Emmett Till”—Lil Wayne (w. Future), “Karate
Rapper Lil’ Wayne (Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.) is embroiled in a controversy over lyrics referencing murder victim Emmett Till, whose death by lynching in 1955 served as a galvanizing agent for America’s civil rights activism.
The lyrics– specifically, a 16 bar verse– come from a remix that Wayne, 30, participated on with Epic/Sony recording artist Future, on the single “Karate Chop”.
Despite the fact that the single was never officially released (it was apparently leaked via the Internet) the public criticism has been so
vehement that Epic Records responded by indicating that the company is taking “great efforts” to remove it from public access. Surviving members of the Till family have publicly demanded an apology.
At least one prominent musician has publicly taken issue with the lyrics. “You can’t equate that to Emmett Till,” said Stevie Wonder. “You just cannot do that. … I think you got to have someone around you… even if they are the same age or older — is wiser to say, ‘Yo, that’s not happening.”
In 1955, Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago visiting family in the Mississippi Delta when a chance encounter with a passing white woman eventually led to Till’s kidnapping from the family home a few days later. He was eventually found dead, brutally beaten and his head misshapen. Two men put on trial for the murder were acquitted, and—protected by double jeopardy—infamously admitted to their own guilt in a later interview. In the years to follow, poems, songs, and an ongoing assortment of civil rights gatherings and demonstrations referenced Till as a martyr for the civil rights cause.
This is an ongoing problem in hip-hop and other urban-culture entertainment, where certain celebrities seem to be oblivious to history, and fan culture seems to be more and more accepting of an anything-goes creative aesthetic, even if it seems to fly in the face of common sense and heretofore basic standards of respect. When pushback occurs for anything offensive that is done or said, the party in question tends to claim a persecution complex, or that his “freedom of speech” trumps all, regardless of the inanity of what he is being scrutinized for. Even certain personalities have come to think of themselves as “social activists” by virtue of their celebrity status– despite never participating in any sort of public demonstration or protest, phone call campaign, letter-writing campaign, local government meetings, or really anything that might have a genuine context reflective of an involved citizen.
Buying holiday turkeys, winter coats or even computers for a classroom doesn’t make somebody MLK or Malcolm X. Being reckless in one’s travel habits and getting busted for possession-based gun and drug charges doesn’t make somebody H. Rap Brown or Huey Newton. In 1955 Jim Crow-era New Orleans (where Wayne is from), he could have easily met the same fate as an Emmett Till, whether in his teen years or now at age 30. Hip-hop’s younger generations have made ritual of giving props to “the homies that didn’t make it” via pouring liquor and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with photos of the recently deceased. If Wayne, Future and others were really cognizant of giving honor to the dead, they would not be so casual in engaging in throwaway punchlines that mock those whose bloodshed helped clear the way for the relative freedoms that are enjoyed now.