By Francesca D’Amico
Kanye West argues, “It’s time for us to stop and re-define black power.” Shawn Carter, declares, “Power to the people, …when you see me, see you.” But who exactly are the self-crowned Kings of Hip Hop seeing when they re-define Black Power in their track Murder to Excellence as, “ black tie, black Maybachs. … opulence, decadence. Tuxes next to the president” ? Even with references to Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, and music samples from Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield, it appears as though visions of pride and power in their album Watch The Throne is not the sort of ‘Black Power’ that activists and culture-makers of yesteryear would recognize.
Since its release on August 8, 2011, Watch The Throne has been the subject of many a music column and African American history and culture blog. While some have championed Carter and West’s eclectic music production, others have criticized their lyrical disconnect from the working-class worlds that produced them.
Watch The Throne also has a critic among the giants of its genre. Shortly thereafter the release of the album’s second single Otis (an homage to soul singer Otis Redding), Public Enemy frontman Chuck D wrote Know This or Notice as a musical response. Highlighting the realities of being working-class and racialized in America, Chuck D criticizes the two for boasting about their extravagant lifestyle and argues that “whips [luxury cars] wheelin’ is a million miles from what real people is feelin’.” Perhaps most unsettling is his indictment that contemporary Hip Hop suffers from historical amnesia where the exploitation of the underclass is concerned. In his call to consciousness, Chuck D asks, “have we all forgotten about latinos and blacks picking electronic cotton?…16.2% is a depression inside a recession.”
In July 2011, Time reported that those hardest hit by America’s recession are African-Americans and Latino Americans; communities that have historically lagged behind on key financial issues such as income and homeownership. New census data indicates that the median wealth of white American households is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of hispanic households. Reports suggest that this financial gap continues to widen, and that it marks the widest between whites and minority groups in the last quarter-century.
According to Carter and West, the new Black Power does not care much for the dip in economic markets. Nor does it aim to reshape American society or focus on class struggle and electoral politics as activists had during the height of the Black Power movement. It is not dressed up in black leather, showcasing renegade bravado as it channels the spirit of Black Panthers-past. Carter and West’s brand of Black Power is aspirational swagger, packaged as “luxury rap.” According to Watch The Throne, to be black, powerful and proud in 2011 is to be preoccupied with status, conspicuous consumption, and wealth accumulation by any means necessary.
And yet, as self-acclaimed representatives of the black elite, it is clear that Carter and West are aware of their unique, yet isolated positions as they rap, “[I] only spot a few blacks the higher I go. What’s Up Will [Smith]? Shout out to O [Obama]. That ain’t enough, we gonna need a million more.” Thus, laced between their seemingly thoughtless celebration of wealth and status, is a critique of the realities of race and the bourgeois culture(s) that continue to deny black youth full access to systems of power.
Perhaps most troubling, is that Carter and West’s lyrics are guilty of the very aspirational power that 1980s rappers found so problematic in the work of 1970s black culture makers. Rap groups like Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy, alongside New Black Realism film artists, argued that aspirational articulations of Black Power in art perpetuated fiction where issues of race, class and urban decay were concerned. While this art promoted a renewed sense of community, it hardly accounted for, if not even ignored, the symptoms of de-industrialization, the collapse of the working-class and the unraveling of the American welfare state that paralyzed urban underclass communities in the forty years following the civil rights movement. In 2011, it is hard to argue that Watch The Throne does not commit these same wrongs.
While it is unfair to suggest that Carter and West need occupy the role of “urban spokesperson(s)”in an ever-evolving definition of Hip Hop, there is an important message we would be remiss not to take from critics of Watch The Throne. That is, that an attempt to re-write the values of the black activist tradition as solely pro-capitalist is to ignore the effects of race and class in America that make this version of Black Power optimistically aspirational, yet problematic, if not hugely intangible given current economic conditions.
If there is a silver lining, it is that “luxury rap” can point us towards a dialogue that needs to be had on the increasing gap between the have and have-nots, …those who are as Notorious B.I.G once said, “slinging crack rock” to make a living, versus those who as Kanye raps in Otis are, “pray[ing] that all of their pain be champagne.”
Francesca D’Amico is a PhD candidate in American & Cultural history at York University. Her dissertation, tentatively entitled “Fight the Power: The Socio-Political function of Black Urban Music, 1968-1996,” examines the genres of Soul, Funk and Hip Hop in the post-Civil Rights era and the role of Black Power rhetoric in the practice of cultural consciousness-raising.