(May 18, 2023). As anyone with an eye on current events knows, NBA star and 2020 Rookie of the Year Ja Morant was suspended by the league on Sunday (May 14) after more footage surfaced on Instagram of the baller showing off a gun.
The suspension—Ja’s second in two months—was shocking in its similarities to the first. In March, the Memphis Grizzlies superstar was suspended for the same thing, that time for flashing a gun at a club on his own Instagram Live video feed.
This week’s suspension was related to a video captured on a friend’s Instagram Live, where the pro athlete was flexing a gun in the passenger seat of a car driven by the friend while the two bopped their heads to “1.5” by rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, a/k/a “NBA YoungBoy.”
In that song, YB, who is reportedly one of Ja’s favorite rappers, spits aggressively over a trap beat about sexing a female before inexplicably pivoting to a boast session about killing those who cross him the wrong way.
It’s that second, violent aspect to “1.5” that apparently made it the ideal soundtrack to Morant’s latest flub-up, the theme being pervasive in most of YoungBoy’s music (and there is a lot of YoungBoy music out there, more on that later).
Given the popular Louisiana rapper’s well-publicized criminal file, which includes numerous drug, weapons, assault, shooting and attempted murder charges, there’s little to suggest that the Baton Rouge native isn’t trying to live up to the image he’s created on tape (giving him the benefit of the doubt here that it is just that: an image).
That image exists despite YB also being a now-married father of (reportedly) eleven kids, an entrepreneur with his own label, Never Broke Again Records, plus a lucrative eight-figure distribution deal he signed with Motown Records last October, after having completed a similar deal with Atlantic Records where he’s released dozens of albums, mixtapes and EPs (most of which have made Billboard’s top ten and sold—combined—tens of millions in equivalent album units)…all at the ripe old age of 23.
But YoungBoy’s extensive rap sheet, and to a much lesser extent Ja’s apparent gun fetish, beg the question: are these cases of life imitating art or the other way around?
This is just a hunch, but I’m guessing that a lot of what comes out of rappers’ lyrics is embellishment. I mean, there’s no way that hip-hop artists, who are MCs and entertainers by definition, would commit the acts they brag about, and then immortalize them in song for the legal system to feast upon, would they?
More over, real-life gangstas, if provided with better opportunities at a younger age, would probably much rather be making millions doing what rappers and professional sports figures do for a living, so it’s always amazing to me that ballers like Morant spend so much time trying to prove that they’re as close to being gangsta as gangsta gets.
I mean, who—if given the choice—would elect to be in situations where, almost from the beginning, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, running from the law, or worse, having a permanent target on your back from rival factions?
Studies have shown that most gang bangers begin at an early age, usually right around puberty, as 11 or 12-year-old kids who have to grow up faster than they should, from homes that offer very little nurturing and support (and with parents who probably should’ve never…ah never mind).
These youngsters find their support in other ways—especially those in economically depressed neighborhoods—such as through gang affiliation.
A young (real) gang banger likely lives in constant fear though—despite any appearance to the contrary—always pretending not to be scared and pretending not to care about the world around him (or her), while building a shell of false bravado that is reinforced by others in their circle.
They also lose any sense of compassion for others or value of human life, including their own, which, when combined with the feeling of invincibility they no doubt have at such a young age, leads to the reckless, violent behavior that results in so many young fatalities, especially in Black communities.
These gang-related traits, none of which are enviable or even admirable in a healthily functioning society, often find themselves emulated in today’s violent, toxic, no-fucks-to-give, hip-hop culture.
Hip-hop, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and is the only genre in music history with the dubious distinction of having lost dozens upon dozens of its progeny to gun violence (in the past ten years alone), emphatically embraces gun culture and toxicity, the potent combination of which has proven genocidal to the Black community in particular.
Yet its themes still prevail.
From what were once merely cautionary tales about growing up in the hood as victims of systemic racism, surrounded by poverty and the lure of gang life (see the catalogue of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five for the earliest examples), hip-hop has now devolved into hip “opp” culture, where rappers are amped almost exclusively by negative, gangsta-like energy.
A song’s protagonist isn’t considered legit today unless he’s rapping about blasting his opps (read: killing his opponents) or spitting lyrics about exacting revenge on someone, or navigating toxic relationships with women.
Instead of preaching about the perils of this volatile existence, many of today’s most popular rappers embody the characters they portray on record, making it necessary for impressionable fans and other observers to try and discern between fact and fiction, with the industry now having to lobby for legislation just to prevent the criminal justice system from using rap lyrics as incriminating evidence against these artists when they enter the system.
If the legal system struggles to distinguish what’s real from what’s fantasy, how would a non-discerning, impressionable young fan be able to do so when these images are all that he or she sees on a daily basis?
Still, the gangsta fantasy continues, and the rapper that Ja Morant fanboys the most—the one he was “turnt-up” to while flashing his heat on IG—is now hip-hop’s most prolific peddler of the dubious thug image.
YoungBoy’s most recent album—The Richest Opp—is his third full-length release in 2023 alone(!).
That set streeted last Friday (May 12) and boasts 17 tracks, all of which have some variation of the Baton Rouge MC exploiting his beefs with other rappers/dudes, his toxic relationships with females, and his conflicts with life in general.
Every song on The Richest Opp boasts of someone being shot or killed—hypothetically, metaphorically or otherwise—for crossing YoungBoy the wrong way (even the seemingly safe love songs, “Hurt My Heart” and “I Shot Qupid,” or his music industry diss “Fuck the Industry, Pt. 2,” aren’t spared these references).
The new album, which is expected to debut in the Billboard top ten next week, follows quickly on the heels of NBA YoungBoy’s two earlier releases this year, I Rest My Case and Don’t Try This At Home, which contain a combined 52 songs that center on the same thugged-out themes.
The latter of those two LPs—Don’t Try This At Home—contains the track “1.5” that Ja Morant was rocking out to when he was captured on IG Live last week, showing off his pistol…being a wannabe gangsta.
Perhaps a better look for the up-and-coming basketball star would’ve been the album’s titular advice: Don’t Try This At Home.
To that end, and despite the angle this article has taken thus far, YoungBoy is not to blame for Ja Morant’s current woes, which could amount to more than $60 million in lost endorsements and NBA playing time when all is said and done.
Even if the drill-type stuff YB raps about approximates his own life to some degree, Morant, who grew up with both parents (both attended college) and attended Murray State University in Kentucky, has better options for his fun and entertainment and made a bad choice, twice.
A compassionate reflection on this will note that Morant is only 24 years old and has a whole lifetime of mistakes ahead of him. Nobody’s perfect, as we often say.
Others will say that Morant was only emulating his favorite artist, much like young adults and teenagers did when they danced like Michael Jackson or dressed like Prince or Madonna during the 1980s, or like diehard Swifties do today.
Still, those assessments are tempered by the fact that the Grizzlies point guard made the same mistake just two months earlier, and with significant financial consequences.
And any long-term penalty handed down for the latest offense by his employer, the NBA—an organization with investors and owners who purportedly don’t want the fake-gangsta stain on that brand—is well within its rights to enforce.
This is not a question of free speech or one’s right to bear arms, as so many Morant defenders have claimed. Properly permitted, the young baller is certainly free to bear arms and even leave the NBA to work for a company that doesn’t mind having the fake-gangsta imagery as part of its reputation.
I have a theory about this spectrum of gangsta life and how it transcends into hip-hop, pro sports and, ultimately, to everyday consumers of both, like you and me.
First, there are real gangstas—the kind you and I would never want to encounter on the street—and then there are wannabes.
Some of those real bangers have made a way for themselves in hip-hop, which has, in turn, provided a way out (if they elect to take it) for many Black and other underserved kids when few other options were previously available.
And then there is a subset of rappers who may still dabble in that life, if for no other reason than the images they feel they need to uphold to maintain street-cred.
But there are likely as many or more rappers who don’t live the gangster life that they portray on record…those are the fake gangstas.
Unfortunately, these fake bangers’ impact on society can be as real as that of the people they emulate, and have potentially fatal results.
It’s their albums and mixtapes that impressionable youth are consuming at record-breaking levels. It’s their airs of bravado, invincibility, apathy and toxicity that fans believe are blueprints for how to conduct their own lives.
America’s gun problem is real, and it’s against that backdrop that Morant’s actions are being judged by his employer and others.
And unlike NBA YoungBoy, who makes his living perpetrating (and perpetuating) the gangsta-like images and lifestyle he’s become known for, Ja Morant makes his living playing professional basketball and endorsing major product brands.
The fact also remains that, whether or not the acts portrayed in today’s hip-hop music are authentically depicted, hip-hop sees more of its young stars gunned down at an early age than any other music genre out there.
Oh, and is there a double standard at play here in terms of how Morant is being criticized for his actions, while a politician like U.S. congresswoman Lauren Boebert (R; Colorado) is praised by her followers for allowing her underaged kids to brandish firearms in a politically motivated Christmas card photo?
Yes, there sure is. Her actions are arguably even more deplorable. Plus, a Black political family would have been met with far more scrutiny and outrage had it generated the same pic in its efforts to advocate for gun rights.
But that’s also the unfortunate reality of the different lens through which Black people are viewed in this country when it comes to gun rights. No amount of protest to the contrary is likely to change that anytime soon.
It’s within that reality that Morant, apparently a still very impressionable non-gangster, chose the fake-thug route by flashing his heat in multiple forums on video, and is suffering his own serious consequences as a result.
The bottom line is, fake gangsta culture in hip-hop is huge and has major implications, both for those who can’t escape the lifestyle, and for one multi-millionaire NBA star who chooses to emulate it.
DJRob (he/him/his), lover of old-school hip-hop, is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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