Commonly, rap music is associated with poverty, unintelligence, broken dreams and drug use, and that’s but a few negative connotations. In contrast however, the genre also has stories of overcoming adversity. Upon success, many artists plan to spread their message of hope and hard work paying off, through both their music and public services. Some artists have also used their success to jump into the business side of things. Such stories serve an example of class mobility, but also serve as messages to the inequality suffered by the wider community that they come from. I’m not addressing the African-American community specifically, but those of a lower economic status. Eminem for example grew up with a mother that abused drugs and an absent father. Disappointingly, the genre still finds itself dominated by artists that glorify drug use, violence and the disrespect of women. However, there’s evidence of this becoming a receding trend.
Back on the case of success stories, many artists seek to pay back their home towns for their support through donations and community engagement. Now, I’ll give a disclaimer, this article may seem fairly all over the place at times, and there may even lack a running theme. I’m also not going to spend a huge amount of time on topics and theories that probably deserve a lot more space than what I’m able to give them. What I am trying to do here is challenge you a little bit in how you view a genre, and a school of thought. I’m talking about viewing rap as something more than a collection of songs blasted in your least favourite drinking place, and economics as more than a bottom line number crunch. This isn’t going to be the easiest of articles to read, nor the shortest coming in at just under 2000 words, but hopefully it’s one of the more entertaining.
The pinnacle of success stories: Jay-Z
Or at least in the rap industry. Jay-Z, (Shawn Carter) has been referred to as one of the singular most successful and most talented rappers of all time. In many respects he is. His album ‘The Blueprint’ is consistently proclaimed to be the best album of the decade across 2000 to 2009 by many critics. He’s released albums and singles that have gone platinum and reached the top of billboards for years. His origins however, are dismal. Carter is a case of no father, no formal education and grew up around domestic violence so intense he once shot his own brother (who lived) over a domestic dispute. What you may not have known though, is he actually released his first album under his own record label that he started after no-one would sign him, in 1997.
In regards to business ventures, Carter when on to use his record label to harness talent such as Rhianna and Ne-Yo. He developed Def Jam records into a highly successful multi-million dollar business to combat the monopoly he was seeing. The monopoly came in the form of upper class white business men taking advantage of the rising trend in rap and hip hop music. The managers from these businesses operating in an oligopoly, were starting to treat the artists as commodities. This was perpetuating the poverty trap that so many artists were hoping to work their way out of. In separate ventures, Jay-Z has also held partial ownership in the New York Nets, and sold this later on to become a sports manager. Recently however, Tidal has largely flopped. Although given his background, one failure out of so many major successes is a good track record by any means. FYI he coined the phrase: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”
Yea cool, that’s one success story
Well here’s another. A comparatively lesser known artist, Big Sean, also came from a lower opportunity society; Detroit, and has found huge success. To put his background into better perspective, Detroit was declared to have the highest poverty rate of any major city in the US. In brief; 39.3% of people lived in poverty in Detroit. More on Big Sean, he released his first full album in 2008 and since, he’s gone on to release his own fashion line. Given his new mentorship under Jay-Z himself, he’s probably got more on the way. Side note: go listen to his latest album, ‘I Decided’. It’s about his struggles and success.
So where’s the Economics in this.
Well it should be staring you in the face that these men have both overcome huge adversity to start highly successful careers. This means that rap can act as a means of overcoming huge amounts of inequality, a huge issue in economics right now. You may argue the businesses were started with money they already had from rapping, and you’re right, that’s my point. It’s able to be used as a tool to enable those that may not be able to be helped by the various systems in place, for whatever reason. Further on the issue of inequality, Jay-Z has acted as a donor multiple times from behind the scenes. Carter doesn’t enjoy engaging with heavy topics, but definitely pays respect to his roots and frequently donates to charities including Red Cross. Economically? Those that have come from nothing and overcome capital immobility, have gone against trickle up economics.
Now to tackle some misconceptions on the genre.
What if I told you that one artist known as AESOP Rock (no, not A$AP Rocky) actually beat Shakespeare in his use of vocabulary? This chart right here proves it. He doesn’t just beat it, he buries it. It goes to show that there are actually outliers within the industry. If you don’t want to read the article: He uses 7392 different words in his first 35,000 lyrics, compared to Shakespeare’s first 35,000 words. So, that’s a new word every 5 or so words. Try doing that in your day to day life. Should probably relate this to economics in some way shouldn’t I? I’ll tie this and the next section together with Economics. Think of the potential here. It can be used as an educational tool, a challenge of sorts. People relate and use this genre for its over arching style and the constant challenge that can be built into it. The challenge of vocabulary, combined with the soon to be discussed tackling of political issues, could be used to engage people. ‘Wait that’s still not econo-‘ yes it is. Economics isn’t just about finding the optimal point of production or trade deficit in your current accounts, it’s about resources and how to improve their use. It’s obvious that there’s huge amounts of under-utilised human capital due to lack of education. I’m not going to go into a giant rant about upheaving the current education system, but I’m tired of the constant disregard of a genre that is capable of so much.
Rap is constantly used as a tool to raise awareness and build solidarity.
Even Lil’ Wayne has tackled the issue of incarcerated African Americans, albeit his statement was on data that was highly specific and skewed when he said 1 in 7 African Americans are jailed. He was talking about a specific group of people, being 20-25 and male. But what do I mean when I say reflect and build solidarity on what exactly? On the lack of something that we as economists refer to as social capital. Social capital is what make safe communities and suburbs, well, safe. Living spaces, be it suburbs, streets and even whole countries or continents, need high amounts of social capital to make sure they function properly (Here’s an awesome paper on social capital).
Those that live in environments with high amounts of social capital are able to hang their washing out without wondering if it’ll be stolen, they can build extensions on their house and trust it won’t get vandalised and it’s what allows us to feel safe walking down the street at night. In the case of many communities rap artists grow up in, the social capital is low. They reflect on the crimes they had to both commit and had committed against them. Higher levels of education, higher self esteem, better quality of life and therefore higher levels of productivity are all symptoms of living in environments with higher social capital. So there you go, an economic concept you probably haven’t considered being tied into one the main stimuli for rap music.
But doesn’t rap just perpetuate the degradation of social capital?
That’s a huge point being made against the allowance of production of rap music and its distribution. The counter argument is that it may not be the cause of domestic violence, gang activity and drug use, but instead the symptom or by-product. Rather than glorification, isn’t a lot of rap just a reflection and recount of past experience that comes with the environment many artists found them selves surrounded in? Without these subject matters in the first place, rap would probably have to change its content. It was already proved it’s capable of this in the discussions above. People will do what they need to, in order to feel accepted and survive. Economically, this will probably include pimping and drug dealing. Given that education has suffered from cuts and disruption in many disadvantaged communities, many of its members find themselves without options. In many cases, rap is used to speak out against the perpetuation of violence and instead raise awareness of issues held within ghettos and actually bring a more realistic stance. One such album that brings down the issues specific to the ghetto, but tries to deliver in a context to be more widely consumed, is Kendrick Lamars ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d City’. For example if you actually listened to Swimming Pools, it’s a story of underage alcohol usage and abuse, not necessarily a glorification. The whole album is in past tense and aims to reflect on the dangers of growing up in the ghetto. Listening to ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ you realise K-Dot isn’t aiming to encourage, he’s really trying to warn others of the pressures and consequences of surrounding yourself with the wrong crowd.
It’s the fact that rap isn’t always an input to the problem, sometimes it can be seen as a product. Kind of like Y = G+I+C+X-M, think of rap as the question of: Does R = V+D+C?
Where: R = Rap, V = violence, D = Drugs and C = Crime
Or, is the other way around?
Here’s the other thing; it’s not as bad as you may think.
The use of drugs, for example, is actually on the gross decline, although the drugs referenced have actually just changed in subject. This data even goes to show it. Although the subjects of use are changing, it’s not one for one. What I’m meaning is that there’s a stronger decline in the use of alcohol, marijuana and coke, than there’s an increase in the use of Xanax and codeine.
So that’s it
So this article probably hasn’t been exactly what you’d expect. I’ve used economics in many ways and probably not as thoroughly as you were expecting. This isn’t an analogy you’d hear about in the class room or a text book, in fact in some cases I’ve only used the tools that economics uses as a method of analogy. Point is; there’s a lot going on for rap, and you’d probably agree if you just did some research. However, I want to emphasize; even if you can’t see my point about rap music, please at least see that economics can be used to do more than just spew out some number at the end of a bunch of equations. The use of numbers actually has a specific term; econometrics. This is more qualitative stuff, it’s not numbers based, just a large series of thoughts and observations.