Paris Hilton was sentenced to 45 days in jail for repeatedly driving while her license was suspended on account of previous drunk-driving convictions, Blankstein, A. & Garvey, M., “Paris Hilton must serve 45 days in jail,” Los Angeles Times (May 5, 2007). Distraught, she has appealed her sentence, and even gone so far as to petition California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for a pardon, Blankstein, A. & Winton, R., “Hilton launches appeal, turns to Schwarzenegger for pardon,” Los Angeles Times (May 9, 2007). Neither is given much hope for success, ibid.
These initiatives reveal faulty judgment, and not only for thinking they’ll succeed, when clearly they won’t. Rather, Ms. Hilton is overlooking the substantial value of a little jail time to burnish her “street credibility” (also known as “street cred”).
A host of celebrity rappers have discerned this phenomenon. For example, “Snoop Dogg has worked to transform himself from bad-boy rapper to pitchman and actor,” his street cred enhanced by “footage of a dour Snoop leaving the Burbank jail,” Boucher, G. & Lee, C., “Wag tha Dogg,” Los Angeles Times (Dec. 1, 2006). Sean “Puffy” Combs was cleared on weapons and bribery charges, even as his associate, Jamaal “Shyne” Barrow, was convicted of assault, Maull, S., “Combs Cleared on Weapons, Bribery Charges,” Los Angeles Times (Mar. 18, 2001). Then, “As Jay-Z’s latest top-selling album shows, fans seem unfazed by rap artist’s arrest in stabbing incident,” Baker, S., “Assault Case Won’t Stop the Music – or the Sales Pop Beat,” Los Angeles Times (Jan. 22, 2000).
From a cultural standpoint, an important component of this phenomenon is the tendency among rappers to accept jail time, and not to “snitch” on their fellows. For example, as Busta Rhymes was filming a music video inside of a recording studios, Israel Ramirez, an unarmed security guard was killed outside.
“For investigators, solving the crime would seem simple enough: question witnesses, identify the gunman and make an arrest. But in this particular case * * * detectives have run into a stubborn wall of silence. Among scores of witnesses, * * * the lack of cooperation has been stunning, the authorities say,” Jacobs, A., “When Rappers Keep Their Mouths Shut,” New York Times (Feb. 19, 2006). “In every case, investigators have been thwarted by a widespread disdain for law enforcement popularized by hip-hop. It’s the code of the streets: You just don’t talk to the cops,” ibid.
This trend reached its zenith with the case of the rapper Lil’ Kim, who took a year in prison for lying to a grand jury about the circumstances surrounding a shoot-off between rival rappers, Preston, J., “Admitting to Lies About Shooting, Lil’ Kim Gets One Year in Prison,” New York Times (July 7, 2005). She “lied out of a misguided sense of loyalty to men she considered her friends,” ibid.
Said one commentator: “The segment of the hip-hop press that embraces violence and criminality is clearly growing, both in influence and affluence. This reflects the extent to which hip-hop itself has devolved from a richly blended tapestry that valued poetics and sophisticated political commentary into a field where only those who have been shot, committed crimes and spent time in jail are judged to hold the authentic street credentials that make them worthy of studio recordings,” Staples, B., “The Hip-Hop Media – a World Where Crime Really Pays,” New York Times (Jun. 8, 2005).
Continued Mr. Staples: “It also explains why Ms. Jones’s record sales will probably go through the roof if she heads off to prison. When it comes to rap music, what’s poisonous for the culture — and dangerous for minority youth — tends to be great for album sales.”
Another commentator complained the (non-) witnesses have “been as faithful to Mr. Ramirez’s memory as Enron was to its shareholders. Help catch the killer of a loyal employee? Not Busta Rhymes,” Haberman, C., “Rappers, As a Rule, Do Not Sing,” New York Times (Feb. 24, 2006).
Another important illustration is the previously-mentioned Sean Combs case. After his acquittal, Mr. Combs is reported to have said: “I feel blessed,” Goldman, J., “’Puffy’ Combs Not Guilty in Gun Case,” Los Angeles Times (Mar. 17, 2001). His then-girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, was not charged, having safely made an escape with Mr. Combs as the incident unfolded.
Mr. Barrows, however, is not quite so sure; after taking the fall for Mr. Combs, it is safe to say he certainly expects Mr. Combs will serve up some of the illest beats for him upon his release, Leeds, J., “From Behind Bars, a Rapper Aims at the Top of the Chart,” New York Times (Aug. 8, 2004). Says Mr. Leeds: “In the calculating eyes of music industry executives, the rap artist Jamaal Barrow possesses the sort of street credibility that instantly draws fans and sells records — a prison sentence. * * * Prison stays are not always detrimental to musicians’ careers.” Mr. Leeds continued: “Steve Earle, the country-rock singer/songwriter, spent a brief time in jail in the early 1990’s on a drug-related charge, but since his release has written a number of critically acclaimed albums. And Johnny Cash’s storied concert at San Quentin in California inspired an inmate there, Merle Haggard, to pursue a country-music career,” ibid.
And this is where Ms. Hilton needs to start paying attention. Her record, the eponymously-entitled “Paris,” was released by Warner Bros. in 2006. According to Wikipedia, “The album debuted at #6 in the Billboard 200, selling 77,000 copies. It then dropped to #36 the next week. The album later dropped out of the chart after only six weeks. The album generally underperformed. A mere 621,350 copies of Paris have been sold worldwide.”
Said one critic: “For a woman apparently ill-suited to anything more taxing than standing around nightclubs in a pair of really enormous sunglasses, Paris Hilton is quite the polymath. * * * You read her CV and boggle at what wildly improbable occupation she might turn her hand to next. Spot-welding? Cognitive neuropsychology? Alas, no: it’s singing. * * * She sings like a woman who has heard of something called singing, can’t be sure of exactly what it might entail, but is fairly certain you do something a bit like this. She sounds both distracted and bored stiff, as if making an album is keeping her from the more serious business of standing around a nightclub in a pair of really enormous sunglasses. * * * [Y]ou are gripped by the fear that civilisation as we know it is doomed and that brimstone is going to start raining from the sky any minute.” Petridis, A., “Paris Hilton,” The Guardian (Aug. 11, 2006).
Perhaps Ms. Hilton should redeploy her much-vaunted, finger-on-the-pulse-of-pop-culture talents, and view this forthcoming interlude more positively. Just think, she could be in rehab!