A docu-style investigation of our fascination with the gun, from the perspective of the hip-hop generation.
The 2003 shooting death of Toronto community-centre worker Kempton Howard put the spotlight on hip hop’s fixation with guns. Media and police soon blamed rap music and its tales of gang life on bullet-ridden US streets for the rising use of firearms in Canadian crime. Were these songs artful accounts of a terrible truth, or a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Rodrigo Bascunan and Christian Pearce have interviewed many of the major players in the hip-hop world. As publishers of an award-winning magazine of urban culture, they’d watched rap music become a scapegoat for society’s much older and widely spread fascination with guns. What follows is their international adventure to deconstruct modern gun culture in all its manifestations. Bascunan and Pearce seek out hip-hop artists, illegal gun runners, firearms aficionados and manufacturers, museum curators, academics, politicians, video-game creators, activists, victims of gun violence and the family and friends left behind.
Somewhere between Fast Food Nation, No Logo and a Michael Moore documentary, featuring sly sidebar material and original artwork, Enter the Babylon System is part outrageous journalistic pursuit and part passionate cri de coeur for sanity in the face of a society’s obsession.
About the authors
Rodrigo Bascunan is the publisher and co-owner of Pound magazine. Although he himself has only ever been threatened at gunpoint, he comes from a long line of politically active Chileans who have been shot at. He lives in Toronto.
Christian Pearce is the editor and co-owner of Pound. Dodging bullets of a different sort, he studies law in Vancouver.
Excerpt: Enter the Babylon System: Unpacking Gun Culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent (by (author) Rodrigo Bascunan & Christian Pearce)
The cops don’t know where the killer came from, or where it’s gone since. Maybe it sits at the bottom of some river running beneath a bridge, or perhaps police will find it only after it has killed again. All we know is that it found its way into the hands of a young man with a calloused heart and a fragile ego, that in one moment, a flash really, that young man used it to take from this world forever a son, a brother, a mentor and a best friend. A soulmate.
On December 13, 2003, Clayton Kempton Howard was shot once in the head outside the Toronto apartment he shared with his mother, Joan, and younger brother, Kareem. He died instantly, at the age of twenty-four.
Kempton Howard was a lover of hip-hop. For those within the culture, hip-hop is much more than just music. It is a way of life, the practice of being yourself. And in so many ways, Kempton’s self projected greatness. Taiwo Bah can tell you. He is that soulmate. “I’ve never known anyone that’s into music as much as he was,” Tai said. “For him, it’s a life, it’s a whole culture to it. He embodied hip-hop.”
When we first met Taiwo face to face in the summer of 2004, it was at Joan Howard’s new house. The city had assisted in an expeditious move to a nice townhouse at the end of a tree-lined street. We got the feeling that Joan and Kareem weren’t yet at home there. Taiwo had been staying with them to ease the transition. As we sat at the kitchen table, sunlight pouring in around still-drawn blinds, Kempton’s blank dog-tags dangled from Taiwo’s neck. It was a late mid-week morning, and Joan and Kareem were resting upstairs. Sleep hadn’t come easily to them of late.
Taiwo had already been approached by a slew of reporters seeking quotes for stories on Kempton’s killing. Our conversation was different. As he said, we’re his people. You’d never know it from the stories that followed his death, but Kempton’s life exemplified our culture. “I mean, deejaying, emceeing, breakdancing and graffiti–he had it all,” Taiwo said. “He was hip-hop. He was loyal to the music from day one.” Another point that Taiwo emphasized: Kempton’s homeboys call him Kemp’n.
They also both worked with children in their community. “He’s like the MVP of the Boys and Girls Club staff,” explained Taiwo. “’Cause he’s worked at three different Boys and Girls Clubs in this city.” In 2001 Kempton started the Torch Club, a group for nine- to thirteen-year-olds at Eastview Community Centre, in his and Taiwo’s Blake-Boultbee neighbourhood in Toronto’s east end. The program revolved around a handful of core principles: leadership development, education and career exploration, volunteering in the community, social recreation, lifestyle and fitness. In practice it meant fundraising, braving the winter cold to break ice off the community centre’s stairs, learning about hygiene, and summer games of football wherever an open field could be found. “Most times his team would beat my team,” said Tai. “It was fun, man!”
Contrary to some people’s preconceptions about a young black man rocking a black do-rag with an Atlanta Falcons jersey, Kempton Howard just tried to do the right thing. As a result, his murder drew significant attention from the city’s major media and, by extension, politicians. A lengthy piece in the Toronto Star, a moment of silence at City Hall and mention of his name in the House of Commons–his killing didn’t pass as “Homicide 61/2003,” just another number in police records. But it all still fell short of doing Kempton’s life justice.
“If there’s a story in it then they’ll talk about it,” said Taiwo. “So branding him as a community leader–and I guess he is–but branding him as a community leader makes the story more poignant, and I guess it helps to form an idea of who he was, and an image and stuff like that. He was a lot more than that to me.” The media’s response also made clear how much less the city’s other victims of gun violence meant. “His death would not normally have earned more than a day’s worth of media coverage,” said CBC’s News Online on January 28, 2004, with surprising candour. “After all, he was a young black man living in a low-income neighbourhood. On Toronto’s 2003 homicide roster, that description hardly made him stand out.”
Most on that sad list would be publicly characterized more like O’Neil Ricardo Greenland, a.k.a. Heavy D, written up by the Toronto Sun’s Ian Robertson on February 8, 2004, as just “one more in a long line of black street thugs slain in Toronto.” Police know where the gun that Heavy D used to kill ended up. They found it on the ground beside him after he was shot several times in a Scarborough strip-mall parking lot, dead at twenty-two in what the cops told Robertson was a case of “simple retribution and revenge.” Two weeks earlier Heavy D had used his 9mm Bryco pistol to kill two people and wound another outside a storefront nightclub. “That was just one helluva night,” recalled Robertson, referring to late 2002’s “bloody Sunday”–so named by Toronto police for four murders committed within just eighty minutes. “Then [Heavy D] thirteen days later buying it in the way he knew he’d buy it.”
Beneath his newspaper’s sensational headlines, which on the last day of 2003 labelled Toronto “Gun City,” Robertson used police sources to trace Heavy D’s gun from southern California’s “Ring of Fire”–where cheap, easily concealable Saturday-night-special handguns such as Greenland’s 9mm were once made–through a Florida pawnshop and across the forty-ninth parallel into Heavy D’s hands. When forensic scientists finally raised the gun’s serial numbers, they discovered the digits 1460666, which, wrote Robertson, “branded it as the Devil’s gun.” He told us, “Heavy D knew he’d die. There’s no way he couldn’t have. And he was just a starter. There are other killers in this city who’ve killed a lot more people than he did.”
Recollect your thoughts, don’t get caught up in the mix
’Cause the media is full of dirty tricks
–2Pac, “Only God Can Judge Me,” off All Eyez on Me
“Fascinating. . . . unlike any other book recently published, because the two young Canadians do not seek to whitewash the harmful side-effects of the culture they write about.”
“Passionate and illuminating. . . . Bascuñán and Pearce, adamant believers in hip-hop’s positive ‘political and cultural voice,’ are also honest and sincere reporters.”
“Bascuñán and Pearce have used their industry credentials to gain access to some of the major players in the multi-billion-dollar hip-hop industry and in the multi-billion-dollar gun industry. . . . They give us the Canadian angle without losing the scope of the broader global issues at hand.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)