Cultural Critique / Pop Culture / The Color Line

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Hip Hop: Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Harry Belafonte

jay z 1

On Tuesday, August 13th, 2013, Kendrick Lamar, up and coming West Coast rapper who burst onto the scene with mixtapes that got rave reviews and an album good kid m.A.A.d city that stays in heavy rotation when I hit the road, dropped a guest verse on Big Sean’s Control album that included the following lines:

I heard the barbershops be in great debates all the time
Bout who’s the best MC? Kendrick, Jigga and Nas
Eminem, Andre 3000, the rest of y’all
New niggas just new niggas, don’t get involved
I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhymin’ wit
But this is hip hop and them niggas should know what time it is
And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big KRIT, Wale
Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake
Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller
I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas
Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas
They dont wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas
What is competition? I’m tryna raise the bar high
Who tryna jump and get it? You better off tryna skydive…

Some say this was the young guy, Kendrick Lamar’s response asking those currently in the rap game to step up their lyrical game, while others, more like myself saw it as a bit of a diss.  But in today’s hip hop musical world, what’s really a diss?  Let’s be honest, the rap game as we know it has gotten mighty friendly.  Alex Young of Consequences of Sound put it this way:

It’s true. Though I’m sure there are more than a few rappers currently in the lab conjuring up a way to “respond” to Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop should instead be celebrating. Aside from Kanye’s latest balls-to-the-wall masterpiece, hip-hop hasn’t had an intriguing storyline in sometime. There was Kanye and Drake’s “beef”, if you would kendrick-lamar-x-leveled-magazine-by-ben-miller-8even call it that, which was only interesting because it left us wondering, How do two decadent high art rappers even go at each other? (Pusha T learned that the hard way when he went at Drake and lived to tell nothing about it.) Meanwhile, over on the Young Money Cash Money front, Nicki Minaj is busy getting proposed to, Lil Wayne is skateboarding, and I guess Rick Ross’ army of bodyguards have secured the perimeteraround his multi-million dollar fortress? Then there’s ASAP Rocky, who drank a bottle of champagne and didn’t pay for it, or J Cole who pulled some hijinks at a Best Buy, and Tyler the Creator who got hired by MTV. All the while, Jay Z is teaching a marketing class.

So this levied the typical “Hip hop is dead” rants and tweets and FB statuses and I’m sure a couple of dozen blog posts circulating as such.  I pushed back on a few and simply make the case that hip hop isn’t dead, it’s just commercialized.

Anyone with a keen eye will realize I borrowed the title of this post from the famed manifesto on early capitalism written by Adam Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations more commonly known as Wealth of Nations.  It has stood the test of time and it was a book I laboriously read when taking a “Self, Culture & Society” class at the University of Chicago while I was 15.  We read Emile Durkheim, Michel Foucault and yes even the famous Sigmund Freud all trying to synthesize some early philosophic concepts that formed the foundation of the modernist Western society.  One of those fundamental concept was capitalist work ethic that was later espoused by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Like any industry that began under the guise of western civilization in the past 200 years, hip hop culture became co-opted and industrialized.  Much like Weber’s understanding of the division of labor, we see just how major record label swooped into the inner cities, found a new music niche and marketed it to the point that you have your street runners, your middle managers, your handful of senior managers, and the corporation is still on top raking in the most of the profits.

In a stinging critique of capitalism, one of the fallacies that capitalism embraces is that hardwork and perseverance alone can get you to the top.  America loves the rag to riches story.  It’s one we like to tell and have been telling almost since the beginning of this country.  We love to tell the story of “Honest” Abe Lincoln with beginnings in a Kentucky wood cabin; Bill Clinton growing up poor in Arkansas.  And in this case, we have no problem pointing to the nearly ubiquitous tale of Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter growing up in the Marcy Houses, a public housing development in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) neighborhood [a historically black neighborhood of Brooklyn and a northern terminus for blacks during the Great Migration].   Capitalism looks and says “If Jay-Z can do it, so can you.”  But, the majority of us know that’s not true.

Last year, Harry Belafonte when asked about the image of blacks in Hollywood decided to stand on a soap box and call names in the process.  In true Harry Belafonte form, when asked if he was happy about the image of blacks in Hollywood, he was quoted as saying:

Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking. We are not determinated. We are not driven by some technology that says you can kill Afghans, the Iraqis, or the Spanish. It is all — excuse my French — shit. It is sad. And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”

The comments made by Harry Belafonte resurfaced when Jay-Z decided to “diss” (if you want to call it that) the 85-year-old Belafonte in his latest album Magna Carter.

I’m just trying to find common ground
’fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down
Mr. Day O, major fail
Respect these youngins boy, it’s my time now.

Even today, as Kendrick Lamar issued his challenge to hip hop, Oprah Winfrery weighed in on Belafonte and Jay-Z.

“This is what Harry Belafonte, my generation, everyone needs to know, and what this film says: People war in different ways. There are multiple ways to protest. Jay uses his music, he uses his life, he uses his artfulness, his ability as a business man, that is his protest against all the indignities that, not only he has suffered, but generations before him have suffered. Harry Belafonte’s might have been going to Congress or marching. Not everyone has the same way, that’s why this movie is so powerful because the father’s way was not the son’s way.

Which way is right? Both are right.”

This has been something that the hip hop industry, more specifically their artists have been struggling with for quite some time now.  As hip hop culture moves out of its childhood years and breaks into adolescence, like typical teenagers, it’s coming to grips with it’s next form of identity.  Just like humans as individual persons, the seven year old that we were is no more dead than merely matured and transformed at age 18.

But in addition to the age-appropriate identity struggle, hip hop has consistently fought against many who claim that its artists don’t “give back to the community.”  Blacks who have “made it” have always grappled with how does one turn around and either 1) give back to the community or 2) reach back and pull some out from the community.  The descendants of African slaves in this country have always had to deal with that familial and community separation ever since the first humans on the West Coast of African were rent from their ancestral homeland and families divided being left to wonder what about those left behind.  It was again exemplified when runaway slaves left the relative comfort of their slave community and perhaps even families, and again when families or even singular patriarchs left for northern cities in search of a better job in the Great Migration, always wondering what about those from where I came.  We saw it again as upwardly mobile blacks in the 20th century participated in the suburbanization phenomenon known as “white flight.”

It’s this natal separation that is literally a physical one as well as a psychological one that prompted HBCU president, Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough to call out Dr. Dre in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece for donating $35 million of a total $70 million to the Univerity of Southern California for an endowed program to launch a new degree that blends liberal arts, music production, technology and business.  Kimbrough, through social media received mixed review for his point of view, many pushing back the claims that USC only cares about black athletes are false and many saying that it’s Dr. Dre’s money and he can choose what he wants to do with it.

From where I stand,  the likes of Harry Belafonte and Walter Kimbrough didn’t go far enough and Oprah’s response is the epitome of self-serving her own business and capitalist interests and misses the mark completely when it comes to an appropriate response.

Belafonte and Kimbrough took the traditional approach calling on the better angels of our human nature, but they did so from the place of entitlement.  By Belafonte making the claim of social responsibility he’s placing full obligation on those with more, but by doing so he’s empowering a whole community to be entitled to what others have.  Now, at the core of that argument it’s highly socialist.  There’s no tip-toeing around that as a reality.  But, it falls back into the mode of charity, rather capitalistic, by talking about giving back as far as scholarships and the like.

In this country, the accepted paradigm is that if you have a lot of money and are independently wealthy that you worked for it and you earned it (notwithstanding criminal enterprises).  Therefore, someone asking for something that they didn’t work for, a government handout is frowned upon.  It’s what caused the oft misquoted phrase “[The love of] Money is the root of all evil.”  Give a man money, watch ‘em act funny.  While Belafonte is criticizing the Carter-Knowles duo for not giving back, it ignores the fact that they do have the Shawn Carter Foundation that does give out full four year scholarships to students who go to college.

Kimbrough in his criticism of Dr. Dre does go a bit farther in the direction I would like to steer the conversation by saying

This gift is gravy for USC; for a black college, it would transform not just individuals but whole institutions and communities.  My challenge is to figure out how to get Dr. Dre and others to listen as well, because when they support black colleges, they are also supporting a quality product. [emphasis added]

As many of us were enraptured by the History Channel’s docu-series “The Men Who Built America” [for the sake of length and focus we'll politely ignore the fact that this country was heavily built on free slave labor and women had such an integral part in building this country it's laughable that such a title got green-lighted] that has had more than one run discussing the four giants industry Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford, we saw just exactly how wealth in this country is created.  All of those men created a need for the public and then supplied that need–at a cost.

Let’s be clear, Jay-Z, has not created a need.

jayz-wealthJay-Z’s wealth and business acumen, while yes is remarkable and yes includes major power plays, he hasn’t contributed anything to the lifeblood of this country and to the gross domestic product.  Being a steel magnate, owning the electrical grid of the whole region, controlling the oil production, owning the national rail companies–those are things that indeed did build this country.  The modern day equivalents are the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs contributing to the technology sector, the likes of Ted Turner dominating much of the television industry.  That is wealth, and wealth that can exist in perpetuity for generations.

Jay-Z is worth around $500 million which is no small feat seeing as how in my line of work, over the course of a lifetime, I won’t even hit total earnings of $2 million.   But, opening the 40/40 nightclub, starting Roc-A-Fella Records, former CEO of Def Jame Records, starting the Rocawear clothing line are all standard in the hip hop playbook of what to do with your money.  Not to mention, you start some sideline charity as well.  Jay Z did go a step further than the rest by owning a minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets.   For me, when one does an inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of hip hop, one will find that while it may be money rich, it’s relatively wealthy poor.

On the list of the top 30 worldwide wealthiest charitable foundations, the poorest has an endowment of $3 billion.  This amount of wealth came from persons who had companies, not just owners of nightclubs and clothing lines, but from persons and partnerships that produced something and made sure that it was something to be publicly traded which meant that there was stock involved and could have other investors.  As a result they have wealth, wealth that can be passed down from generation to generation.

What I wish Belafonte had said had not been limited to scholarships given to inner city kids and their families, but actually asking what investments were Jay-Z and Beyonce making, what major power moves and innovations were they creating.  Instead, all I see is the likes of the hip hop moguls just making pawn moves on a chess game trying to figure out a way to eke out the most on the chessboard rather than trying to own the chessboard itself and produce a new type of game.

oprah_jay-zOprah, I think missed the mark comparing Belafonte’s fight on the front lines with the civil rights movement to Jay Z being a “business man.”  There’s no sugar coating the fact that Jay Z and Oprah are part of the 1% and they embody it and embrace it to the fullness.  I’m not arguing that they should be apologetic or ashamed of what they have achieved, but to make the claim that occupying the 1% is a form of protest is almost laughable.  I want to turn and ask Oprah on one of her many farms “How’s oppression treating you these days?”  Black spending power in 2010 netter around $900 billion and is expected to top the $1 trillion mark within the next couple of years.  We possess the power already to demand better and to do better within the confines of a capitalist economy, however it is consumer power, not capital power.  It would be nice if those who had did better with what they had.

Perhaps as Kendrick Lamar has issued a challenge to the hip hop community to simply be better artist and craftsmen at what they do, I turn ask the hip hop community, and by extension black community institutions, to raise the bar and look toward the future when it comes to our long term prospects of wealth.

The next generations deserve better.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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One thought on “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Hip Hop: Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Harry Belafonte

  1. Thank you, Uppity.

    How (if it does) can the theme of this post be tied to the biblical ‘talents’ (pounds) parable? (Matt 25:14-30 and/or Luke 19:12-27).

    Wealth is created, money is made?

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