Editor’s Note: This December 2003 article dealt with the concept of “street cred,” which is the cachet and legitimacy that some people achieve by virtue of anti-social behavior. Sadly, many of the celebrities with street cred serve as icons for members of society who would be better served by better role models. At the time it was written, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson had been indicted, but had not yet come to trial. Mike Tyson, of course, continued to be just plain nuts. [Kobe must have been pleased as hell to have his support (see photo below)].
The comic strip Boondocks recently asked whether the rape charges against NBA star Kobe Bryant “could help Kobe’s rap career.” Apparently, in some circles, an arrest can provide an athlete with “street cred” (slang for credibility), a highly desirable commodity.
Like a ghetto dweller disparaged for “acting white” because he’s seen carrying books, Bryant’s middle-class background and classy demeanor had prevented him from acquiring the street cred that ballplayers such as Allen Iverson accrue with lengthy rap sheets. Wassup with that?
What’s up is that, in the NBA, anti-social behavior is ignored, if not rewarded. Just ask Latrell Sprewell, who acquired some of his street cred by strangling his coach. Since the 1980s, when the Detroit Pistons’ dirty play earned them the nickname “Bad Boys,” and increased their marketing clout, aspiring celebrities have learned that thuggishness, if not outright criminality, can lead to fame and fortune, in sports and elsewhere. Just ask NFL linebacker Ray Lewis and rapper P. Diddy.
I’m not talking about people with NVT (no visible talent) who become celebrities for no good reason. The Hilton Sisters, for example, are famous merely for being famous. Nor am I talking about those who achieve renown by failing famously. Lawyer Marcia Clark parlayed her mishandling of the O.J. Simpson prosecution into a book tour and a job at NBC. And Mickey Sherman became ubiquitous as a celebrity defense attorney and TV personality after his millionaire client, Michael Skakel, was convicted of murder with decades-old circumstantial evidence, when few thought the prosecutors had a prayer.
Nor am I talking about sinners who’ve atoned for their crimes. Watergate conspirator Charles Colson started a prison ministry while serving time. A radio commentator, prison rights advocate and born-again Christian icon, Colson has built a reputation on his good works since his incarceration, instead of his prior criminal history.
Fellow conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, on the other hand, has cashed in on his persona as an unapologetic Watergate criminal. Now a conservative radio talk show host, author, and TV and movie actor, his fanatical devotion to right-wing policies, past and present, gives him tremendous Republican street cred.
Likewise, GOP idol Oliver North’s prestige is based on his complicity in the Iran-Contra scandal. His conviction was overturned on one of those legal technicalities that law-and-order Republicans profess to hate when it involves someone who’s not one of their own. And his zealous shamelessness now brings him $30,000 speaking engagements and his own show, “War Stories,” on the Fox News Channel, aka GOP-TV.
Monica Lewinsky’s NVT notoriety has yielded low-level celebrity and a short-lived reality show, “Mr. Personality,” on Fox. Similarly, Joey Buttafucco’s affair with Amy Fisher has led to TV appearances, including a bout on “Celebrity Boxing,” and several movies, including a small role in the Sean Connery film, “Finding Forrester.”
O.J. Simpson’s “domestic problems” cost him a fortune, but made him a hero in the black community, despite his continued indifference toward that community. Recently, he was reported to be considering an offer to serve as a commentator on the Laci Peterson murder case. If Scott Peterson stays out of prison or is paroled someday, will he be hosting his own show on CourtTV?
The media love to redeem the dishonorable. Pseudo-journalist Stephen Glass, who fabricated stories for magazines from “The New Republic” to “Rolling Stone,” has made a comeback with a book deal, which can only be helped by his “60 Minutes“ interview and the release of “Shattered Glass,” a movie documenting his shameful career. What’s next, a Broadway musical lionizing disgraced “New York Times” reporter Jayson Blair?
Michael Jackson’s celebrity seems to have blinded him to the seriousness of the charges against him. Emerging from his bail hearing, he waved to fans as if he’d just won the Tour de France and flashed the “V” sign like Churchill during the Blitz. A crowd had gathered outside to applaud their hero, just as cheering admirers had once welcomed convicted rapist Joey Buttafucco home from prison.
Jackson’s recording career had been fading, and most of the interest in him has revolved around his bizarre personal life. Although not even those who value street cred expect a child molestation conviction to increase his record sales, Jackson’s latest CD is selling respectably. And, if he can buy his way out of these latest allegations, as he did in 1993, the associated publicity might actually increase his standing among those who characterize his arrest as one more attack on a successful black man.
Will the notoriety and enhanced rep that come from being the “victim” of a “high-tech lynching” fuel a Jackson comeback? And if Kobe’s exonerated, will his increased street cred help him sell more Nikes?
Former NBA star Charles Barkley once said that, “Athletes shouldn’t be role models.” Based on the American public’s fascination with bad boys, this principle should be widened to include any celebrity with street cred.
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