On April 29, 1996, 28-year-old Martin Bryant set out to eat lunch at the Broad Arrow café in Port Arthur, Tasmania; an Australian penal colony that was transformed into a bustling tourist attraction. After Bryant finished his meal, he proceeded to carry out a killing spree that claimed the lives of 35 people and wounded an additional 23. Bryant, believed to suffer from mental illness, was armed with several semi-automatic rifles during the attack. He is currently serving 35 life sentences in prison.
In the days following, former Prime Minter John Howard helped construct strict gun reform laws that have since prevented another similar attack. Howard, the newly-elected head of Australia's conservative Liberal Party, reached across the political aisle in order to pass legislation that prohibited the sale and ownership of rapid-fire long guns and semi-automatic rifles. The resolution--known as the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms--would also obtain more than 700,000 firearms with its buyback program. In an Op-Ed for The New York Times in 2013, Howard stated that the legislation reduced gun-related homicides and lowered the suicide rate in his country. Professor Simon Chapman--who conducted research that examined the association of gun reform and intentional firearm deaths in Australia--backed Howard's assertion in an interview with The Guardian: "a major policy intervention designed to stop mass shootings has had an effect on other gun-related deaths as well."
Several months later, a 22-year-old MC from Queens, New York named Nas--né Nasir Jones--released his highly-anticipated sophomore album, It Was Written. The critically acclaimed LP has become an essential muse for several artists, and would offer a social oeuvre that still resonates as one of the strongest declarations for gun control in the United States.
1996 was a distraught yet transitional year for hip-hop. A media-fueled rivalry between east coast and west coast rap factions would culminate with two of the genre's brightest stars losing their lives to gun violence. Tupac Shakur was gunned down in September. Approximately six months later, The Notorious B.I.G.-- né Christopher Wallace--would meet the same disastrous fate. The murder of these hip-hop icons created an anomalous void in the culture. Although their respective legacies would endure perpetually, there were artists who were waiting in the wings to pursue the successful footprints of their fallen contemporaries. Established stars such as Bone, Thugs and Harmony, Jay-Z, Common, OutKast, The Roots, and The Fugees would savor supplementary success in that year and enjoy burgeoning careers throughout the following decades. Nas was also amongst this booming corps. While his debut album, 1994's Illmatic, tiled his bona fides in the orb of golden era hip-hop, It Was Written would take the young maestro to new heights with its crossover success.
Told via a first-person perspective of a semi-automatic handgun, "I Gave You Power" weaves a Shakespearean tragedy that deftly incorporates several layers: weighty perspective ("My creation was for blacks to kill blacks"), despondency ("I might have took your first child/Scarred your life"), gun trafficking ("Ohio to Little Rock to Canarsie, living harshly") and the unnatural acquaintance with death ("Placing people in graves, funerals made cause I was sprayed"). It is a remarkable story built upon an idea that has often been duplicated, but never matched with the same creative verve displayed by its originator. The crescendo of the song takes listeners to the shelf that the derelict gun has been resting on for weeks, until a young man walks in to pick it up. He has just been "stomped out" during a confrontation, and with both his skull and ego bruised, he wants revenge. Tucking the gun into his waistband, the young man heads out looking for his antagonist. Once the target is in sight, he pulls out his weapon to shoot; but the gun deliberately won't fire when its trigger is pressed. In a frantic twist, the antagonist then pulls out his gun--which is newer and sleeker--and kills the young man in cold blood.
Amongst a mêlée of running bystanders and police sirens, the gun is finally relieved that its killing days are over. That is, until it feels another hand grab it. Alas, the way of the gun is a never-ending cycle.
The stigma surrounding the celebration of guns is too often laid at the feet of hip-hop, a culture deemed by some as "morally bankrupt." Since its inception, hip-hop has been a prism that reflects the realities of Americana. One of those stark realities is our country's love affair with violence. Nevertheless, hip-hop is often labeled a seed that continuously sows the vicious ills plaguing society. This trope was once more brought forth by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, after a shooting at a T.I. concert in May left one person dead and three others injured. During a radio interview discussing the investigation, Bratton labeled "so-called rap artists" as thugs while lamenting that the violence some in the culture have endured is celebrated and "often manifests itself during the performances ... that's exactly what happened [at T.I.'s concert]." But the fact of the matter remains that gun violence is not a hip-hop problem; it is an American one. Statistics from The Washington Post show that more citizens have died from gun violence than in any war in American history over the last 50 years.
Before "I Gave You Power," Nas' song "One on One"--a rare gem featured on the soundtrack of the 1994 film Street Fighter--suggests disagreeing parties should settle their differences utilizing fisticuffs instead of weapons: "Imagine this: no guns, no knife/It's a one on one so now we gots to fight." In the spirit of Stop the Violence Movement's "Self-Destruction" and "We're All In The Same Gang" performed by the West Coast All-Stars, several artists from various genres joined forces to sign a letter to congress in an effort to create gun reform in the United States. In Chicago, a city whose murder rate serves as the ultimate hot take when discussing gun violence, elder hip-hop statesman Common and several other local artists have lent their support to the "Music vs. Gun Violence" initiative. Although rapper and activist Killer Mike is a proud member of the NRA, he agrees with the enforcement of immediate background checks and stronger guidelines for gun shows throughout the country. Despite all of the preconceived denunciation, many in hip-hop continue to be zealous in their attempts to dismantle an almighty gun culture.
After nine parishioners were murdered in their Charleston, South Carolina house of worship last summer by 21-year-old white supremacist Dylan Roof, President Obama visited comedian Marc Maron's WTF podcast. During their conversation, the President referenced the sustained success of Australia's gun reform after the Port Arthur massacre. Since that interview, and the deadly mass shootings that have followed, the President has continued to push gun reform as his departure from the Oval Office draws near. Subsequent to every mass shooting that makes national news, the issue of gun reform rears its sporadic head. The murders of President Kennedy, Dr. King, and Bobby Kennedy brought forth the Gun Control Act of 1968. Although the 1986 Firearm Owner's Protection Act included partial prohibition of machine guns and long guns, it also annulled a database that would track the sales of firearms and ammunition. Since 1993's Brady Law and the expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban, valid attempts to further develop gun reform have been all but fruitless.
During a town hall meeting in June, the President once again negated the notion that his cabinet is attempting to disarm responsible gun owners. "'There have been more guns sold since I have been president than just about any time in U.S. history,'" the President told a gun shop owner during the town hall. "'There are enough guns for every man, woman and child in this country.'" At the beginning of the year, President Obama introduced his executive actions to specify what he refers to as "common sense gun laws." The actions stipulate that anyone "engaged in the business" of selling firearms must be licensed and conduct background checks for potential buyers. Also included is the hiring of 230 federal works to complete background checks and the installation of a $500 million budget to "engage" individuals with serious mental health issues. In June, after the deadly mass shooting in Orlando, the Senate rejected four pieces of gun control measures. If and when the next mass shooting takes place, there is sure to be filibustering from both sides of the aisle arguing their respective perspectives of gun reform. It is to be expected that the political posturing will not lead to any resolution.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2014 about his storied career, Nas seemed genuinely surprised that his song had resonated with so many people. "The song just had to be made... It was my personal record...and I didn't really think outside of me when I wrote it." Legendary producer DJ Premier--who helmed the track and is a frequent collaborator with Nas--mined a bit deeper into the MC's psyche during the recording process in an interview with Complex magazine.
"...Nas said, 'I want to make a record as if I was a gun.' We started messing around, trying to figure out what he's going to do, and we finally figured out a way, because he said, 'Maybe I should do a skit where I drop the gun, and somebody else finds it.' And that's how it all built, and I said, 'You know what... let me make it sound sad.' Because he said I'm going to be the gun talking about being tired of all the stuff I'm doing to people. That's why I put that emotion behind it."
As the summer of 1996 melted into the beginning of a new school year, my father gathered me and my younger brother around the boom box in our living room to listen to the song. I vividly remember trying to conceptualize the shrewdness of the song; some things I caught on to automatically and othe topics would not register with my understanding until years later. As two boys who were on the cusp of evolving into young black men, my father wanted us to ingest the importance of Nas' message. We had to be aware of our surroundings. The world has changed immensely since the release of "I Gave You Power," but the issue of gun violence in America has, more or less, remained the same. Aside from being a baronial and complex story, Nas' song was a forewarning of what was to come. And as my dad relayed to my brother and I as the song ended, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.