Hip-Hop, Masculinity, and Capitalism: Black Expression or White Categorization

by Meghan Hornblower

Fancy motorcycles and cars, groups of community members standing on stoops, packed clubs, and women shaking their asses flash across the screen. Within the first ten seconds of the music video for T.I.’s hit single, “Ball feat. Lil Wayne,” we can see every aspect of a decades-old stereotype: the black male in hip-hop culture. But the image of the young, black male as strong, dominant, and physically powerful has allowed corporations to perpetuate the current racial ladder by giving white youth a way to “try on” a new culture. The construction of masculinity through hip-hop music has led to some surprising results: the support of capitalism and the reinforcement of racial hierarchies.

In the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,director Byron Hurt argues that hip-hop songs such as “Ball” and Trey Songz’s “2 Reasons” suggest that black men should have a lot of girls and money, and that they should be tough, violent, and in control. Furthermore, Miles White contends, in his book, From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity, that what was at first an attempt to challenge the status quo and social order of American society has become yet another way to reemphasize capitalism and our country’s racial hierarchy (19). In fact, this construction of hyper-masculinity and the creation of the overly violent and sexual black male stereotype has been glamorized and endorsed by American media.

The construction of hyper-masculinity in hip-hop music has led to images of brutish, angry black males prone to violence and compelled by money and women. Jeffrey Ogbar argues that manhood comes down to three things in hip-hop culture: the willingness to “inflict violent harm on adversaries, …have sex with many women,” and acquire as many material possessions as possible (75). This argument can be seen in the lyrics to T.I.’s “Ball.” In the hit song, T.I. talks about “Hoppin’ out of Lambos and Ferraris in this bitch” and “Poppin’ bottles with a thick red super model bitch” while Lil Wayne screeches, “pop that pussy like a gun, pull the trigger.” From this song, we can see admired male hip-hop artists emphasizing the significance of owning guns and expensive cars, seducing and degrading women, and drinking in excess.

The lyrics and music video to Trey Songz’s “2 Reasons feat. T.I.” also shows this masculine importance of dominating women and partying hard. Trey Songz begins his club anthem by demonstrating ideals such as partying at clubs, demeaning women, and drinking alcohol:

Catch me in the club like I own that bitch
Shawty dancing like she on that dick
Bad bitches never hold back
…I only came for the bitches and the drinks. (Songz)

Trey Songz appears to be living the perfect masculine life, which is not only displayed through his lyrics but also the frequent close-up camera shots of women’s butts and bodies in tight clothing and of bottles of Grey Goose vodka. The song made it to #4 on Billboard’s Top R&B Songs List for the week of October 20, 2012 (“R&B Songs”), indicating that this type of masculine-driven party culture, characteristic of hip-hop music, appeals to the American public. These lyrics, combined with the images of intense partying, cause one to wonder how these elements translate into reality.

Some argue that the evolution of masculinity in popular hip-hop music can affect how young, black males act in real life. For instance, Miles White recalls the response to N.W.A.’s album Straight Outta Compton received in 1988 and the revolutionary changes it made in the representation of the black male. He explains the revolutionary difference between what critics call the “black bad man figure” and the “bad nigger.” The black bad man figure is seen as “heroic” because he always looks out for the good in his community even if outsiders, mainly whites, think of him as “a troublemaker” (White 65). The “bad nigger,” on the other hand, is seen as a deviant because he only acts “in his own self-interest even if this hurts his community.” Because of this, he is seen as a threat to fellow black men (65). Both types of men have been represented ever since hip-hop’s creation; however, the image of the “bad nigger” now dominates contemporary hip-hop music.

In Byron Hurt’s documentary, Talib Kweli argues that the representation of the black male in hip-hop music today fits the “bad nigger” category. He states that hip-hop is “ego-driven” and “encourages [black males] to assert [themselves]” in any way to make sure they remain masculine, or hard, tough, and strong (Kweli qtd. in Hurt). When collecting evidence for his documentary at the BET Spring Bling in Daytona Beach, Florida, Hurt encountered many aspiring hip-hop artists who rapped about “being tough and invulnerable” while also “feminizing other men.” One young, black man belittled soldiers’ sacrifice and service: “you dicks turn into pussies / when it’s time for war” (Hurt). Through this rap, he is distancing himself from weak, emotional men struggling with the transition from civilian to military life in order to assert his own masculinity over theirs. According to Hurt’s observations, males who only care about staying inside this “manhood box” have become more independent, individualistic, and egotistical As a result, Hurt concluded that black males who buy into this image make decisions based on their own self-interest.

This notion of individualism and the importance of egotism in hip-hop stems from America’s capitalist ideology of gaining success, money, and power through individual means. Thus, it can be seen that hip-hop is a product and perpetuation of capitalism. Simona J. Hill and Dave Ramsaran agree that the the “‘pathological black male’ image,” supports our current American capitalist mindset (Hill and Ramsaran 54). They claim that “the gangsta image of the brute black male, prone to violence and nihilism” supports “individualism, profit making, and…material success” (Hill and Ramsaran 53, 54). Jackson Katz contends that many white men of middle or upper class status have the economic and financial power to gain success, but argues that many black men of low-income have only the physical power of their bodies and appearances to do so (Jackson Katz qtd. in Hurt). And Tricia Rose, author of The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—and Why It Matters, suggests that black rappers such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dog, and T.I. gained their money, success, and respect as hip-hop artists from the selling of their bodies as representations of black culture in the ghetto (Rose 4). For Miles White, this capitalist ideal of success therefore reinforces racial hierarchies because the “black body [has been] transformed into a commodity to be traded in the public marketplace” (19) or could even be viewed as performance vehicles to gain success, respect, and power in a capitalist society that still adheres to racialized scripts..

Ironically, white teenagers might believe that the black male body symbolizes life in the “hood” due to corporate control of hip-hop music. Miles White argues that African American culture is “viewed as [an] alternative playground for members of dominant groups” such as white youth and corporations (20). Therefore, some white men and women might even perceive listening to hip-hop music as a way to understand and see a different culture. One female white teenager stated in her interview with Byron Hurt that hip-hop “appeals to [our] sense of learning about other cultures and wanting to know more about something we’ll probably never experience.” She said that she is able to empathize with certain experiences, such as “drive-by shootings,” that she has never personally experienced before when listening to hip-hop (Hurt). Hence, this young woman sees hip-hop as a way to experience life outside of her predominantly white, middle class suburban environment.

However, are white teenagers vicariously experiencing real “black” life (“the hood”/“the ghetto”) through hip-hop music, or are they being exposed to a highly stereotyped representation of a culture? Dr. Mark Anthony Neal explained to Hurt that the heads of corporations that control hip-hop are putting manhood and “certain types of blackness” in a bottle, advertising it, and selling it to white youth (Neal qtd. in Hurt). Thus, it can be argued that corporations are manipulating white youth’s perception of black life to be what they hear on the radio and see on MTV. One young, black man sheds light on this misrepresentation of the truth: “the media doesn’t want to portray us…minority people…as good fathers… [or] as good businessmen…[or that] we don’t just sell drugs” (Hurt).

Hip-hop music and culture have thus become corporations’ sneaky method of gaining economic success by manipulating perceptions of black culture to appeal to white youth. While Jeffrey Ogbar believes that hip-hop is “[a] defiance to established authority” (Ogbar 75) and a nonconformity to the American sociopolitical system, hip-hop could actually be seen as a white man’s game. Furthermore, “70% of mainstream hip-hop is [being] consumed by young, white men” (Hurt). Hence, the music industry is obtaining more of a profit from white consumerism than black consumerism (Oliver 101). Although many black listeners believe they are defying the system of American capitalism and are the targeted audience for hip-hop music, stereotypes have been used to expand white consumerism and profit.

Hip-hop further allows the perpetuation of capitalism due to its widespread attractiveness to white youth rather than black youth. White youth are compelled by hip-hop music because they desire a way to differentiate their personalities from their mainstream, white, adolescent peers.

For white adolescent males coming to terms with issues of masculinity and identity, the image of the swaggering black male in hip-hop videos is an appealing figure that has become iconic of an authentic and desirable representation of masculinity to be emulated. (White, 23)

In other words, young, white males feel the need to show a minor form of “blackness” in order to set themselves apart from the dominant culture capital, or mainstream white society. Thus, they are reestablishing the racial hierarchy. Yet white males may be the only racial group that has the power to identify with a marginalized group and to still be considered “different” in a positive light. By listening to hip-hop music, white youths are not only trying to seem unique and obtain blackness, but they are also reinforcing our society’s current racial hierarchy—and keeping our capitalist system intact.

Hyper-masculinity in hip-hop music and culture is not a new social construct. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson believes that “the notion of violent masculinity is at the heart of American identity” (Dyson qtd. in Hurt). Therefore, hyper-masculinity existed long before America adopted capitalism as its ideological mindset. Hip-hop is not so different from other forms of American entertainment and media. In “Crime in the News.” The Politics of Injustice:

Crime and Punishment in America, Kathrine Beckett and Theodore Sasson say the glorification of violence in American culture is a long tradition, and they credit everything from old western films to today’s violent crime on the news (Beckett and Sasson 75). America has been a “hyper-masculine, hyper-aggressive nation” since its birth, says Byron Hurt. This age-old definition of what it means to not only be a man, but also to be an American, suggests that all men must use violence to gain individual success. Consequently, the prevalence of guns in hip-hop music videos and ceaseless lyrics depicting black men “putting fear into another man’s heart” (Hurt) in order to be more masculine than other black men reiterates and supports the hyper-aggressive American identity and self-centered capitalist ideology.

The construction of masculinity has shaped hip-hop music today through its dramatic development over the genre’s lifespan. Hyper-masculinity and hyper-aggressiveness are implanted and institutionalized in our country’s identity, regardless of the accuracy of these portrayals. Can we change the representation of young black men in hip-hop music? Wishes may be granted to truthfully depict life in a positive, non-violent light through the unification of male and female, black hip-hop artists. By challenging the current American racial hierarchy and capitalist ideology, male and female black hip-hop artists of the future may be able to teach an audience about a truly rich culture that has been silenced and misrepresented for far too long.

                                                 Works Cited

Beckett, Katherine, and Theodore Sasson. “Crime in the News.” The Politics
        of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America. Thousand Oaks, California:
        Pine Forge Press, 2000. 75-99. Print.

Hill, Simona J., and Dave Ramsaran. Hip Hop and Inequality: Searching for
       the “Real” Slim Shady. New York: Cambria Press, 2009. Print.

Hurt, Byron, dir. Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Media Education
        Foundation,2006. DVD.

Ogbar, Jeffrey Ogbonna Green. Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and
       Politics of Rap. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007. Print.

Oliver, Melvin L., and Thomas M. Shapiro. “A Story of Two Nations: Race
       and Wealth.” Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial
       Inequality. New York: Routledge, 1997. 91-125. Print.

Rose, Tricia. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About
       Hip Hop— and Why It Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.

“R&B Songs Music Chart.” Billboard.com. Prometheus Global Media, 20
       October 2012.Web. 20 November 2013.