The Trump of Rap: A Book Review
Shawn Setaro's "Dummy Boy" aims to illuminate Tekashi 6ix9ine's ties to a Brooklyn gang. It also elucidates an indirect link—to the 45th U.S. president.
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On the surface, you might not think Donald Trump has much in common with Daniel “Tekashi 6ix9ine” Hernandez, a 25-year-old rapper known as much for his rainbow-colored hair as his lengthy legal history.
But after diving into Shawn Setaro’s comprehensive new book, Dummy Boy: Tekashi 6ix9ine and the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods (due out this fall for Kingston Imperial), I’ve noticed more than a few parallels. And I’m pretty sure the Tekashi 6ix9ine phenomenon could have only happened in Trump’s America.
Setaro didn’t set out to write a book comparing the Brooklyn-born rapper to the 45th president of the United States. Rather, he intended to focus on the story of how Tekashi turned himself into a star—mostly by ingratiating himself with a notorious gang that became his personal hit squad—and ended up facing life in prison before turning into an informant.
“His sentencing was on the day of the impeachment trial and that’s a coincidence obviously, but I think it’s a telling one,” Setaro tells me as we stroll through Prospect Park on a muggy summer day. “I didn’t get into this in the book a ton because in some ways it’s almost too obvious.”
It’s surprisingly hard to ignore the parallels between the two men, starting from the beginning of the book. On the superficial side of things, there’s the geography: both were reared in the outer boroughs of New York City. Then there’s the hair. Tekashi’s rainbow mop serves as a more flamboyant—though perhaps equally unnatural—counterpart to Trump’s gravity-defying orange combover.
The former was discovered in a Brooklyn bodega by an aspiring manager who, while ordering some tilapia, decided he liked Tekashi’s look and cadence even though the youngster didn’t yet know how to rap. They teamed up and began marketing early songs and videos internationally, concentrating—as Trump did with his Miss Universe pageants—on Eastern European audiences who gravitated to the brand.
Tekashi eventually linked up with Brooklyn’s Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, featuring members in his “Gummo” music video in an attempt to boost his street cred. Never big on subtlety, he bought them red bandanas to elucidate their affiliation.
Even so, Tekashi wanted to be more provocative. Setaro notes that the rapper decided to wear a Mexico soccer jersey—not to honor his roots, but because “Donald Trump was president, and the ‘build the wall’ sentiment was everywhere … wearing a Mexico soccer jersey would surely get attention.”
After the video went viral, Tekashi used the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods to menace rivals—and to embolden himself. Just as Trump went after “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, poked fun at Marco Rubio’s height and tried to link Ted Cruz’s family to the Kennedy assassination, Tekashi provoked Chicago drill rapper Chief Keef, Compton hip-hop star YG and Houston hip-hop godfather J. Prince.
“He basically took it the list of people you're not supposed to talk about and talked about them, publicly,” says Setaro of Tekashi. “The jaw-dropping-ness of that was one of the things that kept people interested.”
Setaro describes how that brashness dates back to a young Tekashi wearing shirts that said “PUSSY” on the front and “EATER” in the back—with the number “69” added, in case his message got lost on anybody. This crudeness echoes Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes; in fact, Tekashi has since admitted to being a perpetrator in all manner of assaults (I won’t delineate them here, but suffice to say they’re numerous as they are horrific).
Just as the world knew most of Trump’s flaws years before he ever ran for president, Tekashi displayed many of his own well ahead of his own rise. The strangest part of the whole story, to me, was neither his inevitable entanglement in a federal racketeering investigation nor his decision to break street code and cooperate with law enforcement. It was the level of public fascination with him, no matter what he did.
Partly by playing the internet outrage machine like an 808 drum, partly by turning his life into a slow-motion subway crash as the world watched over social media, Tekashi capitalized on the bizarre human fascination with outrage and disaster. As he once admitted: “I think I’m just a troll who knows how to rap.”
Setaro’s book is an unexpectedly thoughtful examination of a mostly unredeemable individual. And it raises a number of fascinating questions. Perhaps most of important of all: Who’s worse, the villain himself, or those who enable, amplify or consume his villainy?
Am I one of those people? Are you?
“There may [still] be an audience for whatever he does, whether it's music or Twitch streaming,” Setaro tells me. “But maybe people have finally tired of the button pushing, and there will be someone new who breaks new taboos who will get our attention for another year.”
Or, as J. Prince put it: “I told y’all about this clown [Tekashi] that if he keeps campaigning with dumb shit that he was gonna get elected.”