09/15/2012 05:03 pm ET

Hip-Hop Crisis: Death Of Teen Rapper Sparks Battle Over Rap Lyrics

By Iemaan Rana

Iemaan is a senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School. She is a student reporter for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

One hour after teen rapper Joseph “Lil Jojo” Coleman was killed on his bicycle in a drive-by shooting, his step-brother made a phone call to girlfriend Margy Reilly, 17, a senior at Buffalo Grove, according to the girl.

“He kept repeating my name and he just said, ‘My brother’s ... my brother just died,’ ” Reilly recalled in an interview with The Mash. “I was dead silent on the phone for like a minute and he was like, ‘He’s dead,’ ” she said.

On Sept. 4, Coleman was shot and killed in Englewood, according to the Chicago Tribune, citing a police report. Coleman reportedly was involved in a widely publicized Twitter feud with a local rival rapper who has exploded onto the national rap scene, as well as another local rapper featured on one of that rival’s hit songs. The Mash is not naming the rival rappers because they have not been charged in connection with Coleman’s death.

Coleman and the other rappers have chanted slogans associated with rival gangs and exchanged heated words and veiled threats through tweets and songs posted on YouTube. No one had been charged in Coleman’s case as of Tuesday’s press time, and a Chicago Police Department representative said he couldn’t comment on whether investigators were looking for a connection between the online feud and the killing, citing department policy.

But in the aftermath of the slaying, several rap fans and experts who talked to The Mash were critical of the kind of violent lyrics typical of today’s rap music and their effect on young people’s lives and behaviors, while at the same holding up the positive role rap and hip-hop have played in American culture.

Kymeisha Perot, 18, a Buffalo Grove senior who said she was friends with Coleman and his step-brother, said that teens these days are rapping with a message, albeit a sometimes deadly one.

“They mean (what they say) and they do this to show (everyone) ‘I have this, I have weapons, my gang is bigger than yours,’ ” she said. “Not a lot of people take what they’re rapping about to heart,” she said. “Adults ... kind of let it blow it over (saying), ‘They’re just kids; they’re just trying to make some money.’ But the teens know.”

However, Black Youth Project founder Cathy Cohen has faith in the strength of rap music to instill positive messages. “It is an artistic form that has global impact,” Cohen said. “The main reason rap has brought people together is because of the fact that rap is not only a great form of communicating through self expression, but it is also a good way to start a conversation with someone about the topics in the songs.”

Fred McClinton Jr., a senior at DeVry Advantage Academy, said that the power of rap music should not be underestimated. “People actually live off of this art,” he said. “That’s how powerful it is; it can change people’s lives or ... even end them.”

In the last decade, scientists have examined whether there’s a link between rap and violence. In a 2003 study, Iowa State University researchers concluded that “violent lyrics exhibit short-term effects by heightening precursors to aggression,” according to the Center on Media and Child Health.

A similar study, published in 2006 by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, Calif., found that “listening to rap music was significantly ... associated with alcohol use ... and aggressive behaviors.”

But some students of hip-hop, such as Jesse Menendez, host of Vocalo’s 89.5’s The Music Vox, said that historically, rap was an escape from violence and police corruption. It was once “the voice of the youth,” he said.

The music was so influential because of the trust associated with the artist, Menendez said. “We are hearing these messages from our neighbors,” he said. “From the people we live with, from the people who look like us.”

Chance the Rapper talked about the difficulty in making good music that people can relate to. “You write to relate and you have to ask yourself if you’re border-lining selling out and trying to appeal to the masses,” the 2011 Jones graduate explained. “I’ve reached all these kids that tell me I’m telling their story (and I) want to continue that.”

Grant Yanney, a RedEye columnist and correspondent for website gowherehiphop.com, said that while it’s popular to link rap to violence, the music’s influence is overshadowed by the escalating gang culture in Chicago. “A lot of people would attribute it to music, but now ... gangs have a way of communicating (through the Internet),” said Yanney, a Chicago native.

Tyrine “Ty Kidd” Howard, deputy editor of Chicago-based hip-hop website fakeshoredrive.com, agrees. “Music might be the tool that they use, but at the end of the day it’s still gangs,” Kidd said.

For prominent Chicago rap artist — and onetime candidate for alderman — Rhymefest, rapper Lil Jojo’s death became personal on Sept. 4, when he received a frantic call from one of Coleman’s cousins.

“(He) told me, ‘They killed my cousin.’ I said, ‘Who killed (your) cousin?’ And he said, ‘Over some rap. They killed him.’ And he started to cry,” Rhymefest told The Mash.

Although music and gangs play a big role in violence, Rhymefest said, he added that label executives should be held accountable too. “The young people, all they know is, ‘Man, we got a check, and this is what we got a check to do.’ Where are the adults?” he said.

Rhymefest, however, redirected his frustration and put out an anti-violence rap CD with the help of a Chicago pastor. “When we don’t teach our children, when we don’t educate our children, when we don’t spend time with and mentor our young people, they mess up their whole lives,” he said.

Yanney added that rappers who are good role models exist, but they don’t get enough publicity. “Good rappers like Chance the Rapper, Calez and BRKF$T Club are positive rappers, but we never hear about them,” he said.

“This a bad time in hip-hop, but also a good time. Though it doesn’t portray it in its best form, there (are) still some making a positive step,” Yanney said.

“Hip-hop is alive.”

CONTRIBUTORS: Megan Fu of Buffalo Grove, Aaliyah Gibson and Rosemary Anguiano of Whitney Young, Rachel Holderman of Bartlett, and Krynn Paluga of Joliet Central

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