From rappers, only silence
Hip-hop world ignored ex-Crip founder's cause
By RenĂ©e Graham, Globe Staff | December 13, 2005
Stanley ''Tookie" Williams, 51, a cofounder of the nefarious Crips street gang who later renounced and preached against the evils of gang life, was scheduled to die by lethal injection early this morning at California's San Quentin Prison. Williams was sentenced to death for the 1979 murders of four people.
In recent weeks, celebrities such as Jamie Foxx and Danny Glover argued that Williams, on death row for 24 years, deserved clemency for his antigang activism, which has included several books aimed at children and teenagers denouncing gang violence. Among the most prominent voices has been rapper Snoop Dogg, himself a former Crip.
''He inspired me to want to do something positive with my life and to go and touch the kids," the platinum-selling rap star said at a pro-Williams rally outside San Quentin last month. ''Real Soon," a track on Snoop's mixtape compilation, ''Welcome to Tha Chuuch: Tha Album," due in stores today, praises Williams's advocacy work.
Still, Snoop has been the only rapper to speak out on Williams's behalf. (Music mogul Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network sent an appeal to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California on Dec. 1.)
True, most mainstream rappers are not known for political activism these days. Save for the flurry of Hurricane Katrina fund-raisers and Kanye West's unscripted denouncement of President George W. Bush at a celebrity telethon, they tend to spend more time talking about their ''whips" (cars) or playing bat mitzvahs for lots of money.
Still, given Williams's history, his cause might've seemed a natural fit for hip-hop activism. Here was a man who, like more than a few of rap's multimillion-selling stars, came from difficult, crime-ridden surroundings. He lived the hard life they rap about, and though it was too late to keep him off death row, he ultimately rejected the gangsta ethos and encouraged young people to do the same.
On his website, www.tookie.com, Williams apologized for cofounding the Crips in the 1970s. The Crips and Bloods are two notorious street gangs that have since spread beyond their South Central Los Angeles birthplace. (Williams never apologized for the four murders for which he was convicted, as he maintained that he did not commit them.)
''I no longer participate in the so-called gangster lifestyle, and I deeply regret that I ever did," Williams wrote in an April 1997 post to his website. ''I pray that one day my apology will be accepted. I also pray that your suffering, caused by gang violence, will soon come to an end as more gang members wake up and stop hurting themselves and others."
And that may be the reason why most hip-hop artists have remained silent about his fate.
See, Williams renounced the thug life. Whether his intentions were pure or merely a ruse to stave off the executioner, his message was clear: Gang life is a destructive life, leading only to prison or death for those foolish enough to remain within its insidious grasp.
Yet mainstream hip-hop -- and the billion-dollar corporations behind it -- has spent far too much time, effort, and money marketing inner-city misery to champion someone who has renounced gang violence. Williams's early life of crime is practically a template for gangsta rap. And that hugely popular hip-hop style is more likely to embrace the scary image of the young Williams, with his huge Afro, menacing glare, and muscle-thick prison-yard physique, than the middle-age, gray-haired author of children's books.
Williams published the eight-book series ''Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence," but most kids are probably far more familiar with 50 Cent's ''The Massacre" and his hyper-violent video game ''Bulletproof," with its slow-motion kill moves. And mainstream hip-hop is content to keep it that way.
Conversely, even as so many hip-hop artists have ignored Williams's case, it's not hard to imagine some of them evoking his name in their lyrics for years to come. Following Williams's execution, some meathead rappers may cite his death as proof that the system conspires to bring a real brother down. Exploiting his death for money would come easy.
Only Snoop, who's certainly pushed the gangsta life, seems genuinely dedicated to Williams's crusade to halt the damage he helped inflict on his own community and others. In the meantime, mainstream hip-hop and its biggest stars have ignored a chance to uplift themselves and their listeners by moving from their stock message of retribution to Williams's message of redemption.
RenĂ©e Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at graham@globe .com.