In his opening statement to the jury in the trial of rap star/mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos hammered hard on the notion that Combs is a brutal, swaggering thug who believed that his exalted status as a rap idol put him above the law. Combs faces bribery and gun charges stemming from a shootout at a New York nightclub in December 1999 in which three people were wounded.
According to the prosecution, someone at the club flung money into Combs' face and his bodyguards allegedly whipped out their guns and started blasting away. Police claim that Combs threw a gun out the window of his limo as he sped away from the club after the shooting.
Combs' attorney insisted that prosecutors targeted him because he is a celebrity, and not a criminal. This is pretty much the same line that Baltimore Ravens superstar linebacker Ray Lewis and his defense attorneys shouted before, during and after his acquittal in the beating death of two men in Atlanta following last year's Super Bowl. They claimed that Lewis, who professed his innocence, was tried because he was a celebrity.
Neither Lewis nor Combs openly said it, but another element lurks underneath their charge of celebrity persecution. Both hinted that they also believe they are at deep peril from vindictive prosecutors because they are young, black males. In this, they are right and wrong.
Most big city district attorneys know that prosecuting and convicting a high-profile athlete, entertainer or film star will reap a bonanza of media and public fame that could give their political careers a huge rocket launch. The bonanza is even bigger when the celebrity they dump in a court docket is a gangsta rapper whom much of the public detests and vilifies.
The man who greenlighted the prosecution of Combs, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, has seemingly taken special relish in nailing rap celebrities. The list of those he's taken down includes Tupac Shakur, Naughty by Nature, the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, Heltah Skeltah and Da Cocoa Brovaz. He purportedly rejected a plea bargain pitch from Combs' defense attorneys that would not have included any jail time. If convicted of the gun and bribery charges, Combs could get 15 years to life.
But district attorneys also know there's a risk in botching a case against a celebrity defendant, the O.J. Simpson case being the best example.
Virtually the moment Simpson was in cuffs, Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti popped up on NBC's "The Today Show," ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS's "This Morning" and nearly every other TV talk show, assuring the public that prosecutors had the goods on Simpson and that he'd be convicted. The public believed him and expected that Simpson would be permanently imprisoned. When he wasn't, millions were disgusted and enraged. When voters booted Garcetti out of office this past November, many cited the botched O.J. Simpson case as a major reason for dumping him.
The Simpson debacle did not escape Combs. He hired Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran to help with the defense. The idea is to hinge part of his defense on the contention that a big reason he's in court is because he's a young black male.
He expects Cochran to convince the seven black jurors, as he did in the Simpson case, that police beat, shoot, harass, lie and plant evidence to nail young blacks, and that the police did the same in Combs' case.
But despite the relentless media and popular slander of the black jurors in the Simpson trial, they didn't cavalierly let him waltz out of court solely because he was black. He was acquitted because of a hopelessly inept, blundering prosecution. No matter what the jurors thought about Simpson, they were legally and duty bound to free him on the basis of reasonable doubt.
There is a big difference between Simpson and Combs. Before his tumble from grace, Simpson was an antiseptic, aging ex-football superstar, a TV and corporate pitchman, adored by millions of whites. Combs is a much tougher sell. He is a flamboyant, earring- and chain-wearing, ostentatiously garbed rapper.
Like Simpson, he lives in a pricey million-dollar home, enjoys a jet-set lifestyle, possesses a colossal bank account and dates a famously sexy woman, movie superstar Jennifer Lopez.
But Combs has deliberately, brazenly cultivated the bad boy image -- he named his record company Bad Boy Records. Much of the public associates him with rappers and hip-hoppers such as M.O.P., Capone & Noreaga, the Lox, Mobb Deep, Shyne and Memphis Bleek, Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. They exult the badass lifestyle and play hard on the us vs. them volcanic rage of young blacks. In the process, they manage to rekindle the vilest of racial stereotypes about young black males.
This gives major fodder to neoconservative critics such as University of California at Berkeley linguistics professor John H. McWhorter. In his hot seller, "Losing Ground: Self-Sabotage in Black America," McWhorter tars those young blacks who stutter, stammer, slur their words, posture and prance as chronic educational losers. And he blames their failure on a slavish obsession with emulating those rappers who sneer at young blacks who study and get good grades as "acting white" -- rather than blaming underfunded, underserved, failing inner-city public schools.
But critics aside, there's a big payoff for the rappers. The glorification and falsification of the ghetto lifestyle has made Combs and his big-gun gangsta contemporaries fabulously rich. They know that there are legions of rebellious young whites and blacks who will happily fork over heavy cash to bop and nod to violence-skewed, misogynist and homophobic songs that depict an outlaw version of black life.
This doesn't necessary mean that the bleak and defiant message in their music is totally phony and self-serving. At times their lyrics are passionate and eloquent, and speak to the ache of anger and alienation felt by many young blacks who are hopelessly mired in ghetto poverty and rejection. The internal rage of many young blacks lies dangerously close to the surface.
But the violence of Combs' alleged assailants and guardians is galling, and just as galling is the litany of excuses that some blacks reflexively cite -- poverty, broken homes, abuse -- to excuse such violence. In their lyrics, some rappers boldly liken black communities to urban jungles where violence is permissible as an ordinary means of survival.
These explanations are ludicrous. Whoever is foolish enough to buy these excuses gives an open signal to a handful of young men to commit aggressive violence and think they can get away with it.
This violence and the tough-guy image make men like Combs sitting ducks for attacks from jealous rivals, competitors or wannabe gangsters. They are forced to hoard their own arsenals, strap down with body armor and surround themselves with street thugs as bodyguards for protection against real or imagined assaults.
They can expect little help from the police, who for the past decade have had anti-police songs such as Ice-T's "Cop Killer," N.W.A.'s "Fuck the Police," Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Deep Cover," Tupac's "Drop a Cop" and KRS-One's "Black Cop" tossed in their faces.
Combs employed a high-powered, stellar defense team, secured Cochran's legal wizardry, bagged a majority black jury and, perhaps, may be guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.
Yet with his trunk stuffed full of self-made negative images and stereotypes, he still faces a long uphill battle to convince the jurors and the public that a headline-grabbing, racially warped district attorney is persecuting him only because he is rich, famous and a black male. The image he's cultivated may be the toughest rap of all against Puffy.