Tbt* News Editor Josh Korr knew he'd likely damage local rapper Black Reign's rep with last Wednesday's cover. The snarky headline — "Street Cred? Shot!" — humiliated the 24-year-old rhymer who resides and works an office job in Brandon. The St. Petersburg Times-owned tabloid regularly uses such tactics to move papers. But last week, the free daily went too far by applying a double standard to hardcore rappers like Black Reign that doesn't exist for other artists in the business of depicting violence. Furthermore, the headline misrepresented the actual story.
The article's author is St. Pete Times staff reporter Ben Montgomery. He writes and files his stories; an editor crafts the headline. On the Times' version of Montgomery's article about Black Reign, which ran on the bottom of last Wednesday's [Nov.7] front page, the headline reads: "A sudden reality check," keeping in line with the thrust of the piece. Not so with the headline tbt* ran on its cover, with a picture that shows Black Reign looking much more menacing than the headshot that ran in the Times. (Both images were lifted from the rapper's MySpace site.)
"I thought this was a really fine moment of honesty," Montgomery said in an interview. "I really felt it was a gift from the guy. He was being candid about a real and scary situation that stands in contrast to the things he [raps] about.
"If you look at this story the way it was in the [Times], there's complexity. In a vacuum, it's a complex story about the reality of violence. It certainly doesn't make fun of him."
Black Reign is shown on the cover of tbt* scowling and pointing menacingly with his left index finger. Under the "Street Cred? Shot!" headline, the subhead reads: "Local rapper Black Reign is best known for his song 'Gun Shine State.' On stage recently, he heard a sound for the first time: a gunshot. He ran and hid in the ladies room."
Did Montgomery feel betrayed by the tbt* headline?
"Not a sense of betrayal, necessarily," he responded. "In all my reporting, I try to establish a level of trust with the sources. It's a hard enough thing to do without someone wondering if they're going to be made fun of."
Did Montgomery feel the headline was sensationalized?
"I'm not sure that's the right word," he said. "I think if anything, the headline wasn't reported. In my view, it doesn't fit this story. There's nothing in there about [Black Reign's] street cred. It would be different if we would have had fans talking about how this admission affects his career — but that's not really what this story was about."
Tbt*'s headline mocks Black Reign for not acting like the characters he depicts in song. He's ridiculed for being a phony. For being scared — as if in order for him to rap about shooting someone, he had to have actually done it, as if he should have pulled out his gat and returned fire that night several weeks ago in the Brandon nightclub called Fluid. The night a 36-year-old mother was shot and murdered.
I asked tbt* News Editor Josh Korr, who wrote the headline, if it reflects the essence of Montgomery's story. "I think it does," he said, "I didn't listen to the song ["Gun Shine State."] I'm not familiar with his canon. I went to his MySpace and the song wasn't there. But I found something you guys wrote."
Korr referred to the critic's award Creative Loafing gave Black Reign in our September Best of the Bay issue. It was a humorous entry (or at least a stab at humor) I wrote titled "Best Song to Play for Prospective Transplants." While on the phone with me, Korr read back one of the lines I wrote: "... the ultra-violent single by hardcore rapper Black Reign. The song finds the Tampa Heights native threatening would-be rivals with bodily harm via his firearm."
I tell Korr that I was the one who wrote it. (Best of the Bay items do not have bylines.) He stopped quoting my words and continued with his defense of the headline: "I'm not familiar with all of his work. ... But a main aspect ... He has some songs about violence, and once again it's a hip-hop artist, and it's all about posturing. That's what the headline [reflects]."
I mentioned to Korr that tbt* music writer Julie Garisto did a mini-profile on Black Reign that ran in June. In it, the man born Anthony Blocker never alluded to being a real-life gangsta. "We're killing ourselves over who's the best or who's tougher," reads Black Reign's quote. "You never hear about Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci arguing over who was the best painter. Hip-hop is a craft. People need to come together if it's to grow."
Korr said he didn't think of Garisto's story when it came time to write the headline. "It ran six months ago," he quipped.
I pushed him on the issue, citing a classic country music example.
"I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," sang Johnny Cash in his famous hit "Folsom Prison Blues."
Cash never set foot in Folsom Prison — other than to perform there after he was famous. He never shot a man. It was understood that Cash was an entertainer — that even though he was singing from the first-person perspective and wrote the song, it wasn't about him.
When Cash's Jamaican holiday home was broken into and he was held at gunpoint with his family, the media didn't respond by mocking him for not pulling out his own gun. Likewise, no one expects Martin Scorsese to be a tough guy because he makes movies about tough guys. I asked Korr if he would have mocked a macho country singer like Cash if he had been in the same awful situation as Black Reign found himself recently. I asked if hip-hop artists are being held to a double standard.
"That's a larger cultural issue that a headline cannot address," Korr said. "I'm going back to your quote and his lyrics: He's putting on a persona; it's fair to poke a hole in that persona.
"If there's a second thought," Korr concluded, "it's because someone died in the shooting."
On Oct. 18, the Times ran an extensive story about the murder that took place at Fluid Lounge and Nightclub. Last week's Black Reign piece was a human-interest follow-up, a microcosmic look at what can happen to individuals in times of crisis. It was sensitive, not mocking. That it got handed over to the tabloid and turned into something tawdry is a shame. That a local rapper trying to carve out a career now has to answer doubts about his street cred, has to answer for what was characterized as a cowardly act, is patently unfair.
Korr said he was not aware of the Times news story about the murder. "As far as I know," he said. "There wasn't [one]."
Black Reign sounded weary when I phoned him around 3:30 p.m. last Wednesday.
"How's it going?" I asked.
"Not good," he said despondently.
The rapper explained that I would have to call him back after 5:30 p.m., after he got off work. I did. The young man sounded worse, explained he'd been on the phone all day, said he wanted to do the interview in person, perhaps tomorrow. I said it needed to be done ASAP. I gave him my number. He said he'd call me back in 20 minutes. I tried him again around 6:30. No answer. Voice mailbox: full.
Black Reign called back the next day. Reluctant to speak on the record, he insisted he just wanted to "move on." Said he already had a big concert planned. But he did say (on the record) that "[the newspaper] shouldn't have gone there." He defended his song "Gun Shine State," made it clear he doesn't condone gunplay and then concluded: "I just want to leave it alone."