Occupy Hip Hop: The Dilemma Of The Rap Music Mogul

Hip Hop has gained some of its own richest Americans, whose ascent to the 1% has put them in direct opposition with a majority that they used to be members of.

“In retrospect the game ain’t the same maine / The heart and soul is divided / They ramshack the music no control up inside it / Now look at this it’s all stretched out and nasty / But lettin’ money pass me / I doubt that / And niggas from the bottom know / Pumpin’ hard / Wind sleet hail rain or snow…” –Q-Tip, “You Can’t Handle The Torch,” by Busta Rhymes feat. Q-Tip.

It’s tough being both an ’88 baby and a fan of Hip Hop. Too young to understand the social experiences of pioneers like Rakim and KRS-One and too old to digest the lyrical sentiments of relative newcomers like Soulja Boy and Lil B, I land smack dab in the middle of a cultural movement that evolved just as I was beginning to recognize its significance. It is impossible for me to remember the issues that galvanized the boisterous call for Hip Hop, which reflected the woes of the working (and non-working) American. But what I do remember is the fatal battle between the East and the West coasts, the miseducation of one Fugees first lady, the bold emergence of a white rapper who would soon change the game, and of course, shiny bright puff jackets. But there is one thing that stands out to me most about those days: artists relied heavily on platinum album sales to maintain their careers. Obviously, that has changed.

Today’s meager record sales no longer support lavish lifestyles and often times don’t give artists the opportunity to break even. Trading riches for intangible wealth, today’s successful rapper must possess a business savvy rivaling that of some of the world’s most experienced entrepreneurs. It’s not enough for rappers just to rap anymore—they have to make lucrative Vitamin Water deals, own 40/40 clubs and stakes in sports teams, land Ciroc sponsorships, and become New York Times bestsellers.

Hip Hop artists have become Hip Hop moguls, breaking free from the limitations of music and breaking into a space where they can control the terms and profits of their work. However, this overall shift from a focus on music to a focus on capital not only affects the music industry itself, but also results in a disconnect between Hip Hop artists and the people who listen to their music. As the average American suffers the brunt of unemployment, debt, and decreasing access to education, Hip Hop lyrics continue to bask in a world of expensive whips, vacations in Paris, and frivolously spent resources. The divide between lyrics and reality has been swimming quietly under the surface for a long time, but the Occupy Wall Street movement has forced this divide to be seriously scrutinized and for those who grew up on Hip Hop to wonder when rappers went from fighting the Powers That Be, to becoming the Powers That Be.

Hip Hop And The Occupy Wall Street Movements

“They say get a job, you can think and grow rich / But what are you to do when a dollar ain’t worth shit / And the jobs ain’t hirin’ and unemployment is gone / They gonna repo your car and foreclose your home / The banks got bailed out but we still suffering / So I got a gun ‘cause I done had enough of ‘em.” –Killer Mike, “Burn.”

The social environment that gave birth to Occupy Wall Street is the same one that birthed Hip Hop. At their core, both movements lend a voice to the ignored and forgotten and boldly call for an end to a system built to keep the top 1% at the top. In a country where the top 400 richest Americans own more wealth than that of the combined bottom 150 million Americans, it is only expected that anger would come boiling to the surface. Both movements were first rejected by the mainstream and disregarded as fads, then feared because of their rapid growth, subsequently denounced as harmful to American society, and finally marketed and sold by the corporate world.

Just as early Hip Hop’s activist leanings stemmed from dire situations of life, death, and genuine anger, Occupy Wall Street holds the fury of an incensed American population. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 classic, “The Message,” will forever be my prime standard of early Hip Hop’s vivid portrait of a neglected poor and middle class, and is a striking realization that after 30 years, we have yet to escape the pressures of car repossession, bill collectors, and stress. But for the first time since “The Message” was released, Hip Hop has gained some of its own “richest Americans,” whose ascendance to the 1% has put them in direct opposition with a majority that they used to be members of.

The Dilemma Of The Hip Hop Mogul

“We as rappers must decide what’s most important / And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them / So I got rich and gave back to me that’s the win-win / So next time you see the homie and his rims spin / Just know my mind is workin’ just like them / Rims that is...” –Jay-Z, “Moment of Clarity.”

Although Hip Hop and the Occupy Wall Street movement are fundamentally intertwined in their principles, the relationship between Hip Hop businessmen and Occupy Wall Street is not only strained, but also a paradox. For example, when Jay-Z began selling “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts on Rocawear.com in what he claimed was an effort to bolster awareness for the movement, critics questioned whether the $22 shirts were meant to help the Occupy movement, or to capitalize from it. Jay’s overreaching business scheme exposed a glaring difference between him and protesters and represented an ideological shift that aligned him with the corporate elite and swiftly booted him from the 99%.

But, as a lot of the folks in our comments section demanded to know, what is so terrible about profiting from a good business deal? After all, the rapper’s narrative is based on social mobility: an aspiring emcee from the tough streets of insert-city-here works hard, signs a record deal, becomes a household name, and grasps the ability to financially support friends and family. Or as USC professor Christopher Holmes Smith put it in his essay I Don’t Like to Dream About Getting Paid, “the mogul is a self-made aristocrat, a former member of the underclass who’s raised himself up from its ranks and seized his chance to shine.” While this type of come up is praised in Hip Hop, what happens when a rapper uses his influence to profit from the community?

Therein lies the problem for Hip Hop moguls. Having climbed from the bottom to the top, they identify with the poor and ignored, but experience the daily pressures of the corporate rat race. It can even be argued that some have lost touch with the 99%, more caught up in the everyday hustle of maintaining wealth. Smith writes, “As self-made men, moguls are not inclined to wait around for social intervention; they spot available opportunities for material advancement and seize them as best they can. They simply want people to get out of their way and let them handle their business.” No one can say for sure what Jay-Z’s motives were behind his “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts, but honestly, his intentions don’t matter. What matters is how his actions were perceived by a rapidly growing slice of America fed up with what they deem as corporate greed.

So does that mean that all rappers should be against business? The short answer is no. Longtime Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons recently defended Jay-Z, reminding protesters and Occupy observers that the movement does not target business, but the influence of lobbyists and corporations on American policy.

“You should sell things you’re happy about,” Simmons told Billboard magazine. “You should sell products that you’re inspired by, that promote lasting and stable well-being. Give the world something or sell the world something that you’re proud of. Jay-Z didn’t make a T-shirt [that said] ‘Fuck the Bums on the Street.’ He wrote a T-shirt, ‘Occupy All Streets’ – I’m happy, it furthers the movement, it inspires the movement.” But despite Simmons’ frequent appearances supporting Occupy protests across America—including offers to pay for Zuccotti Park clean up—his presence has been received ambiguously. Both welcomed with open arms and heckled, Simmons shines a light on the fact that the Occupy movement is also unsure of how to integrate eager-to-help moguls and businessmen into their cause.

Simmons has been active within Occupy, but some Hip Hop businessmen have kept inconspicuously quiet. Diddy, who Forbes predicted to be the next Hip Hop billionaire, has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about his feelings towards the protests. And while Diddy has been close-mouthed, Kanye West showed up to a protest in New York and literally didn’t say anything. One protester told Rollingout.com that he would like to see artists become more vocal:

“The Jay-Z’s, the P. Diddy’s, the Kanye Wests, the Lil Waynes need to step up to the plate and make their voices heard and never mind all that bling-bling. Get out here with your people and take this [Occupy Wall Street protest] to the next level. Never mind hanging out with the Nets, the Mets, and the mayor [Michael Bloomberg].”

Conscious Capitalism

So how do Hip Hop moguls and Occupy Wall Street meet in the middle? Along with Lupe Fiasco, Immortal Technique, David Banner, and a handful of others, 50 Cent has surprisingly been one of the loudest rappers giving his uncensored opinions about the civic role of Hip Hop artists, and celebrities in general, to Occupy Wall Street. In an interview with CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” 50 described how he’s utilized the One for One model made popular by TOMS shoes. Under this model, any time a product is purchased, the company donates a resource to a community in need. In August, Fif launched his Street King mission, which provides a meal for a starving child whenever one of his Street King energy drinks is purchased. The business venture aims to feed one billion children. “Conscious capitalism,” he called it. “I’m not against business. I’m pro-business,” he explained. “I’m an entrepreneur. I just think that we can also be conscious about the necessities for all humans on Earth and try to do things to make it a better place.”

While 50 is by no means the face of Conscious Capitalism, in the context of Hip Hop, he may be onto something. How would Jay-Z’s All Streets T-shirts have been received had he donated a portion of the proceeds to the Occupy movement? Or perhaps offered amenities to protesters based on sales of the T-shirts. Lacking the foresight for the inevitable backlash as well as the initiative to make both a profit and a difference, Jay’s All Streets blunder highlights that some businessmen have completely missed the point of Occupy as well as the source of protesters’ anger.

But it’s no huge surprise that socially mobile moguls have struggled to find their niche in the movement. While some have tried, succeeded, made mistakes, or failed, others have checked out of the movement completely, proving that while some Hip Hop businessmen may have 99 problems, being part of the 99% isn’t one of them.

Salima Koroma has been a HipHopDX News writer since 2008. A native of Sacramento, California, Salima has worked for U.C.L.A.'s Daily Bruin and Current TV. You can follow her on Twitter (@SalimaKoroma)

45 Comments

  • Xing n Fox

    Please listen to the new Occupy ANthem from Doodlebug of Digable Planets. #OWS PEace http://youtu.be/yLUgbMS7tcs

  • Sly Solomon

    This editorial is dope... inspired me to write a song in response. Its nice to see hip hop fans talking about somethin more relevant than who is GOAT and record sales. Check it out on youtube.com/slysolomon if you have the time. Feel free to get at me.

  • RTJ00

    Who cares if Jay-Z supports them or not. I support them because I support our right for freedom of speech, now if you said someone like Immortal technique or Lowkey, people that are actually politically aware and , for the people, rappers that exude intelligence and spirituality through there lyrics I might give it a tip of the hat but someone that promotes Lucifer, materialism, and greed through there lyrics dont really mean shit to me.

  • Mack

    kill that noise...be mad somehweres elseVVVVVV

  • MAck

    Flup yeah im mad all these writter know how to write and report but have no actual experience.... sounds like cops to me

  • Mack

    Sorry Salima Koroma but when you said 88 baby I said wait 23 yeah.... dont care if your not writing directly about music but dont tell me you dont know hsit about the culture . college educated wiht no real experience of the culture....take your writing to a paper....oh thats right papers are dying... fuck outta here

  • chiefmaster

    dude, souljah boy is 2 years younger than you. go listen to that loser instead of talking shit on this site. occupy hip hop? tha fuck. nerdy little hippy. shit. gtfo.

  • CaqNudg

    I think Immortal Tech mentioned this in "The Poverty of Philosophy", "I've got more in common with most working class white people then I do with many wealthy black and latino people." Class is the issue, and I think Occupy's bringing the focus on that in earnest. Very good article, the question is now: When will sympathy or complete understanding turn into support for the problems the movement is dealing with? There's not a simple answer. There may not even be one. But if there is, I sure hope it's a good one.

  • Anonymous

    fuck jayz! fuck the whole occupy movement!

  • Anonymous

    good read but i can sum up everything that's wrong with hip hop and this country...there's to many selfish people who are more worried about increasing their own wealth regardless of the consequence instead of trying to actually make the world a better place money never has and never will equal happiness

    • Anonymous

      The entertainment industry is a good place to start with this Occupy Movement. They've commercialized, sold and packaged this music as a personal dream gift to the poor lonely hearts, who figure watching success is a way to escape the reality of hell!!!!

  • GGENERAL

    This occupy wall street movement is like a puppy standing outside the gates of a powerful kingdom. The people inside this kingdom have no idea this puppy even exist. Their just living their live with out a care in the world. The puppy gets agitated b/c the people of the kingdom doesn't notice it. The puppy decides it's going to show up to the gates of this great kingdom everyday, and bark as loud as it can and even s**t on the garden. This goes on for months and months, until the puppy begins to grow weary. One day the puppy shows up and see's the garden in full bloom, better than it's ever looked. The puppy realizes that he has helped grow the garden of the people of the kingdom, the very garden they cherish. The puppy became very ill and decided to go home. As the puppy was leaving, a soldier from the kingdom came along and snuffed the puppy out. As the soldier stood over the puppy's dead body, he spoke these words, "You even need permission to take a s**t round here"... "Respect the game, that should be it/ What you eat don't make me s**t"...

    • Anonymous

      you got the ending wrong...the puppy grows up into fucking kujo and stops being ignored

    • Anonymous

      As long as the puppy keeps his witts about him and hold no fear, keeps barking the truth which is the most powerful weapon, and expressing their full dissatifaction, soon their comes to the forefront a tidal wave of problems made by protesting and exposing what the powerful do and how they do it. See the laws of nature does stand still forever and change comes sooner, see a eyes are opening, the masses are only just awakening, things such as police brutality is just a sighn that the powerful have been shaken and they are tired, mathematics tells me the 1% will lose in the long run

  • Anonymous

    These rich rappers need to pull their resources together some how to create jobs for people in their communities. somehow the 1% manadges to keep sucking the blood from the poor. This wack mainstream hip hop shit is controlled by them and does nothing of value to inspire a young persons mind.

  • inked_up

    Good read. I agree that most of the mainstream rap music talks about money, women, cars, etc. That is getting old and tired. The reality is that most of the people won't live that lifestyle. This society is so fucked up that when people graduate college, there will be very little jobs and the people that don't find one will be stuck with a huge student loan debt. With the economy like it is now the people that do find work, hold on to those jobs, so companies aren't hiring. It is risky to go to college now. Its like school was made for the rich. Its a never ending cycle that needs to be dealt with. Jay-Z came from dirt to diamonds. He put in the work and made the moves that put him in his position. You don't have to like him but you really have to respect his grind. But for every success there are even more failures. So people are stuck struggling to make ends meet, and keep their homes, cars, feed their kids, etc. While those corporate greedy pigs lay-off workers then fly around on their multi-million jets. FUCK THEM!!!! OWS!!!!!

  • DOUG

    I am emcee born in 87, and I relate completely with this article. I agree with the majority, great read Salima.

  • "old man " Ras Au-t Amam

    Conscious Capitalism yeah I agree with that I been saying for awile we need to do more with rap I just took to recording for the first time the other day And its strange to me that ther'es much else to say If you grew up in a home where its hard to get food when you get the chance shouldn't fixing that control your attitude? Now I can't really say how it would be as that wasn't the case for me I'm like those educated unemployed sleeping on Wall Street But as it's reality that we in this game on a grind Seems like there should be some simple economic developments on our minds like if I show the next one how to get money like everything I've learned And he goes home and shows his homies the same in turn Just how fast and how many more players will finally have their due? And think of how many more of us will have money to buy from YOU Don't get me wrong I'm not saying you should spend all your time on charity But when 50 said make the world a better place I happen to agree So go ahead get started TODAY to do good and increase your wealth Hit indieurbanmusic.com and click on "Fundraiser" and do something for yourself -"old man" Ras Au-t Amam

  • NothingsChanged

    Thought provoking read. Here are my thoughts: With regards to the OWS T-shirts, it was obviously very cheeky and hardly helped the actual purpose of the movement. HOWEVER, why is everyone so quick to blame Jay-Z for the idea behind selling the t-shirt. He may have wore it, but that doesn't mean he told Rocawear to sell it. After all, let's not forget although he is still high in the company, he is no longer the owner! Therefore, he no longer profits from the sales, he gets a fixed salary no? Also, rappers are obviously going to try and get make a better life for themselves no? Isn't that the point in pursuing a rap career? Making it out of the hood and such? They are also obviously going to have to change their subject matter to reflect their new more affluent lifestyle.

    • jrebel5

      the idea isnt about changing the hood though, thats the thinking the most people miss, to caught up with grinding for themselves. Jay-z's entrepreneurial success isnt the 'blueprint' for building or supporting a movement thats about real shit, imo.

  • Dope Sam

    great article. best ive read in sometime. the point is not to crucify wealthy people, rather than to insure that all people have the opportunity to be amongst the wealthy. that Killer Mike lyric is fucking dead on!

  • themiddle%

    rappers are not a part of the 1% they do not have enough assets of wealth to change an infrastructure of a country or company no rapper even owns a company that he raps under I am not talking about an umbrella label that ultimately gets more money for the head CEO and their board members wealth is found in assets not money which rappers don't have enough profitable assets and thus lack enough influence to be part of the 1%

  • Assassin221

    Good article on a very confusing issue. I sympathize with the movement but at the same time they don't know what the fuck they want, and the mixed treatment of Russell Simmons and the like is proof. He may not be part of the 99%, but how are you going to turn down the full support of a powerful, rich, influential person who could actually help you accomplish something if you're really down for a cause? And if the goal is to stop people from being rich, those tents will be out there for a long-ass time. Can't say I blame Diddy and all them for keeping silent on the issue.

  • yawooh

    one thing has to be clear with this whole Occupy Movement, MINORITIES,CELEBS,RAPPERS OR ANY WEALTHY AMERICANS DON'T HAVE TO SUPPORT THIS MOVEMENT. Every1 has their own ideas and some ppl (like myslef) arent gonna go outside and protest something unless I see that something incredible can come from that. You wanna go Occupy and riot that's you, but every1 else doesnt have to give a damn about it.

  • iLL_PeezY

    Salima, this was a great article. I fully understood the message you were looking to convey and you did it with such fantastic development. As another professional writer and hardcore hop-hop head I have to admit, I'm very impressed. I find that people are always in competition with those around them so while most rappers come from the lower income divide, they were in competition with other aspiring acts around them. The battlefield. of course, was the rhyme cypher. However, once established, the battlefield changes and now they are competing for the loot because they already have the title they were previously competing for. This does not justify profiting off others nor the constant bragging about their riches, but at the same time, this marks a opportunity for new subject matter for up and coming rappers to talk about.

  • inosanto

    Nice editorial.Props!

  • Noe

    neither was i.. soulja boy makes ringtones or hip pop.. not hip hop.. the article seems to just be glorifying jayz, as your reading this don't assume I'm angry I'm just saying if he knew hip hop he'd be talking about immortal tech who obviously is more involved in hiss revolutionary views.. but i suppose he's just trying to cover this specific character.

    • billy bucks

      Understood. I got you. Unfortunately, I think the era we're in now (in hiphop) identifies more with Soulja Boy than immortal technique. It's sad, but true. I think he is covering mainstream not necessarily claiming Soulja is as conscientiously aware as Rakim. But I feel you.

  • noe

    you know nothing about hip hop.. to compare rakim to soulja boy is blasphemy.. hip hop has always been about expression and politics.. soulja boy and others have signed recording contracts witch district what they speak. no freedom of speech.. heck the labels even create they're image.

    • billy bucks

      He wasn't comparing Rakim to Soulja Boy on a talent level. He's was comparing the differences in hiphop as a whole between those two eras.

  • billy bucks

    The best article I've read on this site in a while!! Hip-Hop and politics have always gone hand-in-hand but it's traditionally been from the bottom looking up. The perspective has definitely changed for some of HipHop's "elite". To be fair...Jay may have missed an opportunity to REALLY help with the occupy movement, but he HAS helped on many other occasions. And he himself even acknowledged on "Minority Report" that he should have donated TIME, not just money to Katrina. This is a good opportunity to see if some of these celebs actually try to make a difference. Actions speak louder than words...and even louder than money sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    Moguls have been tight lipped because they aren't struggling. The ones who has spoken has seen something they can get out if in a good light to some degree. I'm quite sure if thiswa going in in the 90's, you wiukd've heard songs as well as Jay-Z's, Lil Wayne's and P. Diddy's talk but you can't speak on it while you're not living it !! Even if you came from it. Perception became the reality !! If it was to come out that these brothers are living beyond their means and are actually struggling to keep up an image, would you as a fan believe them or would you think they were just Frontin' to stay relevant with their "Fans" and regular common folk struggling ?

  • rami

    "Its tough being both an 88 baby and a fan of Hip Hop. Too young to understand the social experiences of pioneers like Rakim and KRS-One and too old to digest the lyrical sentiments of relative newcomers like Soulja Boy and Lil B, I land smack dab in the middle of a cultural movement that evolved just as I was beginning to recognize its significance." One of the most relevant statements I've ever read, being an '88 myself.

  • Schweinepriester Helmut Smith

    Conscious Capitalism? If give and not only take, you might not be wrong in life. Fuck everything Jay-Z stands for.

  • some guy

    great article by the way

  • musicjunkie0210

    In my opinion, the biggest problem comes from the artists' failed perception that they can tip-toe from one class back to the other. It's obvious that Jay is in the upper class, but as much as he acknowledges the lower classes we belong to, and donates to us; Jay will not be coming back anytime soon. I don't think he noticed this when he released those shirts as a business venture and expected the 99%'ers to accept it and respect his marketing scheme just because he rapped about being one of them before. Even by giving back to the community, you're not proving to still have your roots in the streets; you're just being a kind, charitable rich man. Its obvious that the economic and class ranks are boldly lined and separated. Nobody, including Jay-Z, can overstep them like that. It's just the way it is.. At the same time Im not saying hes a sellout for being who he is, but moguls are moguls. You decided to leave your surroundings and reach for greater things, so dont attempt to still align with us, because youre not like us anymore.

    • musicjunkie0210

      Please man. If you think That I'm wrong then go ask Jay for some cash to help pay your bills and see what he says. He ain't no sellout, but he didn't make it big for his hood or for his people. He made it big for himself, so fuck outta here with all that die hard support for him.

    • Maserati Maddi

      You guys are not educated on the policies that cripple opportunity for middle and lower class people. You are upset because someone is successful, like Jay-Z. How much money do you want to make if you get a chance to be as successful as Jay-Z? The OWS movement has not made clear its agenda, however that is what gives the movement its strength. People are actively doing something and the government has to pay attention. Don't vilify success, when success is not the problem. Its the monetary policies of our country and the banking system that perpetually create debt for Americans that is responsible for the income disparity you see today.

  • some guy

    this is what Watch The Throne is all about: "what the fuck do we do now that we aren't a part of the streets? Make a whole album celebrating the success we were bragging about 10 years ago!"

    • Adrian A Classic Joseph

      I hear your point, although I wouldn't put 'New Day', 'Murder to Excellence' in that category.

    • ba

      I'll have to respectfully agree and disagree with you on this. With songs like Niggas In Paris, Otis, and Gotta Have It, it's easy to jump to that conclusion. Outside of those songs, I think you can find a deeper meaning in the majority of the rest of the album that aren't necessarily celebrating wealth as opposed to celebrating the hard work and going against all the odds it took to get them where they are today. Just my opinion, but I can understand how others would disagree with my POV. That's why it's called art though, right?

    • comachonvargas

      ^^^ EXACTLY. I can't believe people try to defend WTT as empowering music with any real depth. Your comment perfectly encompasses the way that album should be perceived. Well played sir