Depending on who you are, you can have one of two immediate reactions to the following words; capitalism and hip hop. One being, of course hip hop is capitalistic, it makes a profit and opens the doors for artist who otherwise would have never achieved such wealth and prosperity OR you may react like this, How in the hell could hip hop be capitalistic! Isn’t the whole genre based on fighting the powers the be and artistic expression of an oppressed culture. I propose that both reactions are completely correct. However there is something wrong here, how can we accept both entirely different stances. Well guess what, artistically this has been a struggle within the genre. How to define a genre that is so diverse. There are those who are socially conscious and others who rather focus on the glory of women, money and drugs. And then there is the hybrid who claims they can do it all. This is besides the point, what I really want to explore in this post is how a genre of music developed out of the injustice and the false promise of the American Dream is now a money-making machine that harbors an American Dream ideology. Did we create a monster? Did did we end becoming apart of the virus we started out fighting against? It’s at this very moment I picture flesh-eating zombies, and somehow hip hop was exposed to this zombie virus….spreading it across the globe.
Please note, I am not examining capitalism as an extension hip hop music, meaning it is capitalistic because it is selling a product. Although economically music is a product t be profited on I am more interested in capitalism’s internal presence. Meaning I am examining it as a message that is an actual part of the music’s content.
In addition, one could evaluate the blues, Motown and Jazz in the same way, I am using Hip Hop in this case study because it is my personal music of choice, which I am most knowledgeable of. It is key to note that the root of the arguments made come from the historical relevance of an oppressed people and their artistic expression.
Lastly, this a complex topic, I’ll be scratching the surface but if you find any interest … dig deeper always.
Capitalism: an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.
The American Dream: the traditional social ideals of the U.S., such as equality, democracy,and material prosperity.
Hip Hop: a style of popular music of U.S. Black and Hispanic origin, featuring rap with an electronic backing.
Utilitarianism: the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of majority.• the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.
Class Mobility: the possibility to move up and down in class.
Question: How is the American Dream and capitalistic ideologies filtered through hip hop? How does this hold a negative impact upon the culture, the artist, and the prospective listener?
Thesis Statement: The promotion and glamorization of such ideologies can be harmful to one’s self perception, the perception of their place in society and will only perpetuate societal norms that advance materialism and false realities.
What’s so wrong with this American Dream I keep mentioning?
The American Dream acts as a justification for capitalism. It is the idea of the self-made man. In other words, anyone can achieve success and prosperity if they try and work really hard. Sounds good? Well not really, what is that saying about the millions not only in American but globally who live below the poverty line? In essence it is saying rich people are rich because they deserve to be (they worked for it). If that indeed is true than the opposite is as well (what all politicians will leave out of the speech). Poor people are poor because they deserve to be, they are lazy and didn’t work hard like those rich people we just mentioned. If that’s true most of the world happens to be lazy. That I simply can’t agree with. In fact I am so critical against this American Dream because it denounces the social structure that hinders impoverished people from class mobility.
Cue Utilitarianism; the idea that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of majority, meaning the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Now let’s say you’re not apart of that majority, in fact you’re a ‘minority’. In this context minority would be, females, those of a race other than Caucasian and perhaps those with disabilities. Well in America you really don’t matter, because your aren’t the greatest number of people, separately of course.
The media I will evaluate are going to be based on what are considered by the industry to be classic or fundamental pieces in Hip Hop on a timeline. As well as two examples of what I believe on extreme ends of the spectrum.
Unemployment at a record highs
People coming, people going, people born to die
Don’t ask me, because I don’t know why
But it’s like that, and that’s the way it is
This song starts off depicting a lack of purpose behind life, the lie life of those who are poor, ‘unemployed’.
On one hand, being true to harsh conditions that is their reality. At the very same time equating life’s value to their sanding in class
Money is the key to end all your woes
Your ups, your downs, your highs and your lows
Won’t you tell me the last time that love bought you clothes?
It’s like that, and that’s the way it is
So how do you end all unhappiness, by achieving wealth. To obtain something with monetary value. Suggesting that love has no role in the means for survival.
You should have gone to school, you could’ve learned a trade
But you laid in the bed where the bums have laid
Now all the time you’re crying that you’re underpaid
It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is
This line in particular is at the root of the American Dream. If the person had only went to school and wasn’t lazy they would prosper and be happy. This places all blame on the individual and none on his surroundings.
The catch about this song seems to be the line in repetition; “Don’t ask me, because I don’t know why/But it’s like that, and that’s the way it is“. This tells the listener two things . One; life is not fair. And two; you have to play by these rules in order to succeed. Despite the fact that even if the artist himself can’t make sense of them. I find this line to be important because it is acknowledging a problem. The problem is with society. The listener has to follow these guidelines because they are put in place by society. This should ultimately cause one to ask why is it that way? At the end of the day, I would say this song is acknowledging the issue, but accepting it simultaneously. And that is just as bad as promoting it.
You never thought that hip hop would take it this far
Now I’m in the limelight cause I rhyme tight
Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade
Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner
Biggie is known for lyrics that get straight to the point. Sure he is simply saying he has made it …meaning to possess money. More importantly the second line in this paragraph reveals not only the perception of himself, but how the world would view a man like him as well. A born sinner; suggesting has never been ure, righteous or deserving of good fortune. This applies to those impoverished and particularly those of an minority.Meaning he was never supposed to be in such a desirable position, yet his hard work thanks to the american dream and the idea of class mobility got him there. The problem here is the preconceived notion that one belongs in a certain place of society due to race or class.
You know very well who you are
Don’t let em hold you down, reach for the stars
You had a goal, but not that many
Cause you’re the only one I’ll give you good and plenty
Ah ha! Here is the good the part, the romanticized idea of the struggle, the very root of the American Dream. If you reach for the stars and make it, it justifies capitalism, but if not …..Well that’s your problem. The song in its entirety validates a fairytale ending that is indeed rare. So the 80% who never succeed to this level are being supplied rhetoric so they wont stop trying. And by trying I mean working to the needs of the system and participation society’s oppressive nature.
*I cross checked this video and the billboard archives, and the video is indeed 95% accurate.
There is something important happening here, in the early 2000′s. Content has moved away from story telling of any kind. The subject matter of the top ten rap singles in 2004 according to Billboard, are all about obtaining women, with images exemplifying wealth and success in the videos. There is need to decode lyrics. Commercial hip hop at that moment was a depiction of how to reap the benefits of prosperity. To enjoy money, material items (women fall into this as well) and power.
In all the video clips shown, the depiction of fancy cars, jewelry, and women (as objects) is identified as a necessity in order to be a successful rapper. To be successful, to achieve that American dream you to need to aspire to have these things. This in turn is creates a community, living by false idols. idealizing material items is only half the problem, in additional one may start to mimic the roles depicted in such music videos, especially young people.
Furthermore, if many of these images bear the burden of representing a whole race of people while preserving a cultural phenomenon they then serve as example to others. Meaning black media, in this case black music becomes a reference across the world to say, “look this is what black americans are like”. Is that accurate? Of course not. It that completely wrong? Not necessarily.
Something we should all think about.
So I ball so hard mothafuckas wanna fine me, first niggas gotta find me
What’s 50 grand to a mothafucka like me, can you please remind me
It should be noted that the song is titled Niggas In Paris…. and is fully intended to act s a paradox. The album as a whole has been praised and noted as historical because of the collaboration between the two rappers. It has also come under criticism for being out of touch and excessive in its content of luxury. Others argue they are simply talking about their lives as they are now. And there are other songs like Murder to Excellence to counter-act a song such as this one. The second line in this quote is perhaps the most popular one. It takes a stance of superiority, and looks down on those who would consider that a large amount of money. This is a great example of a capitalist ideology coming through as a message in the media, being this song.
(Ball so hard) This shit weird, we ain’t even spose to be here
Again! we see the idea that the individual knows they don’t belong in a certain social standing. They defied the social order.
(Ball so hard) I’m shocked too, I’m supposed to be locked up too
If you escaped what I’ve escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too
(Ball so hard) Let’s get faded, Le Meurice for like 6 days
Gold bottles, scold models, spillin’ Ace on my sick J’s
He uses the word escaped, to escape you must be held there against your will. Hence America’s social construct was his jail. By suggesting he doesn’t want to be judged for his indecent behavior.
Just For Hell Of It…..
Yassin Bey otherwise known as Mos Def remade the song… to pretty much counter act everything said in the original. Take a listen, if you haven’t already. The lyrics are in the video s well…he doesn’t let anything go over your head.
Wish I could see out Haile Selassie’ eye
Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine
If all the gangs in the world unified
We’d stand a chance against the military tonight
Haile Salassie is referencing the ruler who kept Ethiopia a sovereign nation. It seems as though he thinks if he had the same vision he would still have his freedom, from things like external influences. Which he references in the next paragraph.
Ab-soul is known for his anti-government views, he takes it a step further by suggesting the power is in our hands. He also points out that instead of fighting each other, we have to fight the real enemy, the government. What would the fight be for? Freedom in its symbolic form.
Out my window all I see is Babylon
On the news all I see is Babylon
And all niggas do is just babble on
Money and hoes, want money and hoes
If I sold dope, I’d have plenty of flows
Babylon, was a city that indulged in materialism and sensual pleasure. He uses that as a metaphor for what we value in today’s society as well. Providing the example of that all his peers talk about is “money and hoes” . Which we have seen in the pervious examples in today’s post. Ab-Soul recognizes that although women and money set the mark for success, they only serve as a distraction from the issues at hand which he mentions in the next paragraph. But this goes to say, for all of those who have “made it” in the industry, have they made it or simply aligned within society’s constraints. Given many of Ab-Soul’s lyrics I would assume he believe them to be just as powerless as they started. But I’m only assuming.
You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress
We protest in hopes they confess
Just proceed on your conquest
I ain’t got no gavel
I ain’t finna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free
I ain’t finna be nobodies chattel
It is these lines that are most clearly socially aware. Ab-Soul cleverly uses Pro and Con to make a symbolic distinction. Congress being a con, something negative and Progress of course a positive. Although he now moves away from what started as a movement to an individual struggle. Coming to the conclusion to worry about your own self value and dignity .
The purpose of this example to show Hip Hop that denounces an American Dream or capitalist ideologies. I want you to as least the distinction in content. And even where songs like “Its Like That” and “Juicy” can be somewhere in the middle, with contradictions and mixed messages. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that seeing as life is very much the same way.
Ok so what was my point ? I’m sure anymore, lets review.
My Question: How is the American Dream and capitalistic ideologies filtered through hip hop? How does this hold a negative impact upon the culture, the artist, and the prospective listener?
And …. Thesis Statement: The promotion and glamorization of such ideologies can be harmful to one’s self perception, the perception of their place in society and will only perpetuate societal norms that advance materialism and false realities.
Exactly, so I hope in some way even parts of this argument were evident in the examples given. There is nothing wrong with stories on triumph and success. There is something wrong with having one distinct description of what is mean to be successful, and/or happy. It becomes difficult for one to come to their vision if they are too busy trying to emulate the vision; THE DREAM filtered through countless forms of media.
I particularly find it interesting when it is placed in the context of Hip Hop, because now additional factors come in to play. We aren’t just talking about a genre of music but a cultural phenomenon, that defines major elements of being black in America. Therefore we should all be monitoring how this medium influences the listener, the artist and the culture as whole. Most is importantly to question how this mythogoly of an American Dream hurts us, and how it helps us. My particular opinion; I beileve it gives us a flase perception of who we are in the world and what is really valuable.
But who cares about what I think I want to her your opinion, about ANYTHING I mentioned today. Please feel free to disagree or ask some of your questions. For me these ideas are ongoing, and I am constantly modifying my views and opening myself to new perspectives .
Thanks for reading.