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The Rapper Barons

by Daniel Foster

They won’t vote Romney, but they probably should.

I feel like a black Republican, money I got comin’ in.

 – Jay-Z, “Black Republican,” 2006


I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney, you lazy b****es is f***ing up the economy.

 – Nicki Minaj, “Mercy,” 2012

I’ll assume that Shawn Carter of Brooklyn, N.Y. — a.k.a. “Hova,” “Jiggaman,” and “Jay-Z” — has reached such a level of multi-platform cultural saturation that you are at least aware of his existence. As for Minaj . . . well, for the uninitiated, Minaj is a sort of extra-dimensional pop bombshell whose sartorial combinations can be viewed only at a distance and only with specially designed goggles. Underneath the hot-pink wigs and Day-Glo lipstick is a 29-year-old Afro-Trinidadian by way of Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School who, after an Augie March–esque series of failed stints at chain restaurants and call centers and an abortive off-Broadway acting career, was plucked from New York’s underground hip-hop scene in 2007 by the CEO of one Dirty Money Entertainment. Nota bene: Dirty Money Entertainment is not to be confused with Young Money Entertainment, which eventually signed Minaj in 2009, or with Cash Money Records, which is Young Money’s parent label.

With the full marketing-and-distribution armature of Universal Music Group — which, despite owning the aforementioned labels, conspicuously fails to mention currency in its name — and the critical approval of Lil Wayne (a pint-sized, tattoo-festooned, drug-addled savant of figurative language who is hip-hop’s version of Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man), Minaj has been installed as a pop-cultural fixture.

So much so that when she dropped the above rhyme on a Lil Wayne mixtape, it hijacked an entire news cycle from the Democratic National Convention. Gawker and theHill were breathless over the apparent Romney endorsement. Irate fans flooded Minaj’s Twitter with vitriol, even death threats. Fox News, ABC, and the Washington Post covered the story on the Web, and the New York Times found the entire affair fit to print on page A10 of the 9/11/12 issue.

Despite the fact that, according to enterprising bloggers, Minaj doesn’t appear to be registered to vote in any of the states where she’s resided, the president of the United States himself took time to weigh in on the matter, assuring the DJs at a Florida radio station that Nicki hadn’t “actually” endorsed Romney, that “she likes to play different characters” in her “little rap[s].”  Of course, he was right. After the brouhaha had churned up sufficient publicity, Minaj confirmed that she has nothing but “love & support” for the president.

Meanwhile, as l’affaire Minaj petered out, Jay-Z, her antecedent in backhanded GOP shout-outs, hosted a $40,000-per-ticket event for President Obama. In pointed contrast with the Internet eruption over Minaj, the fact that a confessed former narcotics trafficker was fundraising on behalf of the sitting president of the United States passed by barely noticed beyond a few headlines about the $105,000 tower of Armand de Brignacchampagne at the Jay-Z-owned club where the event was held.

But here was Jay-Z, whose oeuvre is studded with references to his ill-gotten baubles, and to how much he has and how much you haven’t, hosting a blinged-out Obama fundraiser while Mitt Romney was getting burned for comments about the “dependent” 47 percent. The juxtaposition seems to present a bit of a dilemma for the cultural Left: If hip-hop stars are to be accepted as legitimate, if relatively minor, players in a presidential election — as the excitement over the Minaj incident and the shrugging over the Jay-Z fundraiser suggests they are — how does one explain the dissonance between their Obama shillery and their artistic personae, which make them look like the kind of Republicans Elizabeth Warren would hallucinate after a peyote-fueled vision quest went south?

To vindicate both the political legitimacy and the ideological orthodoxy of these rappers, their defenders tend to generalize the same strategy adopted by Obama in his defense of Minaj: They’re just playing characters. Hence the cottage industry of lefty armchair sociologists, most of them white, who popped up on the blogs to assure us that both Minaj’s political apostasy and the hyper-materialism underlying it were tongue-in-cheek, a layer of hyperbole sitting atop deeper, esoteric commentary about wealth and status signifiers in the black community.

Do these Straussians of black vernacular have a point? Maybe. Hyperbolic boasting is certainly a founding trope of hip-hop. Just as every funk song seems to be about how funky it is, the bright, relatively uncomplex mainstream hip-hop of my ’80s youth had a charming recursiveness: Every rhyme was about how smooth every rhyme was. In the ’90s, with the ascendance of “gangster rap,” hip-hop became more morally complicated — both more “issue”-conscious and bloodier — but the boasting remained, even if it was often in the context of narco-capitalism and the ritual objectification of women. Unfortunately, only the vices seemed to survive the decade. By the 2000s rappers were a cash crop, and it started to seem like record companies were giving new MCs fat advance checks just so that they could procure the luxury toys and groupies that provided the raw material for their braggadocio.

I know that there are entire courses of study at prestigious universities dedicated to a hermeneutics that transforms this increasingly aesthetically limited and morally bankrupt genre into an instrument for measuring the inequalities in America — into something that’s not so ideologically odious — and I certainly have neither the credentials nor the time to prove them wrong.

But it seems to me that we can with equal plausibility flip their assumptions on their head. They take for granted that Nicki’s and Jay’s hyperbolic celebrations of self-interest and material success are just as much a performance as the “Black Republican” shtick, and that by contrast the political advocacy on behalf of the president is authentic. But why shouldn’t it be the other way around? Why shouldn’t we take these wordsmiths at their word, assume that their attachment to the president is a sort of celebrity reflex, and look to their work for evidence about what they actually believe? People vote against their purported interests all the time, and if Thomas Frank can ask “What’s the matter with Kansas?” why can’t we ask “What’s the matter with Jiggaman?”

Indeed, Jay-Z’s music constitutes a kind of stylized autobiography of a truly American success: Boy from broken home in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing project trades crack vials for turntables, raises self out of poverty to become family man and leader of international business empire. On the American Captain of Industry to Robber Baron Scale, it’s a lot closer to J. P. Morgan than to Al Capone.

And if we take the Left’s advice and skip past the hyperbole, we can squint and more charitably read Jay-Z’s boasts as pride in achievement, his apparent self-centeredness as an all-too-American celebration of individualism. Nor does it require putting words in his mouth: When he was asked about the Occupy movement in an interview printed around the time of his Obama fundraiser, his reply may have been more telling than the check he cut the president. “What’s the thing on the wall, what are you fighting for?” Jay asked. “Yeah, the 1 percent that’s robbing people, and deceiving people . . . that’s criminal, that’s bad. Not being an entrepreneur. This is free enterprise. This is what America is built on.”

That sounds more like a kid who kicked and scratched and fought like hell to escape the projects than a champagne-sipping shill for the guys who built the projects. That sounds a lot like a black Republican.

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