This Wednesday, Donald Glover essentially endorsed Andrew Yang for president by announcing on Instagram that he is hosting a merch pop-up in L.A. before the Democratic primary debate on December 19. This cosign comes as no surprise. The multi-hyphenate entertainer, who has made waves with his TV show Atlanta and politically-focused single “This Is America” (accompanied by a violent music video that shocked and fascinated), has, like Yang, a simplistic yet popular vision of justice. To both, it seems many of the world’s ills can be solved with wily genius, innovation, and money. Racism can be defunded, and instead, the marginalized can be lifted up with $1000 a month as technology steps in to do the jobs humans are not advanced enough to excel at. Economic power via meritocracy has worked for them, and they want to make it work for more people. We see this vision in Yang’s technocratic policies and Glover’s tongue-in-cheek music (with lyrics like “We just want the money / Money just for you,” “Grandma told me / get that money / black man”) and depressive scripts. According to them, though getting rich can be a cynical, lonely game, if the economic winners amongst us can get everyone as close to capital as possible using user-tested methods, then social injustice can be transcended.
Glover’s teaming up with Yang shouldn’t befuddle anyone familiar with the rappers he looks up to and takes after: namely Jay-Z and Kanye West, who assert a similar brand of cynicism disguised as pragmatic intelligence, not only in their music, but in their actions. Though the Watch the Throne pair has diverged in their methods and conduct, each believes that only access to real wealth (not just the trappings of wealth, but investments and access) makes positive change possible. Kanye puts his money into clothing brands and designer operas for the masses, while Jay-Z inks performance deals with the NFL and criticizes Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to play along with the organization. In a belated response to a critique by rapper and poet Saul Williams that artists like Jay-Z mistakenly “equate money with liberation”, Jay-Z wrote Williams an email saying (sic throughout):
Our fight for economic freedom is new, not the same war that Harriet Tubman was fighting. If I used the same “weapons” as them I would be shooting a musket at people with Fully automatic assault rifles.
Although I think it’s a must, we challenge each other, we should be careful that it doesn’t come off as judgement.
Williams took a screenshot of the email, posted it on instagram, and responded in the caption that the fight for economic freedom is actually not new (“[t]here have been wealthy black Americans in every generation since the 1600’s, and in Africa since forever”), but “[t]he seduction of power and the systemic constraints of white supremacy will take more than money to burn.” Williams believes that instead of getting money, black people should “push for essentially socialist measures which provide healthcare and education to all.” To put it simply, Jay-Z is a capitalist and Williams is a socialist who doesn’t see market economics as extractable from racism: “Even as we push against the systemic structures in criminal justice, housing, etc. [sic] we know that it is not simply a question of money being used against us [sic] rather it is the ideology that negates our worth as human beings that seems to justify the constant exploitation of our worth and work. Thus, the attack is largely against belief systems, philosophies empowered by money and a corrupted rule of law.”
I quote this exchange at length because it exemplifies an increasing divide within black communities that is certainly not new, but has now entered the mainstream entertainment sphere. Hip-hop specifically has toggled between conscious and hedonistic bents. But since the early-aughts, the get money imperative has won out both due to its centrist appeal and its ambassadors’ ability to outlast their conscious counterparts in the bloodthirsty music industry. For a time, though, performers like Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, and Common hit the mainstream rapping about anti-racism and systemic oppression as much as they rapped about sexuality and fame. These are the same rappers who, at the beginning of his career, Kanye looked up to and even collaborated with before embracing the darker side of his ambivalence. Still, the conscious rap of the era was itself complicated, and contained a spectrum of ideas and ideology from noble to questionable to bigoted—for instance, misogynistic and xenophobic ideas have been prevalent within the male-dominated “Hotep” or Afrocentric circles associated with conscious rap. Today, many young rappers have distanced themselves from the scene if not outright forsaken it, instead taking on entrepreneurial, conventionally successful mentors like Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z, Kanye, and Diddy.
But now, womanist and black socialist movements, drawing from the work of activists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton have made some new ground within the hip-hop scene. Rapper Noname has recently turned her focus to community activism with her Noname’s Book Club, which focuses on bringing people together to discuss works by authors of color that “speak on human conditions in critical and original ways.” Noname has also announced on Twitter that she is done performing her music for majority white crowds who often flagrantly drop the N-word while singing along to her music and intends to instead focus her energies on anti-racist and anti-capitalist organizing. These anti-racist socialist views, while recently expressed, have been in the making: On the song “Self” off her 2018 album Room 25, Noname rejects both the respectability politics of conscious rap and the trivialism of get money rap:
Fucked the rapper homie now his ass is making better music
My pussy teaches ninth-grade English
My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism
In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus
Y'all really thought a bitch couldn't rap, huh?
Maybe this your answer for that
Good pussy, I know niggas only talk about money
and good pussy
And in October of this year Noname tweeted, “Rap is curated and presented to us by white elites. It has legitimized and enriched several publications that depend on black culture for content. Between radio and streaming playlist[s] they’ve decided what type of rap is profitable for mainstream. Liberation isn’t profitable.” A day later, she added, “I was very confused about this because.. ya know... conditioning, but black capitalism isn’t progress or collective freedom. It’s just capitalism. The goal isn’t for a few blacks to make it into upper class society. The goal is economic stability and liberation for all!!!!”
And it’s not just Noname pushing the conversation in the entertainment industry forward. Rappers Cardi B and Lizzo have shown support for the most progressive Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, with Cardi B outright endorsing him and even interviewing him about his policies relatively early in his primary campaign. Earl Sweatshirt, who grew up with progressive and activist parents, is a more introspective rapper with recent music focusing on self-growth and self-deception, but in a discussion with his UCLA law professor mom, Cheryl I. Harris, he spoke about how capitalism was built on slavery and told a fan that “[r]ap music is slave music. Slave communication was encrypted, spoken in code, so really this is the new version of it.” It seems like a new generation of rappers—who are as likely to be independent artists as they are to be signed to a major label—are increasingly looking to leverage their fame differently. That is, not in the service of capitalism, black or otherwise.
So what does the revelation about Glover’s political priorities mean in the context of rappers and their political pursuits? Well, Glover, while energetically young, is 36 and, as a searching New Yorker profile revealed, psychically senior. He has the kind of jaded yet opportunistic outlook that tends to suit those whom the system has already rewarded. Most of Glover’s complaints, in his music and otherwise, center on how much higher he could reach if he were white, with the access that rich white people have. Jay-Z and Kanye make similar points, lamenting black people’s lack of economic power relative to whites. If only we could make our art as freely and recklessly and lift black kids out of the ghetto and into billionaire-funded centers like the one T’Challa founds at the end of Black Panther. But their vision, while seductive, is limited, depressing, and ahistorical—a code that, once cracked, will disappoint.