Look at a rapper, graffiti artist, etc. (any personality within hip hop culture, either current or historical). What is their ethos? How do they invent themselves as a persona? How does their biography play into this? Are there any potential contradictions and do they manage to resolve them?
William Leonard Roberts II, more commonly known as rapper Rick Ross, has built a career out of his drug-dealer-turned-rapper persona. In many of songs, Rick Ross rhymes about drug trafficking and murder and various other criminal activities.
But that’s only Ricky Rozay’s invented ethos – far from his actual personal history. Surprisingly, despite his completely invented ethos, Ross has found – and continues to find – a great deal of success in a genre that emphasizes authenticity, a genre that focuses on ‘keeping it real.’
Roberts was raised in Florida. After graduating from Miami Carol City Senior High School, Ross attended Albany State University on a football scholarship. And, most notably, between 1995 and 1997, Roberts worked as a correctional officer.
For months, Ross denied his past as a correctional officer. Eventually, Ross did address his past in multiple publications. For example, while Ross admitted to being a correctional officer, he said it was only a job he did for a short time. Defending himself, rapper Ross told XXL, “The stuff I talk about is real. The dope is real. The gun talk is official. Look up [notorious Miami gang member] Kenneth ‘Boobie’ Williams. Look where he’s from. That’s not nothing to be proud of. I wish that on no man. But, just to let you know, that’s what I witnessed. It’s a reality. I cannot discuss certain people that’s still in the streets, and I will not. I took a street oath, and I’mma live by that, and I’mma die by that. And it’s not about a music career, ’cause that sh–, I’m good. It’s about me and being in the streets.”
And then there’s also this from Rolling Stone magazine:
For the first time, Ross talked about his past life as a corrections officer – an opportunity, he says, to “wash my hands” after his best friend was sentenced to 10 years for trafficking cocaine and heroin: “This was my best friend, who I ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with, and pork and beans with, my buddy, my partner, my number-one dude. Suddenly I’m talking to him over federal phone calls. Hearing the way it was building, I knew I couldn’t take nothing for granted,” says Ross. “My homey’s father was a huge influence on my life, too . . . He was the one who was like, ‘Yo, go get a job somewhere, man. Go be a fireman. Or go be a fucking corrections officer. Just go sit down somewhere.”
Yet his story, despite his attempts to defend himself, seems to be a completely invented persona – largely based on real life drug kingpin ‘Freeway’ Ricky Ross. The real-life gangster sued the rapper, but it was eventually thrown out. The judge in the case wrote:
“Roberts created a celebrity identity, using the name Rick Ross, of a cocaine kingpin turned rapper. He was not simply an impostor seeking to profit solely off the name and reputation of Rick Ross. Rather, he made music out of fictional tales of dealing drugs and other exploits – some of which related to plaintiff. Using the name and certain details of an infamous criminal’s life as basic elements, he created original artistic works.”
Whether you think that Rick Ross is a phony disgrace to hip-hop’s authenticity, or an entertaining performer simply putting on a show, Rick Ross’ widespread success seems to point to a shift in hip-hop’s emphasis and standards of what it means to be ‘real.’