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The internet is escalating violence through viral rap beef

The music video for “Who I Smoke” currently has over 20 million views on YouTube. On a surface level, it’s a campy spin on Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” similar to Baltimore rapper YTK‘s recent Mariah Carey-inspired “Let It Off.” The video shows Florida artists Spinabenz, Whoppa Wit Da Choppa, Yungeen Ace, and FastMoney Goon wylin’ out on a golf course with all their jewels on while they rap. It’s as if the video treatment came from the same Wayans Brothers who wrote the infamous scene of Terry Crews singing “A Thousand Miles” in White Chicks.

The “Who I Smoke” video is the kind of ironic, outlandish content that makes for great social media fodder. It’s hard not to gawk at. But a deeper understanding of the lyrics should make most want to turn away in discomfort. The song’s title, “Who I Smoke,” refers to the slang of “smokin’” dead enemies. The phrase “smokin on (insert person)” pack has assimilated into the internet lexicon to disrespect the likes of Rush Limbaugh, but like so many things in pop culture, it came at the expense of a Black life. Chicago youth coined the term in the early 2010s to joke about a 15-year-old rival who was fatally shot (“smoked”), allegedly a sick twist on the story that The Outlawz smoked their friend Tupac’s ashes.

It’s on that grisly premise that “Who I Smoke” lies. The song is a manifestation of a generation that knows nothing else but the internet being a free-for-all—and now it’s their turn. They’ve seen rappers use the digital space to diss their enemies and gain traction for it; they’ve seen people use social media to fan the flames of local beef; and they’re thirsty for social media fame.

When you grow up in proximity to an endless cycle of gun violence and want to assert your side’s superiority, a common route to attracting viral attention is to get as disrespectful as possible. We saw 50 Cent push limits with his antics vs. Rick Ross in 2009. Many recoiled when Chief Keef joked about the death of Lil JoJo on Twitter in 2012, or when his fellow Chicagoans made songs reeling off the names of “dead opps.” A couple of years later, the world was captivated by 6ix9ine’s “test my gangster” performance, replete with an entire gang set as supporting cast.

The “Who I Smoke” rappers, and some of their young peers, may not know any better than their social media antics, but older fans do. People of a certain age remember the negative elements of the Chicago drill scene’s rise. Young suburbanites lived vicariously through Chicago gang violence by using videos and social media to link certain drill artists to gangs. They spectated Twitter arguments and Instagram Live sessions. People who weren’t even full-time artists became social media stars for their proximity to drill artists. Some made fortunes off pathologizing the kids as “savages.” The sensationalism tied to the scene hurt their ability to perform in their home city, and served as further impetus for cops to surveil them. 

Most reactions to what’s going on in Jacksonville right now indicate that we’re already headed down a similar path to what happened in Chicago. There’s been a lot of hysteria about “Who I Smoke” and Foolio’s Fantasia-sampling “When I See You” reply, and there’s a whole crop of kids who are enjoying having new “real” heroes to spectate. There are others gawking at the scene as if they represent a new low for humanity. And a minority is watching the scene with concern, hoping the artists can shake the conditioning of their surroundings and use their talents to lead productive lives. Whatever people end up doing after watching “Who I Smoke,” the important part for the creators is that—for better or worse—they’re watching.

We got to this point after a series of dramatic changes over the years, and we can thank the internet and social media for expanding the war chest of rap beef. Artists had relatively limited opportunities to talk their shit during the early 2000s, besides the occasional TV or radio appearance and magazine feature. But a changing media landscape, led by independent journalists, soon gave them new venues to air out enemies.

Tru Life hacked Jim Jones’ MySpace page and posted edited photos feminizing the Dipset capo. The Game released an entire DVD dissing 50 Cent and G-Unit, including footage of him walking up to 50’s Connecticut mansion. There was even the YouTuber who took it upon themself to reply to Cam’ron’s “Swagger Jacker” Jay-Z diss with their own concocted clip of Cam’ron “biting” other MCs’ lyrics.

The beef documentaries capitalized on fans’ interest in controversy by offering up the behind-the-scenes stories behind rap conflicts. Street DVDs like SMACK DVD, The Come Up DVD, Cocaine City, and Sub-O DVD fulfilled fans’ desire for intimate access to artists. They went anywhere and captured tensions between not just star artists, but their crews. Suddenly, rap beef wasn’t just about dueling songs or waiting three months to read what someone had to say about a foe in a magazine. These new, raw media platforms were allowing for instant smoke.

Sites like YouTube, WorldstarHipHop, OnSMASH, ForbezDVD, and others picked up from the DVDs as resources for artists not only to have in-depth interviews and share videos (including disses) but to drop clips dissing their rivals.

These avenues gained more attention not just for stars, but lesser known artists. French Montana, who started Cocaine City, used his platform to gain notoriety via videos featuring him and Max B dissing Jim Jones — and waiting outside Jones’ studio sessions. During the early stages of the 50 Cent vs. Rick Ross beef, artists like late G-Unit affiliate Mazaradi Fox and a then-relatively unknown Gunplay became known on Worldstar, setting a precedent where it wasn’t just two artists going at it; members of an artist’s entourage could gain a higher profile by jumping into the fray, too. Rap crews had the freedom to say whatever they wanted, unbound by radio or MTV regulations—and the disrespect was flagrant. To most listeners at the time, Pac’s “MOB” and Biggie’s “team in the marine blue” were just faceless references when the two artists checked them on records. Imagine how much more noise (and danger) there would have been during their conflict if both respective crews were in the public space, egging on violence.

That dynamic paved the way for what we later saw from those in the orbit around drill music scenes. People like 6ix9ine’s former manager Shotti didn’t even rap, but he kept beef going with his meal ticket’s rivals. These people had less to lose and more to prove, which means they were willing to get nastier and escalate a war of words toward actual violence.

Rappers weren’t the only people using the internet as a battlefield. Oxford Academic reported that “gang-associated youth use online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to taunt rivals and trade insults in ways that cause offline retaliation,” though they also qualified that “there is surprisingly little empirical research investigating how gang-associated youth actually deploy social media in gang conflicts and to what consequence.” Forrest Stuart, a Stanford educator conducted a study with “60 young men affiliated with gangs” and found that “contrary to common belief, the majority of social media challenges remain confined to online space and do not generate offline violence.” But these arguments still stir a contentious atmosphere in neighborhoods rocked by gun violence. These platforms led young people with proximity to gangs to crave local hood fame and online notoriety via social media. And things often escalate even more quickly when they have rap aspirations.

While those who grew up in and around these communities were already used to such madness, the rest of the world was first exposed to digital gang beef upon the rise of the Chicago drill scene. The world collectively gasped when Chief Keef joked about the death of rival rapper Lil JoJo, but those already in tune with the scene knew that this young generation of rival neighborhoods were always interacting disrespectfully on social media.

Keef’s tweet magnified how much Chicago’s decades-long gang conflict had pervaded the city’s rap scene. Neighborhood friends of artists got on the radar of rap fans because they were referenced in songs or seen in videos. Reddit pages and social media accounts popped up dedicated to chronicling arguments between rival rappers and their crews. What was marketed in the rap media as rap beef was actually gang beef that spilled into the music. Instead of traditional rap disses with name flips or music-orientated insults, artists would drop songs dissing entire gangs, spitting on the memories of their dead enemies. Artists vied to up the ante (and the engagement) by being more disrespectful than the last song, reeling off longer and more vicious assaults on the dead. And outside the booth, they would further the tension by tweeting out jokes about slain rivals.

Rap fans have long been enamored with artists who rhyme about their gang ties in their music and give a glimpse of the lifestyle in videos. Social media offered an even more intimate opportunity to spectate gang culture and put a face on the people in the midst of the conflict.

6ix9ine admits to being influenced by the Chicago drill scene. The controversial rapper capitalized on the public’s digital bloodthirst more than anyone. He’s a product of the social media generation that gained attention pre-rap, with antics like performing wrestling moves on bra-and-panty-clad women. Social engagement seems like the most important thing in his life, leading him to apply an attention-at-all-costs mentality to rap with infamous consequences.

His daily calls for rap rivals and gang members alike to “test my gangster” didn’t stay relegated to the internet. 6ix9ine got into a fight with a crew of people in Minnesota during Super Bowl LIl festivities, and with Rap-A-Lot affiliated artists at LAX. He had his crew rob two people that he erroneously thought were also with Rap-A-Lot in New York (and reportedly filmed it). His beef with Casanova reportedly caused a shooting at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and he testified that he had someone shoot at Chief Keef in 2018 after they got into it online.

Even though 6ix9ine ended up temporarily incarcerated along with the Nine Trey Bloods he told on, his strategy was working for a time. He realized that the internet ecosystem rewards shocking content, and he could turn his engagement into sales. The infamy he gained from beef helped him build a large fanbase that catapulted him to the top of the Billboard charts. The act of starting beef, gaining attention, and turning the hysteria into money has become a risky blueprint for anyone longing to quickly gain attention on social media.

That’s the world that these young Duval County rappers grew up in, and they’re following some of the same tactics as their predecessors. They’re part of a generation of rappers who can’t properly separate the streets from their profession—and they’re getting momentarily rewarded for not being able to. The major beef in the city is centered around rising rappers Foolio and Yungeen Ace, as well as all their affiliates. They’ve used social media to antagonize each other, like when Yungeen Ace affiliate Ksoo got football player Leonard Fournette to hold up a Mike Bibby jersey, unknowingly making light of Foolio’s 16-year-old friend Bibby (who Ksoo was recently charged with murdering). They took advantage of the momentary hype of the Clubhouse app by holding rooms where they antagonized each other. The sad reality is that their arguments could be considered a twisted form of rap marketing, as they satiated their impressionable fans’ desire for drama.

Conflict is a surefire way for artists to gain notoriety. Disrespectful records like “Who I Smoke” are going to run up the numbers for a time, but none of the fans who thirst for these antics are ever there when artists suffer the consequences of their actions. Julio Foolio recently told Complex that “the fans play a big role.” He noted, “The same way our job is to wake up and rap, it’s almost as if some of these fans’ jobs is to wake up and troll under Foolio’s comment section.” Yungeen Ace added, “The fans make this shit even deeper, and it turns into a pride thing… These folks don’t care that we’re talking about real people because this is the entertainment industry, and they just want good music.” To fans, it’s just entertainment, even if people are dying behind it.

There have been numerous troubling instances of artists dying right after the release of incendiary diss songs. DC rapper OG ManMan was killed shortly after releasing “Truth,” a diss song paired with a video depicting him at a rival’s grave site. Chicago rapper Lli Marc was also killed days after releasing his OTF diss “No Competition.” There’s no way to know the circumstances of their deaths, but inflammatory disses help feed a violent climate. That’s why King Von’s uncle Range Rover Hand urged Lil Durk to stop dissing dead rivals after his brother DThang was tragically murdered last weekend.

So far, the Duval County scene has been engaged with by fans in a similar fashion to Chicago drill: The artists’ music is being overlooked in lieu of gawking at their conflicts. And we’ve already seen the larger consequences of defining a scene by its worst moments. The New York, London, and Chicago establishment has used sensational media coverage to stagnate their respective drill movements: stopping shows, surveilling artists, and veritably exiling its biggest stars. We’ve seen police departments weaponize the sensationalism by criminalizing artists, their lyrics, and even their social media footprint to ensnare them in sweeping gang indictments and RICOs. The justice system’s predatory tactics haven’t had the level of pushback they deserve because so much of the public buys the hype that these artists are “savages.”

While some may point the finger at how disrespectful rap beef has become, it’s also worth noting that these songs have millions of listeners. Many rap consumers want this violence. Rap music has become a multibillion dollar industry in part because it feeds racist fantasies about who Black people are. The further the lines are blurred between rap and the streets, the more that listeners can get their fix of Black dysfunction (with no personal consequences). The ongoing fallout of King Von’s death is one of the more glaring examples, with fans spectating every development like it’s a reality show. There are too many rap consumers and rap media professionals who may like rap music, but couldn’t care less about the people making the music. The lyrics on songs like “Who I Smoke,” FBG Duck’s “Dead Bitches,” and more aren’t just bars—lives were lost. They deserve more than to be commodified as part of America’s lust for Black death.

There’s a well-meaning inclination to theorize that young artists who reflect the violence in their cities are merely products of their environment, but we should offer them more regard than to pretend they have no agency. These are intent decisions made by human beings looking for a specific reaction and acting out against perilous conditions. The world is anti-Black; it makes sense that they lash out at this reality through war with faces that look like their own.

Instead of gasping at them and moving on, or coddling their actions with theorizing that doesn’t address the root of the problem, we should ask each other some questions: Why is the value of Black life so low to so many people? What does it say about our society that lampooning Black death is deemed entertaining? How much of this morbid humor is about hordes of young people laughing to keep from crying or admitting their fear of life’s fragility?

Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture

Renowned scholar and activist Kwame Ture once proclaimed, “History doesn’t repeat itself… nothing can.” The tragedy of underserved Black communities, which we see through rap, isn’t a generational cycle, but a systematic degradation of humanity that’s only getting deadlier as the toolbox expands. The internet gives people the means to keep up conflict in front of the whole world. And it also gives people who will never venture into certain neighborhoods a stake in fueling the violence within them. Instead of observing all of this, feeling powerless to the cycle, we can end the process.

It’s common knowledge that acting out is a sign of low self-esteem and loneliness. Doing so on social media may just be a hope that the likes and views gained as a result can temporarily fill a hole that society doesn’t care to. The young people in Chicago, Jacksonville, Brooklyn, and so many other cities aren’t the only groups using the internet to act out. But living in an inequitable system means they’re the only people facing deadly consequences for it.

During an interview with YouTuber Cam Capone, Foolio reflected on his beef with Yungeen Ace and also admitted, “Damn, I be thinkin,’ what if all us was like one? Like together… We would be powerful.” It’s possible. But everyone would first have to be in a space to see the bigger picture.

It took Gucci Mane and Jeezy experiencing the comfort of financial security and clarity of age to squash their differences and come to an understanding. Unfortunately, too many rappers were killed before they reached that point, in part because their music was so criminalized that it cost them opportunities and kept them in the hood, mired in a counterproductive mindset. Every onlooker who fans the flames of these beefs—from fans to media—is complicit in continuing that cycle. Perhaps going forward, we could be more cognizant of how to best engage with violent social media antics. It’s a matter of life and death.

COMPLEX

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Written by The Editor

warrior dedicated to the cause of fighting the takeover of our culture.

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