The Revolutionary Millionaire? On Jay-Z, Hip Hop Music, and Moral Ambiguity
February 24, 2012 1 Comment
Jay-Z tweeted that, but he doesn’t really believe it (or so I shall argue). In fact, a close examination of his lyrics, writings, and interviews quickly demonstrates that he has an ethic and thinks about morality on a regular basis. What he meant to say, as far as I can tell, is that a systematic approach to morality and ethics, as traditionally defined in the European philosophical tradition, is irrelevant to America’s urban ghettos and the music that sprung from them. According to Jay-Z, morality in rap (and ghetto life) does not consist in adherence to a categorical imperative or divine command, in the calculated weighing of utility or consequences, nor the adherence to a social contract made between equals. Rather, morality is contextual, imperfect, and ultimately ambiguous. As medical and social anthropologist Arthur Kleinman argues in What Really Matters,
Ethics, a set of moral principles that aspire to universal application, must be seen in a context of moral experience, which is always changing and usually uncertain, in order to provide a more adequate vision of values in society and how to respond to their clash and change. Taken alone, ethics, such as principles of virtue and justice, can be irrelevant to our local worlds, just as local moral experience, such as discrimination and oppression carried out in the interests of the dominant group, as in the American South in the era of segregation, can be unethical, even downright evil – and can render people unable to criticize their own conditions…[Thus,] Individuals’ efforts to live a moral life in the particular circumstances of moral experience can lead them to formulate ethical criticism of those circumstances as well as to aspire ethically to values that go beyond the local reality and seek universal support (pp. 25-6).
What Kleinman argues in this book is that to understand whether one has lived a “moral life” one must consider the dynamic interaction between universal values, cultural meanings, social experience, individual subjective experience, and political economy and political power. When examining lives in this way we have far less heroes and villains and many more “everyday” people who are doing their best to live a moral life in an oftentimes dangerous world. I propose that an examination of the life and work of Jay-Z articulates this truth as clearly as any example provided by Kleinman in his wonderful book, and also serves as an example of the way morality functions in hip hop music in general.
Jay-Z is arguably the greatest rapper of all time. Any quick listen to his most recent work will let you know the stats to back that up. He has 11 #1 solo albums (besting Elvis Presley) plus his #1 joint album with Kanye West (Watch the Throne), two of which are considered all-time great hip hop albums (Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint), and several other albums and songs considered to be extremely important in the history of hip hop. He is generally considered to be, in addition to his unrivaled long-term popularity, a superb technician in the skills of emceeing, many considering him one of the greatest lyricists of all time. In addition to his success in music, he has published a NY Times best-selling book, Decoded, based on his life and the interpretation of his lyrics. And on top of all of that, he has been dubbed “Hip Hop’s Philosopher King.” (He’s also a bit of a theologian if you ask me.)
Jay-Z’s story is the dream of countless urban youth. Raised by a single mother after being abandoned by his father Jay-Z entered the drug business as a teenager. He quickly became, by all accounts, quite successful in this enterprise. However, he also had a talent and love for rapping and, just in time (soon after exiting the the drug business for the music business several of his former colleagues were arrested in a police sting), pursued a career as a rap star. Early on he was unable to secure a record deal and so he, with a few friends, eventually started his own record label, Roc-a-Fella Records. His first album is now considered a classic, and he has gone on to have arguably the most successful career in rap history. He is a hustler’s hustler with roots in the streets and real skill at an artist’s craft. He is a self-made millionaire, an entrepreneur par excellence, and the “bad guy gone good.” Jay-Z has lived the life most rappers only rap about.
“Rap critics say that he’s ‘Money, Cash, Hoes/I’m from the hood stupid what type of facts are those?”
“If you escaped what I escaped you’d be in Paris getting f***ed up too”
However, he is not without his critics. He has been accused of being an uber-capitalist who has disavowed the prophetic heritage of black religion, politics, and music for the shallow dreams of material wealth. At their most extreme, such critics accuse Jay-Z of selling his soul to the devil, often by joining the Illuminati, for the allure of worldly success. (MC Hammer even made a music video making this point. The video has since been removed from the internet.) Others accuse him of glorifying sex, objectifying women as mere sexual playthings or degrading them through consistent use of the word b****, and condoning the violence and criminal activities of America’s inner-cities.
His most flippant response to these critics is something like, “Look stupid, I’m from the hood. I was deep in the drug game. I’m not supposed to be living the life I’m living. In fact, I should probably be dead. Now why would you think I’d talk about anything else but the ‘good things’ in life? Namely, sex and money.” In these moments he accepts this characterization of (at least some of) his music, but defends it by appealing to the long distance he traveled from poverty to wealth and claims his critics would do the same thing if they were in his shoes. He appeals to his experience to qualify moral critiques of his life.
“Say that I’m foolish, I only talk about jewels/Do you fools/Listen to music/or do you just skim through it?/See I’m influenced/By the ghetto you ruined/That same dude, You gave nothin’, I made somethin’ doin’/What I do, through and through/and I give you the news with a twist, it’s just his Ghetto point-of-view”
However, he doesn’t always accept these critiques. In fact, he has made many songs exploring “deep” issues of love and life. Specifically, he regularly reflects on the pain of his childhood abandonment by his father and sees his experience as symbolic of the experience of many urban youth (Where Have You Been, Meet the Parents). He has made songs where he empathizes with, though doesn’t wholly justify, the life of a street hustler (This Can’t Be Life, Regrets). And he has made multiple songs dealing with familial and romantic love (Song Cry, You Must Love Me, Glory). Simply put, he doesn’t just rap about “money, cash, hoes.” He also raps about love, loss, and the difficult moral choices one finds in an American ghetto.
His reply to his materialistic critics doesn’t end with a list of songs that don’t fit their description of his music, however. He insists that he’s got a unique perspective on life, or “the news,” that provides a different insight into the nature of the moral life than one can find in the mainstream media, suburban churches, or America’s halls of power. Rather, he talks about many of the same things politicians and social critics discuss but with a “ghetto point of view.” He recognizes many of the problems that exist within American life, but his take, shaped by his moral experience of our social-political structures, is a bit different than those who haven’t seen what he’s seen.
In addition, he frequently refers to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and even Jesus in his songs and claims to be following in their footsteps. Jay-Z understands himself, not unlike Tupac Shakur or The Notorious B.I.G., to be a rapper who challenges the status quo through his art. Specifically, he challenges the status quo by giving voice to those who are at best ignored and at worst silenced in American public discourse. He makes people who wouldn’t normally hear such voices (especially suburban youth) listen to, and take seriously, the stories of those trapped in a cycle of poverty, drugs, violence, prison, and death. And he speaks to those still trapped in such a cycle as to give them hope and perseverance. At least, this is what he claims.
“I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex…”
Of course, not everyone agrees with him. He is not Public Enemy, dead prez, or KRS-One. His music is often commercial and materialistic. For instance, one of the biggest hits of his career is a song titled “Big Pimpin’“. And he has been called out on this seeming contradiction in his music and message (you must read the whole thing, with an excerpt from Decoded).
Of course, Che Guevara is one of the most well-known Communist revolutionaries in history. Marxist social theory does not exactly extol the virtues of owning lots of extravagant luxury items, to say the least. So, to have a platinum necklace encrusted with diamonds in the shape of Jesus’s face (it’s own contradiction) bouncing off of Che Guevara’s commodified face is a glaring contradiction. Jay-Z’s response?
But to have contradictions–especially when you’re fighting for your life–is human, and to wear the Che shirt and platinum and diamonds together is honest. In the end I wore it because I meant it. – Jay-Z, Decoded, 27.
“I consider myself a revolutionary because I’m a [black man and a] self-made millionaire in a racist society.”
Since Decoded was released Jay-Z released an album with another artist whose career has been full of contradictions. Watch the Throne addresses these contradictions – between revolutionary politics, capitalist success, surviving and transcending the life of the street, and material indulgence – head on. It is, in part, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s defense of their luxurious lives. The most explicit defense is found in two songs: “Murder to Excellence” and “Made in America.” (Please listen closely to both songs.)
“Murder to Excellence” begins by recounting the, not so nice, state of black life in America. Specifically, it documents the high rates of violence that plague primarily black inner-city neighborhoods. This fact is most poignantly summed up in Kanye West’s line, “It’s a war going on outside we aint safe from…314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago.” The song then moves, with an abrupt change in beat, to an account of America’s black elite and the possibilities of success for black people in America. However, the song also laments the very few members of that “black elite.” Jay and ‘Ye call throughout the song for black solidarity to move from “murder” to “excellence.” This is most poignantly stated in Jay-Z’s line from the very first verse, “N****s watching the throne, very happy to be you/Power to the people, when you see me, see you.”
“Made in America” recounts both Kanye West and Jay-Z’s rise to success. Kanye rose from being an obscure independent music producer in Chicago to an international superstar, and Jay-Z rose from selling crack cocaine to being one of America’s richest people. The interesting thing here, however, is that they recount these stories in light of a chorus that places them in the trajectory of Martin, Malcolm, and Jesus as black people who have “made it in America.” In addition, their primary music video and performances in promotion of the album have included over-the-top American flags. Jay and ‘Ye intend to make it clear that they are doing nothing else than living the American dream.
A common theme in black American political life has been the choice, for simplicity’s sake, between “integration” and “separation,” “revolution” and “reformation.” This has historically been symbolized by the historical “choosing sides” between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois in the early twentieth century, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the second half of the twentieth century. In hip hop, perhaps this dichotomy is most clearly demonstrated in the constant debates about “conscious” hip hop and “commercial” rap. The key figures, for many, in this debate might be Chuck D or KRS-One and Jay-Z.
However, Jay-Z refuses to accept this dichotomy. Rather, he insists that he can integrate into the system and still be a revolutionary. More accurately, he insists that no matter how much success he achieves in the American economic and political system he can never fully be integrated. Therefore, his success is a revolutionary act because he is successful in spite of a system that intends to keep him from being successful. This doesn’t shield him from any critiques of materialist excess, hedonism, and the like, but it does nuance how one understands what he’s doing in his music.
“So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win”
How [do] you rate music/That thugs with nothin’ relate to it?”
In Decoded Jay-Z makes it clear that his life trajectory – from experiencing the effects of crack cocaine in American urban ghettos in the 1980s to becoming a global business – mirrors the trajectory of hip hop music. His story is, in many ways, the story of hip hop music. His ethics are, in many ways, the ethics of hip hop. Hip hop music is full of revolutionary politics, misogynistic patriarchy, material excess, religious devotion, sex, drugs, and violence, and the hopes and dreams of multiple generations. It is, in this way, a quintessentially American form of music. However, these Americans are those that have historically been excluded from being part of the American story. Jay-Z claims that he can be a revolutionary millionaire because he has now made their story part of the American story.
Whether this is true or not is up for debate. Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) has recently challenged whether this can be true or not in his new remix of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s extravagant celebration of extravagance, “N****s in Paris,” in his song and video “N****s in Poorest.” In this song, in an explicit reference to the Jay and ‘Ye album Watch the Throne, Yasiin calls people to “don’t get caught up in no throne…[because] They silver and they gold, aint never saved a soul.” Clearly, there are still many people who feel you have to choose, in the end, one or the other.
Jay-Z has tried to maintain a moral stance in the midst of selling crack and becoming a multi-millionaire. In both arenas he appeals to his context and dares people to judge his actions as immoral. Many are willing to judge them positively or negatively, but he refuses to choose, for himself, one or the other. He believes he can retain his moral integrity while living in the messy middle. He believes he can be a revolutionary millionaire. A moral drug dealer and a moral pop musician selling, at the same time, sex and hope because, as he (and others) reminds us, he is simply living the American dream. His implicit stance is that, whether selling drugs or music, one can be a moral capitalist and, therefore, attempts to redefine the definition of “revolution” in black political thought. He is not Marcus Garvey or Fred Hampton (even if he was born on the day Hampton died) nor is he Booker T. or Martin. Rather, he is paving his own way of living a morally coherent life in America.
Jay-Z, and hip hop music, can be judged, as all people can, regarding his morality. However, he insists that if you’re going to do so you must do so by taking seriously the contexts of his life – America’s urban ghettoes, America’s racist history, and America’s capitalist economy. Must one choose the purity of revolutionary separation or total inclusion if one is black and poor in America? Jay-Z not only answers with an emphatic, “NO!”, but insists that neither is actually possible. Morals in rap is not an oxymoron, then, but is something completely different.
To explore this topic further I recommend reading Arther Kleinman’s book What Really Matters to understand his argument about how morality actually functions in the world, and Jay-Z’s stunning book Decoded. Also, a few weeks back a friend asked me to put together an 80 minute Jay-Z playlist to introduce someone to his music. I think that playlist works especially well to understand the dynamics I’ve talked about in this post. The playlist is below:
1. Can’t Knock the Hustle feat. Mary J. Blige [Reasonable Doubt]
2. D’Evils [Reasonable Doubt]
3. Regrets [Reasonable Doubt]
4. Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) [Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life]
5. This Can’t Be Life feat. Beanie Sigel and Scarface [The Dynasty: Roc La Familia]
6. U Don’t Know [The Blueprint]
7. Heart of the City (Aint No Love) [The Blueprint]
8. Song Cry [The Blueprint]
9. Renegade feat. Eminem [The Blueprint]
10. Meet the Parents [The Blueprint 2]
11. Public Service Announcement [The Black Album]
12. Empire State of Mind feat. Alicia Keys [The Blueprint 3]
13. Murder to Excellence (with Kanye West) [Watch the Throne]
14. Made in America (with Kanye West) [Watch the Throne]
15. Glory feat. B.I.C. (aka his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter) [No Album]