Editorial: "We got to police ourselves": Takeoff and gun violence in America's hiphop community
Editorial by Will Kingston-Cox
This article was written by Will Kingston-Cox on the murder of Takeoff, a well-known artist. Kingston-Cox provides us with a tribute piece for the blog whilst highlighting a wider issue that should be discussed on a larger platform- the culture of hip-hop and its links to gun violence in the US. He begins with a tribute to the artist and then dives deeper into the discussion of the culture and the issues that the music community promotes.
In the early hours of Tuesday 1 November 2022, Kirshnik Khari Ball – better known as Takeoff – was fatally shot outside a bowling alley in Houston, Texas. As one-third of the hugely successful and influential group Migos, alongside his uncle Quavo and cousin Offset, Takeoff was not only a pioneer in the Atlanta rap scene, but the wider American hip-hop community. His untimely, tragic death has devastated his family, peers, and fans (for which I am one), as well as sending shockwaves across the American nation. It also demonstrates the real obligation on the community itself, as opposed to US policymakers, to tackle the scourge of gun violence that pervades American hip-hop.
Before I elaborate into the recent history and politics of gun violence in relation to American rap music, it is only just that I pay tribute to Takeoff. Born in Lawrenceville, Georgia in 1994 (around 30 miles northeast of Atlanta), Takeoff was raised with his uncle Quavo (only three years his senior) by Quavo’s mother. Both Quavo and Takeoff began honing their musical style from a young age, with Takeoff being quoted as “put[ting] the most early hours into the craft of rapping”, inspired by the likes of Tupac and Biggie – poignantly, both died from gun violence in 1996 and 1997, respectively.
In 2013, Migos released Versace, their first mainstream hit, which was voted by Billboard among the 100 songs that defined the decade. The single would go on to become one of the most influential tracks in recent hip-hop music history, with the “Migos flow” - rapid triplets interspersed with trademark adlibs – becoming a defining feature of modern rap music.
The Migos reached international stardom with their 2016 hit single ‘Bad and Boujee’, featuring Lil Uzi Vert, kickstarting an enriched, prosperous career. The rap trio subsequently released the critically acclaimed trilogy of Culture albums, with various hits such as ‘MotorSport’, ‘Stir Fry’ and ‘Walk It Talk It’, cementing the Migos's status as ‘rap royalty’. As a solo artist, Takeoff had two significant releases: his 2018 solo album The Last Rocket which debuted at number four in the US, and his latest release Only Built for Infinity Links with Quavo, published less than a month before Takeoff’s death. All of Takeoff’s musical projects exuded real talent and flair. It is indisputable that Takeoff was a gifted young man.
It is a tragedy that such an accomplished artist was taken in such a violently arbitrary manner. For many, Takeoff was regarded as the most talented of the Migos, the most lyrical. Years of chart domination and worldwide fame, notwithstanding the production of legendary music which will continue to influence America’s hip-hop scene for years to come, has now come to a regrettable end. It is fair to say Takeoff, and the Migos, deserved a much better ending.
Sadly, Takeoff’s killing is shocking but unsurprising. 2022 has been a catastrophic year for hip-hop and gun violence, in trend with recent years. Senselessness has too often caused misery. In February, Snootie Wild, best known for his hit-single ‘Yayo’, was shot and killed in Houston. On 27 July, JayDaYoungan, a pioneer in the ‘mumble rap’ genre, was murdered in Bogalusa, Louisiana, just days after his 24th birthday. The latest hip-hop tragedy this year, prior to Takeoff’s killing, was the shooting of PnB Rock in Los Angeles back in September.
2022’s murderous streak only compounds a litany of gun violence that has plagued the hip-hop community, losing major figures such as Young Dolph, King Von, and Pop Smoke in 2020, and XXXTentacion and Nipsey Hussle in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The one common denominator? Talented, young African American musicians losing their lives unnecessarily to pernicious gun violence.
Journalist Justin Tinsley surmised the crisis facing hip-hop succinctly: “If hip-hop is to survive, then the art must do so. And if the art is to survive, then artists have to live. Tragically, this won’t be the last article about a young rapper whose life was cut short too soon”. So how does the American hip-hop community, then, tackle this miserable affliction of gun violence and the premature deaths of its pioneers?
Unfortunately, the answer is not so clear-cut. Gun violence, and the glamorization of such, is entrenched within the culture, lyrics, and audience of American hip-hop since its inception back in the 1990s. Whilst many artists claim the ‘glamorization’ is merely a reflection of the lives they lead or have led, the normalization of gun violence in hip-hop music, as it becomes one of America’s most popular genres, roots the problem societally.
However, scholars, such as A.D. Carson, have raised warnings of ‘vilifying’ rappers as “sources of the crisis of violence in America” and not blaming their music “that reflects it”. In this view, it is not rap music that has created the scourge of gun violence, but rather that rap music and its lyrics are a byproduct of the current gun situation in the US. Either way, the way in which hip-hop and gun violence has become intrinsically linked compounds the problem facing the community in tackling gun violence against its own.
Moreover, police and investigators, since the emergence of hip-hop and rap culture, face an “anti-snitch culture”, similar to that of the Mafia’s Omertà. It was only in 2020 did Quavo appear on a posthumous track by Pop Smoke entitled ‘Snitching’, “which decried ‘rats’ and talking to the police”. The problem is therefore rooted within the culture and the community, to its own detriment.
Furthermore, the influence of social media plays a central role in the spiraling violence seen within the hip-hop community. Artists seek to ‘flex’ - to show off their wealth, status, weaponry – to the “detriment of their safety.” Whilst some are only too happy to see their peers become successful, with overt ‘flexing’ comes jealousy and anger. Often, this is the jealousy and anger of strangers which can have fatal consequences.
In February 2020, a day before the armed robbery that took his life, Pop Smoke and his friend Michael Durodola posted a series of images on social media of the Airbnb they were renting – that of Real Housewives star Teddi Mellenchamp. In the social media posts, both the location of where Pop Smoke was staying and the luxurious items in his possession – cash and jewellery – were made public. Such information fell into the hands of Pop Smoke’s killers, with the intent of robbing the artist.
Now, this is not to say ‘flexing’ warrants gun violence, but the inducement of jealousy, covetousness, and anger that such public displays of wealth can conjure within the African American community provides a causal link between current attitudes within the hip-hop community and the prevalence of gun violence.
So how does America’s hip-hop community tackle the scourge of gun violence which plagues itself from within?
Houston police chief Troy Finner’s approach is one that I would consider the only effective option. When addressing a press conference on the death of Takeoff, Finner urged the hip-hop community that “we got to police ourselves...and we all need to stand together and make sure nobody tears down that industry.” Finner’s call for sensibility and calm within the community is wise. Takeoff’s life was lost to a disagreement over a game of dice; a disagreement that did not, in any shape or form, require guns to be fired indiscriminately.
If left for US federal agencies, such as the FBI, to enforce a ‘crackdown’ on gun crime, it is reasonable to assume a high degree of racial profiling in attempting to reduce gun crime. Whilst “black and brown Americans are disproportionately harmed by the direct and indirect consequences of gun violence”, federal attempts to combat such gun violence will, in turn, have the paradoxical effect of worsening the problem. The potential to perpetuate the prison-industrial complex and exacerbate the disproportionate population of African American men in the US prison system is great.
Thus, we must make the point that those within the rap scene have agency themselves. Only when the glamorization of gun violence, the necessity to ‘flex’, and the unwillingness to cooperate with authorities to tackle the scourge of gun violence within both the African American and hip-hop communities, becomes consigned to the history books can this murderous, lamentable era come to an end. It is my sincere hope that if any good is to come from the tragic death of Takeoff, it will be the awakening of many hip-hop artists, and their fans, to the notion that life does not have to be like this, and that it is themselves who can change it. Future generations are watching; this cannot be the precedent.
For more information on the prevention of gun violence, please visit:
This is a foundation that has been set up in Takeoff's memory to prevent gun violence. Thank you.