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Even in The Hip-Hop World the Ideas of Left and Right Battle for Supremacy

August 31, 2009

For his first guest on last Friday’s special edition of “Real Time,” host Bill Maher spent a half hour interviewing rapper, mogul, and entrepreneur Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter.

(For my previous commentary on Maher’s second interview of the evening, with progressive journalist Bill Moyers click here.)

Carter was soft-spoken in his reflective interview which rarely got particularly political. Maher mainly questioned Carter about his artistic process and style. He did also ask about being a married man and his responsibility as a role model:

My responsibility is to the culture. My job is to show it in a great light. I’m a role model in that way…

Carter also noted that he did not smoke marijuana — one of Maher’s pastimes. Maher then commented that the decision was rooted in Carter’s understanding of the importance of maintaining focus.

jay-z-rolling-stone-cover

For many on the Right (and much of the rest of the culture at large), there’s a tendency to dismiss the entire genre of rap and hip-hop as little more than the violent misogyny fests of street thugs. While there are many questionable tendencies within rap, there’s also something worth highlighting: one of the ideological strains within rap offers a clear path toward understanding and embracing the American Idea. How can ghetto youth get oriented toward achieving? As counter-intuitive as this might sound: through appreciating rap music.

The entrepreneurial, capitalist spirit is at the heart of much of rap. For many rappers the objective is to work their way out of poverty by developing themselves artistically and financially. Then, once they have initial success in rap they branch out into numerous other fields.

Note the capitalist spirit of the title: "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" and of course the name 50 Cent

Note the capitalist spirit of the title: "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" and of course the name 50 Cent

That’s what Carter did. Since finding success as a rapper, Carter has branched out into multiple business ventures beyond his own record label. He’s been successful in fashion, restaurants, and real estate. He even owns part of the New Jersey Nets.  And he’s not alone. Such hip-hop figures as 50 Cent, Diddy, and Russell Simmons have also embodied this pro-capitalist spirit. (The trend was even satirized by comedian Dave Chappelle in a mock commercial for “Wu-Tang Financial,” an investment firm founded by a popular gangsta rap group.)

Recent estimates put Carter’s net worth at $1 billion. The reality is this: In 20 years Carter went from impoverished crack dealer to billionaire. And he did it based off his own hard work, discipline, and abilities. That is the American Idea in action. And while not everyone can be a rapper, everyone has the potential to reach within, develop themselves, and create a better life.

"All Eyez on Me" was one of Tupac's later, less political works.

"All Eyez on Me" was one of Tupac's later, less political works.

But there are other ideological currents in rap. The influence of the black Left is tremendous. Radical themes of black nationalism have pervaded rap since its early days with the success of groups like Public Enemy. Rap icon Tupac Shakur also had a leftist streak — the influence of his Black Panther mother Afeni — particularly in his early work.

More recently, one of the more political rappers has been Nas, whose Untitled album (originally radically titled as “N—–” to provoke) was staunchly leftist in its condemnation of America. (Apparently Nas isn’t a radical when it counts, though, he compromised on his offensive title for commercial reasons.)

Incidentally, one of the most visible hip-hop “feuds” of recent years has been between Nas and Jay-Z. And who occupies a far more prevalent spot in the culture? Mr. Carter. Nas isn’t a billionaire mogul being interviewed for a half hour on “Real Time.”

I’d hesitate to call Jay-Z a conservative but he’s most certainly a capitalist, which is close enough. And one need only juxtapose the careers of Nas and Jay-Z to find further expression of the supremacy of capitalism and the American Idea over the fantasies of the Left. Through embracing entrepreneurship and injecting himself into the capitalist project Jay-Z has triumphed over his rival. It’s a lesson that should resonate beyond just fans of rap.

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6 Comments
  1. September 1, 2009 6:30 am

    Er, so why did pointlessly Jay-Z dis Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly in his latest single?

    http://conservativetalkradio.blogtownhall.com/2009/08/24/tell_rush_limbaugh_to_get_off_my_balls,_rapper_sings.thtml

    • September 1, 2009 6:41 am

      “I’d hesitate to call Jay-Z a conservative but he’s most certainly a capitalist, which is close enough.”

      From one of the links in the piece you linked to:

      “The O’Reilly jab likely comes as a response to a segment the FNC host did in January, chastising Jay-Z and Young Jeezy for comments they made at a Pres. Barack Obama inauguration celebration. The Limbaugh reference may have been a response to a less-than-favorable reference to the rapper in a speech Limbaugh made in December.”

      If O’Reilly or Limbaugh took a shot at you you’d poke back, right? 😉

  2. In the know permalink
    September 1, 2009 7:33 am

    They call it the “music business” for a reason. It is a business. Therefore, to be successful you must provide a product that sells. Do you think the insurance companies in bed with “Obammiecare” support it? No. They want to be on the handout list when someone needs to administer the “50 million” (disputed figure) new premium paying enrollees. Business is less about ideology and more about bottom line. If you wanna sell rap, rap about “the man keeping you down”. If you wanna sell indie folk, sing about trees, squirrels, fairies, Cutting off George Bush’s head, repressed emotions, etc… Although these moguls may be leftisits at heart, they sure used a lot of conservative ideals to amass wealth. Weird….reminds me of some other names. Kennedy, Soros, Heinz (Kerry), Edwards, Pelosi…etc. I like to call it the Hypocrisy list.

  3. November 11, 2009 2:54 am

    I don’t think you can really rap about “the man holding you down” any longer. By Obama becoming president he has proven that you can be successful regardless of where you come from or what your race or gender is. It takes drive, determination and ambition. Nobody can be blamed for your failure but you.

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