Monday, September 13, 2010

Hip-Hop Politics and Capitalism: The Story of Thugnificent

Guest blogger, Dr. Gosa, provides more food for thought in his latest essay. Thank you for sharing.

Hip-Hop Politics and Capitalism: The Story of Thugnificent

Written by Dr. Travis Gosa

I spent the Labor Day weekend watching reruns of Aaron McGruder’s animated television series “The Boondocks.” The story-arc of Otis Jenkins, aka, “Thugnificent,” got me thinking about the contradictions of hip-hop, capitalism, and politics. Money and politics, it would seem, have been at the heart of every debate about “the state of hip-hop” in the last two decades. The fictional Thugnificent offers a satirical review of commercial rap and hip-hop politics since the mid-1990s.

On “The Boondocks,” Thugnificent embodies the prefabricated, corporate rap image. (Physically, he resembled real life rapper-actor Ludacris, interesting.) His album entitled “From Rags to B*tches” includes the southern club-bangers “Booty Butt Cheeks” and “Stomp ‘Em in the Nuts.” He’s an iced-out, ghetto representative rollin’ with the “Lethal Interjection Crew,” though ‘Nificent is neither the thug nor outlaw imagined in his music.

In season 2 (episode 5) Thugnificent builds a platinum- and gold-plated mansion next door to the Freeman family in the white suburb of Woodcrest. Instead of shooting at crooked cops or kickin’ reality about street-corner survival, Thugnificent spends his time starting a rap-feud with Granddad. According to the melodic chorus featuring Nate Dogg, old people are old, and senior citizens need to stop snitchin’ to the police. Despite the vapid content of his music, the rapper claims to represent the next stage of black liberation struggle. His mansion features a huge painting of a god-like Thugnificent towering above the images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

In season 3 (episode 1), Thugnificent attempts to cash-in on Obama-mania sweeping the country: He becomes a political activist. ‘Nificent now appears auto-tuned, smiling, and dancing with White Hollywood liberals (such as George Clooney) on the Will.I.Am Obama-tribute video “D*ck riding Obama.” He trades his ice and XXXL white tee for tight hipster clothes and a bow-tie. Appearing on Bill Maher’s Real Time, however, it is shown that Thugnificent knows nothing about politics—not even the three branches of government (yes, this is a spoof of J-Hova on Bill Maher).

After the election (season 3, episode 2), Thugnificent believes he is bigger than rap music, and releases an all-autotuned, R&B concept album (sound like Kanye or P. Diddy?). The album fails, and Thugnificent attempts to reclaim his fame by starting rap-beefs with teen-rappers (an allusion to the Ice-T/Souljaboy beef). In the same episode, we also learn that the real Otis Jenkins (1) is a middle-class college graduate (he has a bachelor’s degree in Communications), and that (2) his ex-drug dealer persona was just clever marketing.

The story of Thugnificent is the story of mainstream hip-hop since the mid-1990s. As ?uestlove explained in Rolling Stone magazine a few years back, “minstrelsy” in the form of “one-dimensional” hustlers-turned-rappers-turned-businessmen has come to define popular hip-hop. “Hip-hop [was],” according to the afro-adorned drummer, “’Black America’s CNN’—but now it’s turned into black America’s UPN.”

Busy negotiating million-dollar merchandizing deals and mingling with the status elite, the hip-hop-capitalist has little time for making good music, or relating the struggles of everyday people. The result is not empowerment, but the transformation of a people’s music into another spectacle of black folk “acting a fool” as global entertainment. The newest attraction seems to be playing the hip-hop ambassador, and politicking with the white left and DC insiders. Aren’t thugs supposed to throw a middle-finger to the government, the same government that threw 2 Live Crew in jail in 1990, and put hip-hop on trial on Capitol Hill in both 1994 and 2007?

The confusion surrounding money and politics represents the biggest challenge facing hip-hop culture, and perhaps black politics writ-large. The story of Thugnificent/hip-hop is a misunderstanding of *individual* upward mobility as black liberation ideology. Going from “Rags to B*tches” (or ashy-to-classy) is NOT the message of black empowerment through economic production voiced by Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, or the Nation of Islam. Those cats were talking co-operative economics and institution building, not M.O.B. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of America writing bad checks to black folk (“the declaration of independence = a check marked “insufficient funds””), but “the struggle” has never been all about the benjis.

Reverberating in hip-hop is an ethos of staunch individualism that remixes Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches American Dream mythology with Al Pacino’s/Tony Montana’s political philosophy of Scarface (1983): “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” The Hip-Hop Generation’s love affair with that Oliver Stone flick is seen in extensive use of quotes, samples, and modeling of the Tony Montana narrative. (When the MTV show “Cribs,” a hip hop inspired version of “The Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous,” was still being aired, it was cliché to show off one’s Scarface movie poster, refrigerator filled with Cristal champagne, and well-positioned stripper pole.)

A few rap icons got the money and the women (at least in the music videos), but where is the real power of the hip-hop community? Politicians (The Democrats) might enlist rappers every four years to get the youths to “rap da vote,” but is that really power? As the Thugnificent story reveals, music and money does not automatically translate into political capital.

Reflecting on Jay-Z’s emergence as representative of the “hip-hop voting bloc” in the 2008 election, underground rapper Reks spit it this way,

Bill O'Reilly don't respect Jay-Z in no suit, you still a coon in they eyes, hope you soon realize”

Now, I would never spit anything reckless about Jay-Z (I don’t mess with Illuminati operatives), but Reks raises an important question: how exactly has cash and celebrity translated into political respect? P. Diddy/Puff/Mr. Combs has been parlaying the hip-hop vote since his 2004 “Vote or Die” campaign. Along with Jigga, Diddy reigns supreme in both business and popular culture. Rubbing elbows with the status elite in the Hamptons, DC, and NYC is what he’s about. But what has coalesced from all his efforts?

In terms of political activism, mobilization, and organization—well, not much apparently. (Hip-hop philanthropy is another story). However, I don’t think that’s not what the Thugnificent model of politics is about. Actual political activism and mobilization is old school, like mid 20th century. Rather, Puff summarizes the empowerment strategy that is actually embraced by the rap-capitalists. On the Wacka Flocka Flame Video, “O Let’s Do It Remix,” he explains

“I got my billions up, f*ckin’ wit these white folks/Now I don’t give a f*ck ‘cause I’m richer than these white folks…All I drink is my sh*t, Ciroc by the caseload…”

These rhymes represent what has become the “new” black power ideology touted by hip-hop. Interestingly, Puff delivers these lines while posturing with (rapper) Rick Ross, the ex-police officer wrapped in the chinchilla and fox-head fur. After 37 years of hip-hop, Diddy summarizes what too often passes for hip-hop politics: gettin’ money (and drinking French vodka made from grapes, yum-o). We are Thugnificent, indeed.

Travis Gosa (

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