Livin’ the life, gangsta-style

Pam Frampton
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“It’s about my persona. Ain’t nothing like a man that can do what he wanna.”

— Ice Cube, from the song “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It”

Looking at images of murder victim Nick Winsor in St. John’s in the news this week, you had to wonder what prompted the 20-year-old to have “Trust no one” tattooed on his arms at such a young age.

And why his Facebook page — and the pages of countless other people his age in this province — features youth striking menacing poses, flashing hand signals, brandishing weapons, showing off tattoos and piercings.

When did young people start aspiring to at least look like gangsters?

Is it about individualism and personal expression or a need to belong to an identifiable group of likeminded people? Is a desire to emulate some rap hero or to feel stronger and more powerful than you might otherwise appear? Or does it reflect defiance and an anger at the world?

Of course, that’s not to say that everyone who dresses and swaggers like a gangster is a criminal — you see kids wandering through the mall every day who look like they’re auditioning for rap videos, and the most illegal activity they might ever be involved in could be jaywalking. Neither are multiple piercings an indication of a criminal mind.

But there seems to be a trend among kids and young adults of trying to project an image with a decided edge. And there seems to be growing disenfranchisement with mainstream society among some young people.

The influence of gangster culture is widespread and unavoidable in our time. You can see it in graffiti language and violent video games, and hear it in rap and hip-hop music and videos, Hollywood movies and American television shows.

But just what is the attraction? What makes the image gangsters project so alluring to youth here? Is it the accompanying connotations of wealth, sexual prowess and physical power?

And it’s not just a North American phenomenon — far from it. Writing in Britain’s The Independent back in 2003, commentator Trevor Barnes took a thoughtful look at where so-called “gangsta culture” might have sprung from.

Referring to modern youth he writes:

“…When they look around them and see, day after day, the triumph of game-show and lottery lifestyles over hard work, little wonder many are dispirited. Open any magazine today and you are welcomed into some soap star’s ‘fabulous home,’ where the trappings of fame, fortune and success are on display. The message is simple. This is the life and without a similar sort of conspicuous wealth you have no life at all.”

As rapper Big Sean writes in his song “My Last”:

“Big ass bottles, Big Ice buckets

I work too hard to be ballin’ on a budget

Me and my people do it big out in public cause

Cause if you don’t do it big, you aint doing nothing”

Chris Brown, in “Look at Me Now,” has a similar message:

“Yellow model chick

Yellow bottle sipping

Yellow Lamborghini

Yellow top missing

Yeah, yeah

That shit look like a toupee

I get what you get in 10 years, in two days …

Gotta taste it and I gotta grab it

And I gotta cut all through his traffic

Just to be at the top of the throne

Better know I gotta have it, have it”

The frightening thing about the arrival of gangsta culture on our shores is the possibility that it is adversely influencing young people and leading them to seek out others who share the same sense of disconnect and alienation.

A desire to buck the mainstream and flout convention can lead to lacking respect for others and breaking rules. Breaking rules can lead to breaking laws, and criminal activity can escalate as the resulting adrenaline rush and “high” to be had from doing something bad and getting away with it can lead to riskier and riskier behaviours: doing drugs, carrying weapons, committing violent crimes, establishing territories and starting turf wars.

On a British website devoted to the Caribbean community in the U.K. (, freelance journalist Ron Shillingford wrote this week about the knife epidemic among teenagers:

“The maximum sentence for someone caught in possession of a knife has just been doubled from two years to four years but that evidently does not deter thugs. Yet many even see a prison sentence as a badge of honour, an inevitable consequence of their street life.”

In the St. John’s area, more and more police reports contain references to stabbings, slashings and assaults with other weapons; baseball bats, brass knuckles and bear spray must be flying off the shelves like hotcakes.

So how do we stem the influence of gangsta culture? It’s a problem not easily answered. Let’s face it, education campaigns probably won’t reach people who have only ever attended the school of hard knocks.

Meanwhile, too many troubled teens and young adults will be developing their philosophies and taking their lead from rappers like Rick Ross:

“They say we can’t be livin’ like this

For the rest of our lives

But we gon’ be livin’ like this

For the rest of tonight

And you know they gon’ be bangin’ this shit

For the rest of our lives

Live fast (Live fast)

And die young (Die young)

Live fast (Live fast)

And die young (Die young)

Live fast

And die young.”

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Ice Cube, North American, The Independent

Geographic location: U.K., Hollywood, Caribbean

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Recent comments

  • Frank Huxtable
    July 29, 2011 - 11:43

    This article is ridiculous. The people involved in thsi crime were obviously misguided and have many issues, besides the music they listen. How does one having an abundance of tattoos have anything to do with how one acts, or the person 'they are trying to emulate'?. You quoted Kanye West and Big Sean in your article?! That is so comical I don't even knowwhere to begin as neither of these artists are anywhere clsoe to violent or being 'gangsters'. How do you know they are not 'metal heads'? In the 80's didnt everyone will skull tattoos get classified as a punk or a metal head? Dis that musical preference have anything to do with how they acted in real life? This article is a joke...

  • Frankie Venom
    July 20, 2011 - 06:17

    The tragic murder of Mr. Winsor last week and the earlier one involving a young man in Paradise earlier this summer are very, very sad indeed ... But, as far as the Gangsta look goes ... well, youth have always adopted the fashion of the disenfranchised ... in the 50's it was the "Greaser" culture of Marlon Brando's "Wild One" and James Dean's moody pout. The 60's saw young folk adopt the Hippie subculture and during the 70's it was the Shock Rock and anger of the Punk movement ... I could go on, but you get the picture. As the youth of any decade eventually move into adulthood, the majority also move past the ridulous fashion and attitudes of their formative years ...

  • pamframtonspov
    July 18, 2011 - 19:06

    Ms.Frampton's ignorance on the root issues of violence amoung young people is astounding. In my opinion, you have no real knowledge of what you are talking about, and in my opinion it appears you are riding on the coat tails of a recent tragedy to sell papers and have people read your coloumn. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but a young man just died and two other young men are in jail. A tragedy all around, and to be quoting lyrics of rap songs? Such disrespect and ignorance!

  • David
    July 17, 2011 - 17:13

    Whenever I see these "Newfie ghetto kids", I have a great laugh. It is absolutely hilarious...kind of Monty see such a juxtapostion of environemnts as the edge of the barren, destitue North Atlantic and inner-city underprivileged Black America. .......BTW, why do you think young black Americans don't dress up in wool clothes and rubber boots like young, poor outport fishermen from 1960? Becasue they know that it would be totally, effing, out-to-lunch strange, that's why...d'uh!!

  • Skeptical Cynic
    July 17, 2011 - 10:50

    John captured it correctly, these lost little aholes are just play-acting what they interpret as being "cool" as per the latest (c)rap videos . As soon as they step out of line they should be dealt with swiftly and harshly by the law... see how cool they think they are then. Eventually tho, if they stay alive, one of these days reality will hit them like a smack in the face. Imagine how ridiculous they'll look still sporting those garish tattoos when they turn 40, 50,etc etc. Maybe they'll be picked up by a travelling carnival or something. Good Riddance.

  • Tammy
    July 17, 2011 - 09:58

    John has it right...most of those kids are posers. I live in LA, have taught in South Central and my husband is a Sergeant with the LAPD, many of the so called gangsters wouldn't last 5 mins here! And truthfully many of the kids that I taught in that area looked at pictures of rural Newfoundland and listened to my stories of home and thought that kids there were rich beyond reason! Perspective is a wonderful thing!

  • John
    July 17, 2011 - 08:04

    Kids, and apparently people in their early 20's, have this attitude because it seems edgy and they like to think they are shocking people, they're emulating what they see on TV, but especially in a place like Newfoundland, they have no idea what life is like for actual gangsters, they're posers. I'd like to see one of the so called gangsters try to survive 10 minutes somewhere like south Los Angeles. This kind of thing has been happening in cities and towns all over the world for years, it's becoming more prevalent here but it was bound to happen. These misguided fools are going to try to one up each other whenever they get the chance, they feel tough because they know there is no real threat to them if everyone is scared, again, if there were real gangsters here, these idiots would wet their pants.

  • mary
    July 16, 2011 - 21:13

    'Let’s face it, education campaigns probably won’t reach people who have only ever attended the school of hard knocks." Isn't that an assumption about those who aspire to the "gangsta culture", that they "have only ever attended the school of hard knocks."

  • james
    July 16, 2011 - 09:26

    it,s like what attracts women to bad boys may be you can answer that one