Beyond the Wu Tang

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The timing was right. GIMS, the Congolese French rapper, announced a six-city tour with a Las Vegas finale. Online, fans were thrilled about the possibility of experiencing one of the genre’s huge global voices in a city known for fun. GIMS’ music is a testament to the evolution of hip-hop and rap, connecting people worldwide through a culture born from resistance.

GIMS, formerly Maître Gims, is a lyrical virtuoso with the vibrato of an opera singer. He was poised to dominate the American market, following chart-toppers in Europe and Africa; a Netflix documentary chronicling his journey from homeless youth to the first French-speaking rapper to sell out Paris’ Stade de France; and collaborations with Sting, Lil Wayne, and other industry luminaries.

Then his November 13, 2023, concert was canceled. Was the cause lackluster ticket sales or illness? Perhaps he was protesting the treatment of refugees, as he had done in Tunisia a few months earlier? We won’t know for sure. Neither House of Blues nor GIMS’ representatives responded to my requests for comment.

In any case, the cancellation was unfortunate. Yet it barely caused a blip on the local radar, making me wonder: Why isn’t Las Vegas— where mega-rappers such as Drake and Cardi B get booked for $1 million performances, and where the local hip-hop scene produces both underground and mainstream artists — a hip-hop mecca outranking Atlanta? This city has a 70-year history of creating musical experiences and concert residencies. Why hasn’t it hosted a headlining rap act with a theater residency before?

“What do you think?” replies *CoCojenkins, a local hip-hop musician and founder of the Instagram page There’s Nothing to Do in Vegas. “Because Vegas is racist. It’s in the difference between a shooting at a hip-hop show and a shooting at a country festival. Hip-hop gets banned, and country doesn’t.”

She might have a point.

Hip-hop enthusiasts pinpoint a series of moments through Las Vegas’ entertainment history that define the city’s uneasy relationship with the popular genre. Certain years loom large. There’s 1996, the year rapper Tupac Shakur was shot in a drive-by, and 2006, when Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Bill Young urged Strip properties not to host hip-hop and rap concerts. When the Strip did reopen to hip-hop acts in the 2010s, performers were relagated to club performances — usually with marquee headliners.

Las Vegas nightlife pioneer Warren Peace, a DJ who was once fired for playing 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” asserts that Las Vegas’ aversion to hip-hop mirrors the argument for excluding Black entertainers such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald from the Strip in the 1940s. “There’s always been a fear associated with any type of Black music,” Peace says. “It comes down to ignorance, race, and old people who are in a position where they don’t understand. All you have to do is look at history.”

In hip-hop’s 50-year timeline, artists, producers, and fans have consistently found themselves defending the genre against prevailing stereotypes, which are often overhyped in media coverage.

For instance, when I tell people how much I love the music, some counter with their dislike of gangster rap, which hasn’t been a popular subgenre for decades. It’s akin to someone responding to another’s affinity for country music by saying it’s about murderous outlaws, based on the gunslinger ballads of Marty Robbins.

Discounting hip-hop based on the belief that it’s all anti-cop, hyper-materialistic, and misogynistic ignores a nuanced cultural force with deeper resonance. Contrary to the prevailing perception, rap music started as a peaceful reaction to crime, not a catalyst for it. Frustrated with long-standing issues of racial prejudice, cultural persecution, economic stagnancy, political disparities, and police brutality, young people started rap music as lyrical protest in the Bronx in the 1970s. It grew from the larger hip-hop culture, which includes various forms of counterculture expressions, from music and dance, to fashion and graffiti. It’s hard to accept hip-hop without acknowledging society’s prejudice against and persecution of Black folks.

Still, rap’s proponents agree that the genre does have an image problem. Consider the treatment of rap music in the criminal justice system, where courts admit defendant-composed rap music as evidence. In Atlanta, District Attorney Fani Willis (yes, that Fani Willis) brought a sweeping racketeering case against Grammy winner Young Thug based on his music. Should Johnny Cash have been indicted for murder when he sang, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”? Of course not. We accept that it was art and, importantly, constitutionally protected free speech.

Hip-hop acts have been performing in smaller venues like Drai’s and Brooklyn Bowl. Rappers such as Kendrick Lamar headline the Life is Beautiful festival. The music’s proponents find workarounds, even if it’s to showcase long-ago chart toppers such as Lauryn Hill, LL Cool J, and De La Soul. But I want Las Vegas to be a bonafide hip-hop city with its own sound in the way Oakland has hyphy music and New Orleans has bounce. I want to take my 15-year-old son to experience local rappers the way I was introduced to it when my brother took me to see live music at a dayclub for teens. We ought to nurture people such as Dizzy Wright so they don’t have to leave the city to be respected.

But this year signals a turning point. The iconic Wu-Tang Clan is set to be the first rap group to secure a theater residency in the tourist corridor, proving hip-hop and rap music are both palatable and profitable. What has shifted in the cultural landscape, and how has the Strip evolved in its relationship with hip-hop? For Peace, the answer is simple: Hip-hop is too popular to ignore.

“You don’t have many leaders in the world,” he says, “One outlier takes a chance, and then the money numbers get around and then suddenly casino bosses are thinking they need this.”

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