“Gotta give us what we need/ Our freedom of speech is freedom or death/ We got to fight the powers that be.” When Public Enemy used these words in 1989 to command their fans to “fight the power,” they could not have guessed that their message would be embodied by a global movement more than two decades later. But four months ago, the Occupy Wall Street protests burst onto the scene with a flurry of media coverage, and since then, terms like “Occupy” and “the 99 percent” have unquestionably become part of our lexicon. The Occupy movement has managed to gain universal attention, garner celebrity support, and even shape America’s political debates. Unsurprisingly, rappers have also attempted to ingratiate themselves with the movement.
Rap first developed its anti-establishment image when Grandmaster Flash released the seminal protest track, “The Message,” in 1982. In the early nineties, N.W.A. and Public Enemy continued that tradition with reputations for rebellion and rhymes about social inequality, racism, and government oppression. As Occupiers aim their damning criticism at corporate greed and corrupt politics, rap seems like it would provide the perfect musical complement to the demands of the 99 percent.
With a “fuck the man” mentality, protestors and rappers share a message that is integrally linked. But while artists like Dead Prez and Lupe Fiasco have lent famous voices to the movement, some of the same rappers that denounce stark socioeconomic stratification in their lyrics display an uncanny similarity to the extravagantly wealthy capitalists they condemn in their songs, making it difficult for them to maintain sincerity.
On November 11, an outsider showed up to the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park hawking $22 t-shirts glibly branded “Occupy All Streets.” This individual was no mere two-bit opportunist, but rap mogul Shawn Carter, otherwise known as Jay-Z. His net worth? $450 million. A walking paradox, Jay-Z “joined” Occupy Wall Street two months into the protests near the peak of its media attention.
At the start of his career, Jay-Z used his lyrics and heart-wrenching emotion to extricate himself from a difficult upbringing and life on the streets that would likely have resulted in poverty, jail, or death. But today, having put the gaudy lavishness of his newfound power and wealth into Watch the Throne, his collaboration with Kanye West, Jay-Z has officially completed his transformation into the stereotypical wealthy capitalist his lyrics denounce. While he managed to achieve unparalleled social mobility from such an impoverished upbringing, he has since exemplified everything that a young Jay-Z and the Occupy movement hate about our society. The paradox underlying Jay-Z’s transformation boggles the minds of fans who love his heartfelt lyrics but are puzzled by his transparent entrepreneurship.
While Jay-Z is vindicated by his humble upbringing, petulant producer-turned-garishly-materialistic-rap-phenomenon Kanye West has no such excuse. Kanye (net worth: $70 million) had a predictably short-lived experience with the dedicated protestors in Zuccotti Park. Arriving with $25,000 worth of gold in and around his face, his October tour with mega-millionaire Russell Simmons resulted in boos, hisses, and immediate dismissal as a serious supporter. Despite his art school childhood and insatiable desire to wear golden-leaved crowns, Kanye has rapped about issues ranging from blood diamonds to tumultuous relationships. There is no denying that he deserves his commercial success, but the hypocrisy of his identification with Occupy is piercingly obvious.
While Jay-Z is too rich to take seriously and Kanye lacks self-awareness, Lupe Fiasco has shown that he knows how to walk the subtle line between capitalizing rapper and social activist. Lupe (net worth: $8 million) is certainly a member of the one percent, but that has not stopped him from losing sleep and money traveling across the country to support the movement.
While Lupe experienced and escaped childhood hardship like Jay-Z, he has maintained a philosophical outlook that keeps him grounded. Rappers who desire to impart their honest anti-establishment message in unison with the Occupy movement would be better suited to follow Lupe’s quiet example and forget their capitalist agenda. Pushing a decentralized theme, he makes it clear that the success of the movement will come from its focus on socioeconomic equality, not from the self-aggrandizing support of certain glitterati within the one percent.