musings on music

Chicago has a great crop of talent. Check back here to see who I feature, from time to time!

Stop Glamorizing Jay Z...Or Anyone Like Him

Recently,  Time Magazine named Jay Z as one of the most influential people in the world. Now, I wasn't mad about that, Sean Carter is definitely an influencer.But what really ticked me off was this post Russell Simmons made on Global Grind talking about the real influence of Jay-Z. In the post, Simmons (a mogul in his own right) says, "But, most important than all of his [Jay-Z's] life work in business and in art, Jay-Z has influenced an entire generation to be more compassionate, more tolerant and more generous." Oh?! More tolerant of what exactly?

I'm not sure if you all have heard it, but a couple weeks ago, Jay-Z released a typical egotistical track, "Open Letter" to address all of his "haters." In it, he says, "I might buy a kilo for Chief Keef/Out of spite I just might flood these streets." A kilo is a drug reference in case you were unclear. Way to use your influence for good, Jay. And of course it just isn't a rap song unless you throw some talk in there about his finances: "Would have brought the Nets to Brooklyn for free, except I made millions off of it...I still own the building, I'm still keeping my seat." I'm sorry, but I'm missing the compassion here.


At 43 years old, a husband and a father, this man is still rapping about the same topics he was in his 20s: moneys, heauxs (sorry Mom) and clothes. This leads me to a quote from female MC, Yo-Yo: “It’s not that Hip-Hop has changed tremendously because there [were always] the element of violence, women, and drugs. But, the boys who rapped about these things…are still rapping about them as grown men in their 40’s, which sets an example for the children. It’s as if these men have not let Hip-Hop grow up and evolve— that’s the problem; it hasn’t grown up. It still must be nurtured."

Hip-Hop has come a long way from its South Bronx origins in the late 1970s where emcees rapped over looped beats taken from funk records. What began as a story of marginalized people with limited resources in underrepresented communities, wanting to express their political awareness, social activism and Afrocentricity, has somehow become the heartbeat of mainstream culture globally and ultimately, the sound of capitalism.

The days of resistance anthems like Public Enemy’s, “Fight the Power” or KRS-One’s, “Self-Destruction” are long gone, at least from mainstream consumption. It seems the art form has shifted its focus from education and expression against injustices to self-fulfillment and accumulation of individual wealth. There are three deadly sins that have contributed to transforming Hip-Hop into a monstrous capitalistic regime: materialism, violence and misogyny.

By the early 1990s, the “conscious” streak was being eclipsed by the onslaught of gangsta rap. Its motivation was characterized by Niggaz With Attitude (NWA), the group who named and codified the subgenre, on their track, “Gangsta, Gangsta:” Life ain’t nothin’ but b-tches and money.” Despite this apparent nihilism, NWA embraced the perceived American dream. Like other popular representations of American gangsterism, it was a vision of a free market enterprise. Political messages of music are beginning to disappear, being replaced with the emphasis of accumulation. Percy “Master P” Miller was one of the firsts of the genre to embrace entrepreneurship—collecting everything from movies to dolls and even maintaining copyright control over music when working with NWA. By 1998, his companies grossed over $160 million dollars.

Last year, rapper Birdman told Forbes Magazine one of his motivations in life is to become a billionaire. Already a millionaire and rather prolific businessman, you would think someone with that much power and influence would be more concerned how he can uplift or positively influence his thousands of followers globally. In Chapter 8 of Richard Iton’s, In Search of the Black Fantastic, he says that some artists have expressed a “willingness to engage, time, space and other modalities outside of the given parameters” in order to escape the confides of institutionalized politics.

Sure, there are still artists who value the importance of educating the masses, but the major influencers, like Jay-Z have not really used their power in any way other than to further their own individual entrepreneurial endeavors. Sean Carter’s net worth last year was $460 million. Having a business deal in everything from production companies to trademarking his daughter’s name, Carter’s typical rags-to-riches life story has led him to a rather lucrative fortune and his music has always been a reflection of his obsession with materialism and "Open Letter" is no different.

In 2011, Jay-Z and Kanye West released one of the most anticipated joint albums of the year, Watch the Throne, where the title alone implies that these artists are well aware they are the kings of their craft, that was full of nothing but wealth/self-obsessed anthems. Make no mistake, braggadocious behavior have always been apart of hip-hop culture, however, the culture also founded itself on the ability to resonate with the common man and uplift—presenting the everyday struggles and frustrations of being a black man in America. Unfortunately, the picture Jay-Z and West painted with Watch The Throne was hyper-arrogant, hypermasculine and did little to educationally resonate with their audience. Ironically, the album sold 436,000 units its first week of sell.

2011 was still very much a transitional time for the United States, trying to come out of the one of the worst recessions this generation has ever seen. Unemployment was at an all time high, government-controlled programs were being downsized left and right. There was discussion of raising taxes on the middle-class, which was/is still struggling, instead of taxing the wealthiest one percent of the country. Under the Clinton Administration, when the country was undergoing major government reforms, artists expressed their discontent with the societal changes via their music.

However, Jay-Z, who has never been ashamed about making it known he is a product of Marcy Projects in Brooklyn (and former drug dealer) and West, the son of a college professor and Black Panther, continued to glorify their designer-labeled, bottle-popping lifestyle of excess for the sake of excess. They say I'm crazy, well, I'm 'bout to go dumb again/ They ain’t see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz/ Last week I was in my other, other Benz…” raps West in one of the album’s title tracks, “Otis.” As they brag about their two gold Rolexs, I'm strugglin' to make a student loan payment. Something ain't right.

It is interesting see two black men glamorize a system that doesn’t really support them. It’s no doubt that both West and Jay-Z are extremely successful proponents in the Hip-Hop sphere, but they challenge Iton’s notion of black respectability. As the millionaires move closer and closer to glamorous lifestyles and fetishization of materialism, are they trying to fit into coloniality? What system are they operating under to determine their success? Or is their behavior the ultimate performance in challenging hegemonic discourses? Somehow Jay-Z, a product of the ghetto, has managed to rub elbows with Warren Buffet, a financier who under any other circumstances and because of the “duppy state” (Iton 135) of blacks, would never converse with a rapper. Is Jay-Z a challenge to black respectability?

Well into his 40s, Jay-Z is essentially still rapping about the same things he was at least 10 years ago in “Big Pimpin.’" Going back to the quote female emcee, Yo-Yo, made on the Michael Baisden radio show a few years ago, grown men are influencing children—they seek to emulate whatever they see idols like West and Jay-Z doing. In essence, Hip-Hop is still very young and a lot of its major participants are not concerned about “nurturing” the art, they have turned the art into a materialistic business enterprise.

Yes, there have been some mistakes made in Hip-Hop--the genre isn't perfect. I very much believe there is potential there; you just have to be willing to give it a second chance. It's worth it. I promise.