Jay-Z, “Blue Magic,” 2007: he takes up Kanye’s theme, above.
Ka, “Up Against Goliath,” 2012
Killer Mike, “Reagan,” 2012: Killer Mike charges that Reaganomics is the basis of the destructive whirlwind unleashed by crack, and that Reagan’s illegal Iran-Contra exchange brought crack into the black community.
During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the weekend poems, first published in 1909 by the early-twentieth-century African-American poet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:
’Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
With all good things but dying.”
The world’s ago, and we’re agog
To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
However slight the winning.
What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric
Can match one of potatoes.
Ye orators of point and pith,
Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
Ere it is forced to feed you.
A little gold won’t mar our grace,
A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place
When money clinks its story.
In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.
Jay-Z has said, “Generational wealth, that’s the key.” Generational wealth refers to the assets passed down from grandparents to parents to children. It’s by now well-known that there’s a huge gap in generational wealth between blacks and whites in America, largely due to redlining, a phenomenon that followed on the heels of the Great Migration. Redlining was the practice of banks and homeowners’ insurance companies of denying mortgages to blacks who wanted to buy a house. The term comes the color-coded city maps devised by urban planners, with the redlined communities considered high-risk for loan default (mainly because blacks and immigrants lived in them).
“Undesign the Redline” is a recent traveling interactive exhibit that invites participants to explore policy alternatives to redlining. View the exhibit brochure/toolkit here:
Do you agree that generational wealth is the key to full participation in American society? What if you don’t have access to it?
Jay-Z and Beyonce have both used their wealth in the service of causes they believe in. Jay-Z, for instance, helped get Meek Mill released from prison, and Beyoncé has donated to HBCUs. However,
When Jay-Z asks, “What’s better than one billionaire?” Twitter responds: “No billionaires.”
Do you agree?
Who was right, Booker T. or W.E.B.? Neither? Both? Have things changed in the past century? Have they gotten better? Have they gotten worse?
It’s worth nothing that John Lomax admired Booker T. Washington, calling him “wise, tolerant, a gifted orator, a great leader of his people.” It’s likely that Lomax saw the separatism advocated by Washington as an asset when it came to preserving black folk music (and, as you know, Lomax held to some old racist ideologies).
Jay Z, the consummate free-market hustler, [maintains a] hustler image [that] appears to represent a counter-hegemonic force, operating beyond the law and dominant norms . . . [but which instead reinforces them] . . . When Jay Z spends a career branding himself as a hustler defined exclusively through economic interest—as he put it in 2005, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man”—any sense that he may be positioning himself outside traditional notions of economic production becomes questionable. His nonstop, 24-hour devotion to self-corporatization makes him a true capitalist, the ideal bootstrapper . . . and an important illustration of [the] point that rap narratives can simultaneously criticize and serve mainstream interests.
New Zealand singer Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” appeared to be a critique of conspicuous consumption:
My friends and I – we’ve cracked the code. We count our dollars on the train to the party. And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this, We didn’t come from money.
But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom. Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room, We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams. But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece. Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.
[Lorde has] emerged from the far side of the planet with something smarter and deeper [than most pop music]: a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that’s so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single.
Holy. Shit. What did this white girl just say? . . . While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.
Do you agree?
How do you think Flores might respond to Beyoncé and Jay-Z song’s “Apeshit”? The lyrics can safely be called the exact opposite of a “critique of wealth accumulation.”
On the other hand, the video introduces issues not present in the lyrics. While the song celebrates wealth and excess, the video explores the juxtaposition of black bodies and the traditions of European art-making, with black dancers in flesh-toned leotards performing in lines in the Louvre Museum and re-enacting some of the paintings, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z take in the art and rap about their own success as artists. As Jason Fargo notes:
The Carters also seem to be making an intentional reference to the iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood.
The song and the video raise the questions once again:
Who owns music?
Who owns art?
What does it mean to be an artist — especially a black artist?
Does “success” mean the ability to consume luxury goods and services?
Is the pursuit of wealth an objectively good thing for the individual? For the community?
Is there a difference between art that celebrates consumerism and art that has a more explicit message of community or social engagement?
In the song “Boss,” when Beyoncé says, “My great-great-grandchildren already rich, that’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list,” is she making a political statement?
Finally: SHOULD art have a higher message?
The Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (1930-2017, above) grappled with similar issues in his book-length poem Omeros. In this section of the epic poem, he describes going to the Metropolitan Museum and seeing the painting The Gulf Stream by American artist Winslow Homer, which shows a black man in a foundering fishing boat in the Caribbean Sea. The Museum explains the painting’s subject as a “dramatic scene of imminent disaster.”
What does it mean, as a black artist, to receive the legacy of Western culture? What position does the black artist assume in the history of art and culture?
Update 1: the portrait of a black model featured in the “Apeshit” video is discussed in greater detail in this essay, about an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse.”
Update 2: In 1991, the celebrated quilter and artist Faith Ringgold made a series of narrative quilts entitled The French Collection, in which she reimagined French early-twentieth-century art through the point of view of a fictional African-American artist in Paris. In the quilt “Dancing at the Louvre,” the fictional artist, Willia Marie Simone, brings a friend and her three daughters to the Louvre, where they dance in front of the Mona Lisa.