By 7 o'clock, we all gotta disperse, unless you want to get caught in the cross fire." He waves his hands in mock terror. "I ain't trying to die tonight!"
Though Rich is clowning, his statement is perfectly serious — indiscriminate gunfire among gang members, often in their early teens, makes nocturnal loitering a risky proposition at best. As of September, according to the San Francisco Police Department's Web site, the Northern Police District, which includes the Fillmore, had the city's second highest number of murders this year, 11, ceding first place only to the much larger Bayview's 22. For overall criminal incidents, the Northern District led the city, at more than 10,000 so far.
Though Fillmore rappers might be given to stressing the danger of their hood, insofar as such themes constitute much of hip-hop's subject matter and they feel the need to refute the city's nongangsta image, no one I spoke to seemed to be boasting. They sounded sad. Hen, for example, reported that he'd been to three funerals in October, saying, "You hardly have time to mourn for one person before you have to mourn for the next person." While the SFPD's Public Affairs Office didn't return phone calls seeking corroboration, both Rich and Hen indicate the neighborhood is suffering from an alarming amount of black-on-black violence.
"Basically, it's genocide. We're going to destroy each other," Hen says. "It used to be crosstown rivalries rather than in your backyard. Now there's more of that going on. If you get into it at age 15, the funk is already there. Whoever your crew is funking with, you're in on it." The ongoing cycle of drug-related violence — the Fillmore's chief internal pressure — has only ramped up under the Bush administration's regressive economic policies. It's a fact not lost on these rappers: as Rich puts it succinctly on BTHA, "Bush don't give a fuck about a nigga from the hood."
"Everybody's broke. That's why everybody's busting each other's heads," explains Rich, who lost his older brother to gun violence several years ago. "If you don't know where your next dollar's coming from ..."
To be sure, the rappers give back to the Fillmore. They support large crews of often otherwise unemployable youth, and Messy Marv, for example, has been known to hand out turkeys for Thanksgiving and bikes for Christmas. But Bay Area rap is only just getting back on its feet, and while the rappers can ameliorate life in the Fillmore's housing projects, they don't have the means to dispel the climate of desperation in a hood surrounded by one of the most expensive cities on earth. Moreover, they are acutely aware of the disconnect between their community and the rest of the city, which trades on its cultural cachet.
"It's like two different worlds," Hen muses. "You have people sitting outside drinking coffee right in the middle of the killing fields. They're totally safe, but if I walk over there, I might get shot at. But the neighborhood is too proud for us to be dying at the hands of each other."
The neighborhood pride Will Hen invokes is palpable among Fillmore rappers. "I get a warm feeling when I'm here," Messy Marv says. "The killing, you can't just say that's Fillmore. That's everywhere. When you talk about Fillmore, you got to go back to the roots. Fillmore was a warm, jazzy African American place where you could come and dance, drink, have fun, and be you."
Mess is right on all counts. Lest anyone think I misrepresent Oaktown: the citywide number of murders in Oakland has already topped 120 this year. But my concern here is with the perceived lack of continuity Mess suggests between the culture of the Fillmore then and now. By the early 1940s, the Fillmore had developed into a multicultural neighborhood including the then-largest Japanese population in the United States.