O.W.A. (Objectivistz Wit Attitude)

Now this types of shit, happens all the time
You got to get yours but fool I gotta get mine. —Snoop Dogg, “Gin & Juice”

While trying to relax on a transnational flight from the West to the East coast, the timeless strains of Jibbs’ “Chain Hang Low” on repeat between my ears, I reached a frightening conclusion: Ayn Rand would have loved hip-hop.

Notwithstanding the inner chuckle I get from picturing the stolid godmother of Objectivism getting her freak on to a 21st-century club banger, the connection is undeniable. Rand sung the praises of “man’s ego,” which she labeled “the fountainhead” from which all ideas, artifacts, and accomplishments of value supposedly originate. Such dominant egos emerge through a process of open competition in which all participants display their skills and success is determined by audience approval. Sound familiar? It’s a lot like how in live rap battles as well as on record, every MC’s primary goal is to prove himself (and they are overwhelmingly male) the top of the heap through the dexterity of his flow, the keenness of his wordplay, or both.

Moreover, the spoils in both cases are zero-sum. That is, in Rand’s free markets as in rhyming competitions, winning means foreclosing access to the available prizes—be they money, respect, women, or otherwise—for runners-up and other losers. But in hip-hop, this lopsided distribution process goes beyond mere exclusion—potential competitors are preemptively threatened as a matter of lyrical course. Even casual fans are familiar with the time-honored art of lyrically sentencing the nameless hordes of “sucker MCs” and “crab rappers” to such cruel fates as crumb-snatching, public dissings, beatdowns, and in extreme cases, death.

The libertarian impulse in hip-hop is also evident in its glorification of all things shiny and expensive. The prospect of ever-escalating profits drives most mainstream rappers’ artistic and business decisions, and fan respect can usually be measured by the length of one’s chain or the diameter of one’s rims. However, while libertarianism harshly deprecates poverty, hip-hop tries to walk a narrow rhetorical tightrope by simultaneously celebrating poverty’s external mannerisms alongside the initiative of those with the skills to transcend its economic shackles. This apparent contradiction lends an imprimatur of democratic accessibility to the prospect of rap success even as it obscures the infinitesimal odds of actually securing a lucrative record deal.

Thus the Horatio Alger myth is updated for a young, media-savvy, 21-century audience. As John Ridley speaks to the establishment; so 50 Cent et al. speaks to us. All of this strongly suggests that hip-hop, at least according to its most widespread traditions, is incompatible with strategies of collective action. Public Enemy, Dead Prez, and the Coup notwithstanding, the genre’s leading lights have spend their entire careers exhorting fans to “get theirs” at the expense of the common good. Now this wouldn’t be so dire of a problem if young blacks did not internalize hip-hop’s value system, such as it is, to the extent that they do. But things being as they are, I don’t see how we can expect a cure for Ridelyism to take root in a culture that lacks any meaningful notion of collective responsibility.

So what am I saying? That we should all stop listening to hip-hop, and that if we did, all our problems would magically disappear? Of course not. A particular ideology manifested in music cannot in and of itself force anyone into an every-man-for-himself mindset, any more than Jim Crow laws could make people racist. The decisions we make are ours alone, but certain environmental influences make certain outcomes more likely than others. Today, too many of us are using hip-hop as an indirect guide for our interpersonal conflicts, business dealings, and sexual relations, among other things. Alternatives are sorely needed, and we sure as hell can’t rely on the mainstream media machine to provide them. In their absence, we will continue to watch the bling-encrusted, agile-tongued, blacked-up face of Objectivism subtly atomize us.

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Published on December 23, 2006 at 9:41 pm. 8 Comments.
Filed under black culture,entertainment,mainstream culture.