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Unwelcome To The Party

Citi Field exterior, night.
Citi Field, the site of Rolling Loud: NYC 2019. Photo by Terry Ballard.

Brooklyn-born rapper Pop Smoke released his popular song “Welcome to the Party” this summer, but he and four fellow New York City rappers were made to feel anything but welcome ahead of the Rolling Loud festival in their hometown.

A few days before Rolling Loud’s first New York event, the New York Police Department requested that organizers remove five rappers from the lineup. The NYPD said that it asked Rolling Loud to drop Casanova, Pop Smoke, Sheff G, Don Q and 22Gz because the “performers have been affiliated with recent acts of violence citywide,” according to the letter NYPD Assistant Chief Martin Morales issued to the festival’s promoters. The letter also stated that “The New York Police Department believes if these individuals are allowed to perform, there will be a higher risk of violence.”

Not included in the letter: any indication that these artists had been charged with any crimes; any evidence that they had engaged in wrongdoing; or any specifics about the supposed violence that might occur if they performed. There was no indication that any of them were even under investigation. This meant the performers could not defend themselves against any accusations, and it also meant the promoters could not take other action, such as hiring extra security, instead of dropping the artists from the lineup.

The incident reminded me of the 2002 film “Minority Report.” In it, Tom Cruise starred as the head of a special police unit called PreCrime, which apprehended people for crimes that psychics predicted they would commit in the future. The NYPD has seemingly substituted gut instinct for the psychic mutants, but the effect is largely the same.

Technically, the NYPD was only making a suggestion to the festival’s organizers. But Tariq Cherif, the co-founder and owner of Rolling Loud, has said it was clearly more. In a tweet, he wrote: “All the public sees is the letter. Way more happened behind closed doors. If we want RL [Rolling Loud] to return to NYC, we have no choice but to comply. That’s the position we’re in.”

The NYPD put Cherif and his partner, Matt Zingler, in a tough position. If they ignored the request outright, they were bound to face serious business consequences. So they decided to remove the artists from the lineup as requested. According to Cherif, however, the festival paid the five artists their full booking fees and invited them to perform at Rolling Loud’s future iterations. It is likely the best Cherif and Zingler could do without harming the festival and all of the performers who were not on the NYPD’s blacklist.

It is troubling that the NYPD would interfere with these artists’ ability to make a living and pursue their careers without just cause. If the police have evidence any of the rappers have broken the law, they should pursue those leads through normal channels. Instead, as far as the public knows, these musicians face punishment because of their past actions, their choice of associates, or the content of their music. As attorney Kenneth J. Montgomery told Complex magazine, “You’re criminalizing the potentiality of crime. You’re not criminalizing crime. If these people are who you’re saying they are, where’s the indictment?”

All five artists have had encounters with law enforcement in the past, but not all of them recent. Casanova, whose real name is Caswell Senior, wrote on Instagram that his last felony conviction was in 2007; he served his time in prison and has not been in trouble with the law since. “It’s unfair and unfortunate that my past, which I’ve dealt with legally and personally, continues to stigmatize me and my career as a recording artist,” he wrote after his performance was canceled. 22Gz, also known as Jeffrey Alexander, faced charges in Florida in 2017, but they were dropped after the police identified another man as the perpetrator. The other three rappers have faced weapons charges. But the NYPD gave no specifics as to why any of these artists’ presence might be particularly dangerous now. On Instagram, Don Q observed, “I love my city and I never been in any gang activities or had issues at any of my previous shows.”

While Rolling Loud paid the artists’ booking fees, the professional loss of not being able to perform is still serious. Rolling Loud sold 60,000 tickets for each of the festival’s two days. Rolling Loud also boasts a more diverse audience than many rap or hip-hop concerts. An appearance at an event of that magnitude – especially in a performer’s hometown – can introduce an artist to a much wider audience of potential new fans.

Of course safety is important. But at events like Rolling Loud, attendees and performers are routinely screened by security before entering the venue. I attended Rolling Loud the past couple years in Miami. This year, I even brought my teenage daughter along. I would not have had a problem bringing her to the festival in New York had the artists in question performed.

By and large, most Americans would agree in theory that people who make an effort to change their lives for the better should get a second chance, including those who have committed a crime and have paid their debt to society. Most would also likely agree that all citizens are innocent until proven guilty. But these ideals do not always translate into action, especially for people who fall into certain categories. Earlier this year, the New York Post reported on the NYPD’s “Enterprise Operations Unit,” colloquially known as the “rap unit.”

According to the Post, officers working in the unit draw up weekly reports about hip-hop shows scheduled within the city, and designate each as having a low, medium or high crime risk. Critics of the unit have claimed it monitors the movements of rap artists as a matter of routine, regardless of any evidence of possible wrongdoing. A spokeswoman for the NYPD told the Post: “The Enterprise Operations Unit focuses on venues or entertainers that have been connected with past acts of violence – regardless of musical genre.”

But observers have reason to be skeptical of how much the NYPD separates the art from the artist. After a 2016 shooting, then-commissioner Bill Bratton described hip-hop as “a crazy world” populated by “thugs” in a radio interview. An unnamed anti-gang officer told The New York Times in 2014, “You really have to listen to the songs because they’re talking about ongoing violence.” But I doubt anyone is ranking the potential danger of a They Might Be Giants show just because the Brooklyn act once sang about a carjacking. Rap lyrics are not being afforded the same poetic license and First Amendment protection as other music genres. Instead, law enforcement increasingly views them as potential evidence in criminal cases, rather than fictionalized entertainment.

Unfortunately, the NYPD’s letter has had further implications for the five artists in question. Since news of the letter broke, other venues in the city have canceled upcoming shows for Casanova and Pop Smoke. These ripple effects may not be limited to the city or the state of New York. Venues in other states may decide to cancel upcoming shows for these artists too, whether out of fear of violence or just of negative press. These cancellations will further hinder the artists’ ability to make money and advance their careers.

If agencies like the NYPD decide that artists with former convictions cannot change, and that artists without convictions are still guilty by association, they will rob them of means of supporting themselves and reaching their full potential. That is not making anyone safer or better off.

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