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Freeway Rick Ross believes that Hip Hop is being used as a government weapon. The former drug kingpin turned activist says that the government has “taken hip-hop and made it glorious to be a drug dealer.” According to Ross:

The message that it tells our kids is that if you go out, sell drugs, then you can become a great rock star… and never go to prison. That’s a false message to be giving people who feel hopeless.

On the surface, the idea that the US government is even aware of hip hop, let alone interested in using it to further some kind of agenda, seems outlandish. The government could care less about hip hop music. Right?

But as it turns out, our government has been using art and artists to achieve political goals for a long time.

Art as a Weapon

You don’t have to look far to find examples of governmental manipulation of popular art.

Just last week, a federal agency called USAID made headlines when they were caught trying to infiltrate Cuba’s underground hip hop scene. Their plan was to:

…recruit dozens of Cuban musicians for projects disguised as cultural initiatives but really aimed at stoking a movement of fans to challenge the government.

The idea that a US government agency used hip hop as a “covert weapon in the US government’s hapless attempts to unseat Cuba’s communist government” was news to many people. But, this wasn’t the first time the government had used art in the service of war. It turns out, we have a long history of using art as a weapon.

For decades during the Cold War, it was rumored that artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning were “part of a secret CIA program… aimed at promoting American ideals abroad.” Although the CIA was using them as part of an anti-communist program:

The artists themselves were completely unaware that their work was being used as propaganda. On what agents called a “long leash,” they participated in several exhibitions secretly organized by the CIA

Donald Jameson, the CIA operative who confirmed the operations, explained that the CIA chose to promote American abstract expressionism:

Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US.

Programs like this began in the 1950s when “the CIA’s International Organizations Division was set up, aimed at promoting anti-Communist cultural projects abroad.” And as the Cuban hip hop operation indicates, government agencies are still using these tactics to this day.

The Prison Industrial Complex

Both of the previous programs were designed to subvert perceived enemies of the state. But Ross’s allegations are different because they suggest this type of subversion is being used against American citizens.

Ross believes that “the hip hop lifestyle doesn’t lead to riches, but to prison.” But who benefits from people being locked up?

Enter the prison industrial complex.

Most people are not aware that some prisons are a for-profit ventures run by private corporations. And, they can be very profitable. A prison workforce offers:

With those conditions, it’s easy to be competitive.

Take Federal Prison Industries aka UNICOR. UNICOR is ” is a wholly owned United States government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce goods and services.” But many people believe that it’s ability to leverage prison labor has made it too competitive, hurting private sector businesses by reducing their ability to compete:

Business owners are crying foul over the number of clothing contracts — including those for military uniforms — awarded to Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR.

UNICOR has earned a bevy of Army clothing contracts recently. It manufactures the Army’s Improved Physical Fitness Uniform, and from 2007 to 2011 the company produced about 40 percent of the Army Combat Uniform.

Offering these contracts to a company that employs U.S. inmates at federal prisons across the country for an average wage of 23 cents per hour has often had a negative effect on American small business owners.

Even worse, UNICOR is often able to win the contracts without facing any competition at all.  Retired Air Force Col. Kurt Wilson, executive vice president of business development and government affairs for American Apparel, said, “The way the law is — Federal Prison Industries gets first dibs and contracts up to a certain percentage before they have to compete against us.”

And the kicker – despite having vastly reduced labor rates, UNICOR’s products are not any cheaper. In fact, their products can cost up to 15% MORE than other manufacturers. Virtual slave labor. Incredible margins. Billions in no-bind contracts. Sounds like someone is getting paid.

And then you have the people managing the jails.

The Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA,  is a company that:

…owns and manages private prisons and detention centers and operates others on a concession basis. The company is the largest private corrections company in the United States and manages more than 67 facilities with a designed capacity of 92,500 beds. CCA, incorporated in 1983 by three businessmen with experience in government and corrections

The CCA recently earmarked $250 million dollars for buying and managing additional correctional facilities. However, their terms for purchasing a facility included some interesting stipulations. Most notably, they required that they receive a 20 year contract, a minimum rated occupancy of 1000 beds and a guaranteed 90% occupancy rate.

What is that worth? A really quick back of the napkin estimate suggests:

That’s a lot of cash.

For people wanting to take advantage of prison labor, but feeling left out, many states, like California, have Joint Venture programs in which private businesses can partner with the state to leverage DOC workers. The state of California itself is so reliant on prison labor it recently refused to obey court orders to parole non-violent offenders because they were afraid “prisons won’t have enough minimum security inmates left to perform inmate jobs.

Add to that the lobbies representing the people that work for the system – groups like the prison guard unions – and you have a whole lot of people whose survival depends on prisons being kept full.

But how do you keep prisons full?

The War On Drugs

Back in the 80’s, when government began its War on Drugs:

…there were roughly 40,000 drug offenders in U.S. prisons, according to research from The Sentencing Project, a prison sentencing reform group. By 2011, the number of drug offenders serving prison sentences ballooned to more than 500,000 — most of whom are not high-level operators and are without prior criminal records.

In 2013, Federal data showed that 51% of the federal prison population consisted of people who were imprisoned for possession, trafficking, or other drug related crimes.

Many people were also unaware that the privatization of prisons was a direct result of the war on drugs:

With a burgeoning prison population resulting from the “war on drugs” and increased use of incarceration, prison overcrowding and rising costs became increasingly problematic for local, state, and federal governments. In response to this expanding criminal justice system, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and consequently, private-sector involvement in prisons moved from the simple contracting of services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prisons

In addition to making the market for privatizing prison, the war on drugs made sure that federal and state prisons were full of non-violent offenders. But you can’t have a drug war without the drugs. So, despite the fact that they were doing a great job of filling the jails up, the government didn’t try too hard to stop the drugs from entering the country.

Consider the recent case of the Flores twins.

While part of a Chicago sting operation, the Flores twins – two high level narcotics traffickers turned DEA informants – imported TONS of narcotics into Chicago every month while still under DEA supervision. They would import the drugs from Mexico, sell the drugs to street level dealers, and then tell the DEA who they sold the drugs to. In turn, the DEA would arrest the dealers.

Although the operation resulted in arrests, its methodology was suspicious for a few reasons. First, even though many of the street dealers ended up in prison, the people who actually brought the drugs in – the Flores twins – were given given deals that included witness protection. More importantly, if the DEA really wanted to stop the flow of drugs, why didn’t they just arrest the Flores twins?

As it turned out, stopping the flow of drugs was not their top priority. What was? If the billion dollar forfeiture agreement that the Flores twins helped the feds secure is any indication, the prime motivation appears to be money.

Almost same thing happened to Freeway Rick Ross decades earlier.

In the 80’s, Ross was one of the largest distributors of crack cocaine in the United States. His empire, “once dubbed the Walmart of crack cocaine — expanded east from LA to major cities throughout the Midwest.” His supplier was a man named Danilo Blandon.

Like the Flores twins, Blandon imported vast amounts of drugs from South and Central America. Like the Flores twins, he worked with the DEA to bust the people that he sold them to. And like the Flores twins, Danilo Blandon got a deal in exchange for his cooperation.

However, Blandon’s story had an additional wrinkle: when Blandon was called to testify, he swore under oath that money he raised from selling drugs was being used by the CIA to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The allegations were stunning:

…a drug ring that sold millions of dollars worth of cocaine in Los Angeles was funneling its profits to the CIA’s army in Nicaragua, known as the Contras.

This led to a 1987 investigation led by then Senator John Kerry which confirmed Blandon’s testimony:

The logic of having drug money pay for the pressing needs of the Contras appealed to a number of people who became involved in the covert war. Indeed senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.

This demonstrated a few things. One, that the government, despite claiming to be waging a war on drugs, allowed the mass importation of drugs into the country. Two, that parts of the government knowingly benefited from the sale of those drugs. And three, the people caught in the middle were an acceptable cost of doing business.

The Infiltration of Hip Hop

So, suppose you have a prison-industrial complex that profits from prisoners, and a government that profits from drugs. The only thing really missing would be a great advertising campaign to keep everything moving. Say hello to modern hip hop!

Not only does modern hip hop glorify crime, it glorifies violence, murder, selling drugs, and pretty much anything else that can get you locked up. Of course, it’s not sold that way. Instead, it is packaged as way for poor artists to escape all of those things. But in reality, it’s all a carefully constructed lie.

Just look at the two different “Rick Rosses”.

The Real Rick Ross – Freeway Rick Ross; the one who bought the coke, made the crack and sold the drugs – got busted and was sent to jail.

The Fake Rick Ross – the wannabe rapper and former correctional officer named William Leonard Roberts II; the fat ex-prison guard who stole Freeway Rick Ross’s entire identity – got rich.


Because modern hip hop artists are nothing more than spokespeople for the prison industrial complex. As one writer put it:

Every corporation is expected to grow at least 4% each quarter, many prisons are privately owned with stock being traded on the open market. If these corporations were to do commercials, jingles and promotions who would they hire?

Admittedly that’s a cynical view. But, when you consider the close ties between big media corporations and private prison industries:

  • The #1 stock holder of Viacom and Time Warner is Blackrock
  • The #3 stock holder of Viacom and Time Warner is Vanguard Group Incorporated
  • The #1 stock holder of Corrections Corporation of America is Vanguard Group Incorporated
  • The #2 stock holder of Corrections Corporation of America is Blackrock

… so maybe it’s not so cynical after all.



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