Bobby Shmurda, 20, took the internet by storm in early 2014 when a Vine of his song “Shmoney Dance” went viral. After a bidding war between labels, he signed a multi-album deal to Epic Records, and became hip-hop’s new flavor of the week. He followed it up with “Hot Nigga” and seemed poised for continued success (whatever that looks like in today’s music business landscape). Yet somehow, with lyrics that highlight drug sales, trap houses, and violent exchanges (or him and his crew just shooting people, as it were), there was some incredulity when Shmurda was arrested in December 2014 on a series of charges that include drug dealing, weapons possession, conspiracy to commit murder, and assault. Shmurda pleaded not guilty and bail was set at $2 million. Yet two months later, he is still in custody, and apparently upset that his label hasn’t been more supportive, specifically by posting his bail and voicing its support.
My gut reaction to Shmurda’s sense of entitlement from his label was disgust. How dare this employee expect his employer to bail him out of a situation he got himself into by allegedly committing crimes? If I go out and catch charges, I’d sooner expect to be fired than for my employer to post my bail or handle any of my legal fees. But then I wondered, what if my legal action comes from something that occurs in the course of me performing my job duties? To a certain extent, my employer will back me and provide legal representation and financial backing.
Hm … Shmurda is an employee. So that begs the question of whether the actions that resulted in his litany of charges were happening in the context of his job. Well, that’s messy, isn’t it?
I’ve long considered labels complicit in the behavior of their artists to the extent that those behaviors become attached to and a part of what the artists do as a condition of their contracts. Plainly put, if labels are going to financially benefit from their artists content, then labels are complicit in the behavior that comes along with that. Oh, your artists boast about pimping women in their music and it sells like hotcakes? Well, when said artists catch pimping/pandering charges, don’t be shocked. And certainly don’t try to condemn their behavior when you’ve turned a blind eye to it as long as the records sold, videos played, and headlines kept them visible.
I can understand where labels want to distance themselves from artists in these incidents because it’s the nature of the business. Nobody in their right mind wants to constantly deal with problematic behavior that leaves them cleaning up behind people and making excuses for poor behavior. We see it all the time when people lose their commercial endorsements after catastrophes in their personal lives. But where is the line drawn when an artists’ image and what they do to maintain said image becomes a public relations, criminal or civil nightmare?
To take advantage of that and exploit it from a business standpoint and then turn your back is disingenuous, to say the least.
I absolutely think artists need to have accountability for their actions. They’re grown, have free will, and actions have consequences. But, I don’t think it’s fair for labels to simply wipe their hands of a situation and leave it for the artist to sort through simply because it unflattering. Shmurda’s entertainment lawyer, Matthew Middleton, eloquently explains his client’s frustration and the label’s place in this: “These companies for years have capitalized and made millions and millions of dollars from kids in the inner city portraying their plight to the rest of the world. To take advantage of that and exploit it from a business standpoint and then turn your back is disingenuous, to say the least.” Labels are enablers and if they want to be able to walk away when it’s messy, they should do a better job of preventing it in the first place. You don’t want your signees going to jail over drug and murder charges? Maybe you shouldn’t make that your bread and butter. Sign an artist whose content and image don’t revolve around how many Desert Eagles and bricks of coke they’ve got on their living room table.
But that’s not reality. Reality is that people love to glorify that hard life as long as that hard life doesn’t come with tangible body bags and certainly not prison sentences. That stops the money, duh! People in the hood love it because it’s their experience. People in the suburbs love it because they can live vicariously through the music. And labels love it because they’re getting money hand over first at the expense of somebody else having their hands dirty. So it’s all well and good to have rappers like Bobby Shmurda whose lyrics paint a story of violence, drugs, and sex. But it’s not all good when you have to step up and condone that behavior in real life.
I don’t have an easy answer to this. But I’m interested to see how this plays out for Shmurda. My best guess is he doesn’t get backing from his label and he sits until he can make something happen for himself. It’s a tough lesson, but not at all a new one.