If you have read a few of my articles for The DC Voice, you likely know how profound it is to me that Black people have survived and succeeded in quite literally every situation that promised to crush them. I consider it an egregious understatement to simply say that this is something to be proud of—it is something I am personally ecstatic about.
Many of us know that Black perseverance and triumph are observable in smaller, less historic doses as well. An example that often catches my attention is the impressive but all too cliché rags-to-riches narrative found virtually everywhere in rap music. A great deal of Black mainstream rapper’s oeuvres contain testaments to how they “got it out the mud” or “got off their ass” or something else synonymous with hustling to improve their situation. In fact, it is one of the most common tropes in the genre. I encourage any rap fans reading this to think of a lyric that juxtaposes where the artist was with where they now are.
For those less acquainted with what I mean, I will provide a few examples. Drake’s feature on Travis Scott’s immensely popular “Sicko Mode” contains the lyric “Back in high school I used to bus it to the dance / Now I hit the FBO with duffels in my hands.” Meek Mill’s iconic “Dreams and Nightmares” opens with “I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this / So I had to grind like that to shine like this.” One of my personal favorites comes from “Bake Freestyle” by Young M.A, who offers some advice to the financially challenged. To her, the broke stay broke because they “don’t know how to be honest / When I was broke, said I was broke, but I got up and grinded.”
When I think of the current, impressively monied members of the Black community across all disciplines, I invariably remember the way Jay-Z refers to them in “Somewhereinamerica”: “New Blacks with new stacks.” Jay-Z, a self-made billionaire, is no stranger to the rags-to-riches storyline either. And why should he be? Many such artists, in my view, feel the need to explain how far they have come because of just how dismal their beginnings were.
The title of 2 Chainz’ album Rap or Go to the League embodies another popular rap cliché. Many rappers have confessed that during their childhoods in violent, atrociously underserved communities, they and their peers became convinced that the only way to leave their situation was to become a successful rapper or a professional basketball player. When systemic inequality has landed you, your school district, your family, and everyone else you know in the same murderous, poverty-stricken boat, one only has so many options. I am reminded of the early pages of Richard Wright’s Native Son when the protagonist stares forlornly at a passing plane. He dreams of being a pilot but knows that, in Depression-era Chicago, his dream is all but impossible.
I can only imagine how triumphant it must feel to achieve fame and fortune after coming from such conditions. This is why I applaud the bravado and cockiness of such artists rather than criticize it; they have earned the right to show off a little. But this is a double-edged sword. While I understand why they choose to take victory laps, why they flaunt their funds in the faces of those that never wanted them to have them, I also understand that rapacious materialism is one of the greatest threats facing the Black community today. Yes, it is a beautiful and powerful thing to witness a Black man born in the projects and raised on food stamps sporting a Prada jacket. But it can be depressing to think that he would rather spend his money on luxury items than on his community.
Of course, this is not universal. Many rappers double as philanthropists, as do many Black athletes. But the often ostentatious and self-serving culture of rap music and virtually anything regarding young and successful Black people is still cause for concern. Do not misunderstand me; buy however many diamonds your heart desires. If you worked for your wealth, you obviously deserve to use it on your own terms. And to quote J. Cole in “1985,” “I love to see a Black man get paid.” If you have not already guessed, I especially love to see Black people get paid in a country that did everything in its bitter and bigoted power to keep them destitute. But I love it even more when they help each other get paid.
Perhaps I have overstated this point, but I ultimately want people of all colors and creeds to do whatever they want to do with their hard-earned money as long as they are not hurting anyone. Not everyone has to be a philanthropist and I do not look down on anyone who chooses not to be even if they have the necessary resources. I only ask that the wealthy stop every once in a while to ask themselves how best to use what they have.