Questlove on Hip Hop, part 2

Questlove continues his series on hip hop in New York Mag. This time around he takes on consumerism and class in hip hop and American culture at large. Two key paragraphs

I’d argue that when people think of hip-hop, pretty quickly they think of bling, of watches or cars or jewels or private jets. They think of success and its fruits, and the triumphant figures who are picking that fruit. This linkage isn’t limited to hip-hop — all of American celebrity, to some degree, is based on showing what you can buy — but it’s stronger there. The reasons are complex, of course, but the aspirational strain in African-American culture runs all the way back to slavery days. Slaves couldn’t own property because they were property. When freed, they were able to exist politically, and also economically. Owning things was a way of proving that you existed — and so, by extension, owning many things was a way of proving that you existed emphatically. Hip-hop is about having things to prove you’re not a have-not; it works against the notion that you might have so little economic control that you would simply disappear.

The part about owning things to prove you existed is both smart and ridiculously apt as it speaks both to racial experiences in America as well as class positions. The old canard that the woman down at the welfare office or on food stamps has a designer handbag is one that I’ve heard a thousand times. It’s raised as evidence that the women doesn’t desire the help of such social services without recognizing that perhaps the woman owned the item before economic hard times or that owning such items makes her visible versus one of the invisible poor. Only the really rich can dress shabbily and not be condemned for it.

The other key paragraph comes after Questlove unpacks Run-DMC’s use of material goods versus the use of materials goods in Jay Z’s songs. (Students, this is how use you close reading to craft an argument). He argues that hip hop artists have shifted the discourse on consumerism to one of exclusion:

But what does it mean that hearing the song somehow makes me measure myself against its outsize boasting? For starters, it means that hip-hop has become complicit in the process by which winners are increasingly isolated from the populations they are supposed to inspire and engage — which are also, in theory, the populations that are supposed to furnish the next crop of winners. This isn’t a black thing or even a hip-hop thing exclusively. American politics functions the same way. But it’s a significant turnaround and comedown for a music that was, only a little while back, devoted to reflecting the experience of real people and, through that reflection, challenging the power structure that produces inequality and disenfranchisement.

The whole article is again worth a read about how popular culture reflects the imperatives of consumerism in often self destructive ways that reify power structures.


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