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Wannabe Gangstas: A Cautionary Tale

A column by Cedric Sunray that compares African American magazines to Native American magazines.

If you are more familiar with Native Peoples and This Week From Indian Country Today magazines than XXL or The Source, you may want to take a closer look. After facilitating workshops for tribal teenagers this past month, as I have many days and weeks throughout my life, the issue of older family and community members being out of touch with youth realities was once again enforced.

During workshops I typically lay down numerous contemporary magazines at the tables where the youth congregate in order to facilitate discussions on the power of media within their lives. Ninety percent of the time, the latest issue of XXL (which can be picked up at any Wal-Mart) or another similar “urban” magazine, is immediately reached for by those assembled. Native Peoples and This Week From Indian Country Today don’t stand a chance.

XXL’s July/August 2012 issue features on the cover the snarling face of rap’s current king, Rick Ross, decked out in his platinum links, diamonds, and trademark “angry at the world” facial expression. He hails from the Opa Locka communihood in South Florida where my family once lived prior to moving down to the Florida Keys final stop. When I picked up the issue I recalled his song “Everyday I’m Hustlin” where he spouts “most of my niggas still deal cocaine…still b***ches and business…mo cars, mo hoes, mo clothes, mo blows….” Now this guy is a class act, notwithstanding the reality that he was formerly a corrections officer who took the moniker “Rick Ross” from a notorious drug dealer in the community to falsely project a gangster image. I recall seeing my first threat of gun violence vividly while standing near my father in Opa Locka. I was four and beginning to learn that “these here streets” and their nouveau misogynistic, violent, and abusive media forms which are glorified and financed via corporate America, were here to stay.

The 108-page XXL magazine that had seized the attention of the youth who were gathered contains 152 images of males with angry faces, 18 with smiles, 7 with faces that don’t show any emotion, and one sexualized image in a personal ad. There were 23 pictures of females dressed in panties and bras, with two wearing faux plains Indian headdresses, 12 wearing extremely tight sexualized clothing, and three smiling.Forty-eight advertising pages comprised clothes/shoes (13), liquor (5), car rims (7), music industry related items (10), hair products (3), jewelry (1; though every page with a man on it was a non-stop jewelry ad), sex services and products (5), and, for good measure, a tobacco ad. Add in foul language in every other sentence of every article and everyone gets the picture—there isn’t enough empowerment or cultural workshops in the world that can hold at bay the onslaught.

Crossing through the self-proclaimed “Indian Capital of the World” (Anadarko, Oklahoma) on the way to the workshop, I began counting the stores lining the main highway; casinos (2), payday loans (3), liquor stores (3), convenience stores which sell alcohol (6), dollar stores (2), fast food restaurants (5), and let us throw in a smoke shop as well. Indian solicited businesses…oh yeah. Indian owned aside from the casinos (at least then we would be getting the profits from the poison)…yeah right.

In a July 2012 issue of This Week From Indian Country Today magazine I found men and boys expressing happiness in 26 images, no easily discernible expression in 52 pictures, and expressing anger in zero. Women and girls were smiling in 29 images, expressionless in two, and sexualized in one. Advertising was as follows: casino resorts (5), powwows (3), cultural centers (2), banking (1), magazines (3), tourism (2), employment (5), housing (5), lawyers (2), and non-profits (1). The August issue of Native Peoples mirrored similar types of imagery with the only “angry” men being a picture of, you guessed it, an Indian hip hop trio.

The urban XXL and Indian magazines illustrated a larger percentage of male images than female, but were dramatically different in the way these images were presented. Women were almost exclusively sexual objects within the urban magazine, while women in This Week From Indian Country Today and Native Peoples were framed almost exclusively in cultural, professional, family, and community involved roles. Indian Country does not have a widely read youth marketed national magazine comparable to XXL, so though it may be viewed as apples and oranges, I have been left with these comparisons to make.

My hometown of Key West was not the dream of tourist brochures and beach strewn resorts during the days of my upbringing. An old friend of my parents' provides his take on the island during this era in Florida Travel & Life magazine’s March/April 2012 issue:

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“It was like the wild, wild West back then…smugglers and hush-hush barroom deals of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.”

More well known and reputable magazines such as National Geographic showed Key West as a primary part of what they dubbed “The Cocaine Empire.” (January 1989) and the December 1999 issue stated, “It is not disputed that back in the 1970s… the lower Keys were kept alive by drug traffic. It was cash-and-carry. Everybody winked…”

This is the town where one of my high school coaches was relieved from his duties not for a losing season, but because of a crack cocaine conviction.

Back in the day many newspapers and even People magazine dedicated tons of print to my father’s disappearance. They found his lifeless body, the money, and the drugs months later beneath the wreckage of his plane.

So what is the point? Those of us who were a part of this lifestyle understand and have lived its consequences. Fatherless children, neighborhoods full of hustlers, violence, addictions, and the objectification of women are the achievements of the gangster world. If you have never seen a family member on the ground with an AK to the head, never paid the rent with a brick, never been handcuffed, never sat in a courtroom and watched a friend be hauled off to prison, never been in a brawl where not everyone walked away, never looked up praying to see the sun in place of the blood covering you from being struck by a Louisville Slugger, then it is difficult to fully comprehend this phenomenon and extremely difficult for those who experienced it to understand the attraction.

And now as we approach the end I want to give a shout out to my momma for doing it on her own, to all the Indian fathers out there who spend more time reading to their children then scrolling through Facebook, to the Indian women who view stability and kindness, not swagger and “status”, as optimum traits for their partners, to the fellas incarcerated who are going to make positive, substantial changes to their lives upon release, to national Indian magazines resisting the temptation to sell out, and finally to the wannabe gangstas who I only wish will awake and take off the yolk provided to them by corporate America.

Hopefully “Rick Ross” will consider producing my new hit record with lyrics such as “most of my Indians still keeping it positive…still language and culture…mo education, mo diaper changing, mo taking kids to the park, mo love….” Someone suggested that it wouldn’t have a shot with him, which seems so strange to me, as I am actually a product of the world he ghetto fantasizes about and my wife says my song is “music to her ears.”

Cedric Sunray is an enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians (via his father) and was raised on the island of Key West, Florida.