Media & Privilege In Hip-Hop

It seems everywhere you turn nowadays, hip-hop is there. Whether it’s a middle-class, middle-aged couple rapping about buying a minivan to better traverse suburbia; McDonald’s using a hip-hop song as the backdrop for its McNugget commercials; or Fox News up in arms about Chicago emcee Common being invited to the White House, hip-hop is an undeniable part of the fabric of mainstream culture in America; as much a part of that fabric as the hierarchies of privilege that saturate our everyday lives.

Ubiquitous as hip-hop is, it’s one of the most maligned and misunderstood aspects of our society. When taken out of context, it appears to be nothing more than a crude art form that embodies many ugly traits; and rarely are these traits attributed to anything other than the character of the practitioners. Yet, there is much to learn from mainstream hip-hop and its rise to the pinnacle of pop culture. Just as nothing exists in a vacuum, hip-hop is not free from the pressures and norms of our society. What can mainstream hip-hop show us about race, class and privilege? Positioning hip-hop within political economy, white supremacy, and patriarchy allows for the unique opportunity to explore the processes of commodification and exploitation that are at the heart of maintaining privilege and ultimately power in this society.


There is a parable told about a wise old fish who, while swimming through the water, encounters two young fish. He turns to them and asks, "How is the water?" The young fish reply, "What water?" Just as fish are the last to recognize the water that surrounds them, so the privileged are the last to recognize their condition. Whether it’s heterosexual males and gender privilege, the wealthy and class privilege, or whites and racial privilege it seems that members of these groups are oblivious to its existence. If this were the extent of the privileged collective ignorance perhaps it would be acceptable. Sadly, though, it is not. Privilege has much farther reaching implications. A staple of privilege, according to Marilyn Frye, is the ability to deny its relationship to oppression and the reality of the oppressed:

[t]he experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systemically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction.[1]

The author’s point is important to understand because of how it positions privilege not as isolated, overt actions (which it certainly could be), but as a much more nuanced system of interrelated forces -- which, taken individually, may not appear to be insidious; but when considered in the context of other forces, the oppressive nature of privilege becomes truly obvious. This is an understanding the privileged work hard to circumvent, given the consequences of such a realization, thereby adopting the position of the young fish and remaining "ignorantly blissful."

Contextualizing Privilege Within Hip-hop

Whether it’s coming from our parents who "just don’t understand," or Bill O’Reilly going off on one of his tirades, hip-hop seems to be under constant attack as a useless, if not destructive, art form.[2] This is likely the result of a superficial understanding regarding the impact and relevancy of hip-hop. A more sophisticated analysis will lead one to the humanities and ethnic studies where valuable questions are being engaged on a daily basis. In the humanities, hip-hop is being examined as a tool for creating agency; as a way for oppressed communities to tell their stories. This is not far removed from the concept of nommo, a Bantu term referring to the power of words to create change. Continuing in these ancient traditions, building on cultures and beliefs from places like the Caribbean, and mixing them with the urban culture of America, which included the influences of jazz, the blues, and the cultural productions of artists like Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Amiri Baraka, hip-hop culture was undeniably a force to be reckoned with -- the newest and potentially most powerful manifestation of discontent. Artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, KRS-ONE, Queen Latifah, NWA, MC Lyte, Public Enemy and later Lauryn Hill, Nas, and Jay-Z, among countless others, serve as examples of how hip-hop has granted voice to the voiceless, and served as the canvas for masterpieces that give as much insight into the beauty and pain of humans as any other art form. Jeff Chang documents this phenomenon, its evolution, and its origins in his classic anthology, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. While branches of the humanities such as cultural studies or hip-hop studies attempt to position hip-hop as a valuable art form, capable of standing on its own merit, ethnic studies is interested in much more than the art; it is interested in the culture and what that culture can tell us about normative society.[3]

Hip-hop, then, serves as a gateway into the realities of how our society has treated, and continues to treat, communities of color, along with other oppressed and marginalized groups.[4] In short, it offers a mirror from which a unique opportunity to examine power and privilege becomes apparent.[5]

Media and Political Economy

In Introduction to Political Economy, Sackrey, Schneider, and Knoedler lay out a definition of political economy that is useful for understanding just how privilege has flourished: the move towards a scientific understanding of economics that "has either ignored, or labored to discount, alternative ways of thinking about the economy..."[6] This stands in stark contrast to the free market approach, advocated by people such as Milton Friedman, which asserts that markets have an inherently scientific nature and that regulation only cripples its nearly magical powers to create wealth. This worldview makes no room for the influence of culture, or other non-economic factors, when making decisions that ultimately have an effect on the living conditions of all. In short, political economy offers an alternative to the capitalist system, which makes its sole goal profit via private ownership. Political economy creates the space to consider things such as race and gender as a part of the equation when making economic decisions; this worldview, as we will see, appeals to those who do not benefit from the trickledown effect of the free market: the unprivileged.

Political economy, it stands to reason, is not something the privileged are interested in considering. In fact, part of the discussion around privilege has to deal with the tools used by the privileged not only to maintain the status quo, but to further their own agenda: the sustained absence of political economy from the mainstream public discourse. In a capitalist society that means keeping those with limited, if any, purchasing power motivated and willing to consume. As 1950 economist Victor Lebow pointed out in his work, Price Competition:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.

These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only "forced draft" consumption, but "expensive" consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.

This paradigm is as real today as when Lebow articulated it in 1955, as then-President Bush’s plea to shop after 9-11 illustrated, for example. If consumption was not the proverbial holy grail, shopping and visiting Disney World would have been lower, if not absent completely, from the country’s consciousness during such a tragic time. But, as the timeless adage states, "money makes the world go around," and if for any reason, even one as significant as 9/11, the marginalized and underprivileged decided not to spend their money, not to buy into Lebow’s proposed "way of life," it is conceivable their collective energy could be spent considering how to live in a more equitable, peaceful, and ultimately loving society. Therefore, it was, and is, absolutely necessary to keep the nation’s attention on consumption. Besides the philosophical issues around priorities this approach highlights, there is no mention of how -- if our worth is tied up in spending our money -- the poor would be affected? What happens if one could not afford to consume? Or, what if they could not afford to consume the same type of goods as others? That is to say, there is no room for the type of concerns a political economist would possess. No, these are not concerns of the privileged. Their concern is making sure the public consumes the goods they produce (or more accurately control the means of production to produce those goods) guaranteeing their continued accumulation of wealth, and perpetual comfort.

How this obsession with consumption would be accomplished is no secret. The media would serve as the metaphorical fun house mirror, distorting reality, values, eventually shaping reality with the intended consequence of maintaining the hegemony of heterosexual white males.[8] This results in the media, which by its very nature is what Louis Althusser calls an "ideological state apparatus," being effectively manipulated by the privileged.[9] In other words, the media is the first line in furthering the agenda of the privileged: "Media ... are manipulated to secure ‘ideological victories’ through the application of propaganda."[10] The media perpetuates the rhetoric and worldview of the powerful and privileged, creating the ideal situation for their collective continued prosperity.

This is not a contextualizing of the media that is very common, that is to say, it is not part of the popular discourse around the media.[11] This is directly tied to the necessity of the privileged to hide their privilege. Gregory Mantsios explores this in his essay, "media magic: making class invisible." In the essay, Mantsios explains how the media perpetuates the myth that America is a classless society, ignoring the reality that America: the most highly stratified society in the industrialized world. Class distinctions operate in virtually every aspect of our lives, determining the nature of our work, the quality of our schooling, and the health and safety of our loved ones.[12]

Mantsios then explores how and why the media play such a crucial role in maintaining this illusion. Much of what he identifies are commonly heard rationales such as: the poor are undeserving, or down on their luck. Of course, these are, at best, half-truths and if the media were more honest, this type of misinformation would be easily debunked. Take, for example, how white-collar crime is portrayed versus crime committed by a young black male in an impoverished section of the city. News outlets in all regions of the country sensationalize crime committed by the later and ignore or make apologies for the former. Other identifiers of the media being used to mask privilege are more specific to media strategies such as: failing to report on the poor, making the poor faceless, and making the wealthy seem common.[13] Perhaps the most relevant example of this is the Tea Party and the ability of multi-millionaires such as the Koch brothers or the Murdochs to attract support from the working class. Without the access to the media, it is hard to imagine their core messages resonating with the working class, or as Marx labeled them, the proletariat. Yet, precisely because they do have access, they are able to shape the narrative to further their own agenda.[14] All of this is to be expected, according to Mantsios, because the media’s interests are in line with the interests of the wealthy and elite. This is the direct result of who owns the media: "[t]wenty-three corporations own more than one half of all the daily newspapers, magazines, movie studios, and radio and television outlets in the United States."[15] Clearly, these corporations are not being led by working class or poor people but rather the elite, like Murdoch. It is no wonder then, that the media seemingly has no interest in addressing the issue of poverty in any meaningful way, as Mantsios’ research points out: "less than one in five hundred articles in the New York Times and one in one thousand articles listed in the Readers Guide to Periodic Literature are on poverty."[16] Given these numbers it is hard not to agree with the conclusion reached by Mantsios when he says:

[a] mass media that did not have its own class interests in preserving the status quo would acknowledge that inordinate wealth and power undermines democracy and that a ‘free market’ economy can ravage a people and their communities.[17]

While Mantsios is limiting his examination to class, it is crucial to understand that class interests are intimately intertwined with racial and gender interests, all of which are propped up by the media.

If the goal of the media is to manufacture popularity (in this case meaning a popular acceptance of a certain worldview), and if "[p]opularity in all its forms, images, framing of news, manicured forms of cultural expression or pop culture, are all managed to justify the rightfulness of the[privileged]"[18] it is worth asking the question of how? How did oppressed communities become apathetic to the point they actively contribute contrary to their self-interest? The answer lies in one of the most pervasive tools of the media -- advertising. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of advertising is, what John Waide calls, "associative advertising," or the perception that a market good can, and will, supply you with non-market goods. For example, that drinking the right beer will increase your sex appeal. We see this idea continuously manifested in hip-hop culture. Rappers routinely assert their worth via the material goods they can purchase; so, one’s ability to "pop tags" or go on shopping sprees becomes a vital tool for measuring self-worth. The appropriate way to display your commitment to a partner is to "make it rain" or shower the young lady with cash. It is a sentiment and worldview repeated often in mainstream hip-hop culture. It reflects just how media is positioned to further the consumerism Lebow discusses, and puts to rest any debate over Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption, the conflating of purchasing power with self-worth.

It is this paradigm that made possible the split between, what I call, underground hip-hop and mainstream or corporate hip-hop.[19] The media, holding true to Mantsios’ analysis, commodified hip-hop, resulting in the commercial powerhouse most American’s are familiar with today. Conflating this section of hip-hop with hip-hop culture in its entirety is a common and understandable mistake. This is seen by returning to a section of Bakari Kitwana’s work, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop. He claims that hip-hop’s rise in popularity equates to a lowering of racial tension. There is, however, a valid argument to the contrary, as Stanley Crouch pointed out in a discussion Kitwana himself cites: "You like it and the rest of you white people like it for one very specific reason, and that is whenever you read those lyrics, as they’re called, you always know, or assume, that you are superior to the Negro who wrote them."[20] Looking strictly at the section of hip-hop that the media involves itself with, namely the rap music played on radio stations, MTV, BET, and distributed by major record labels, Crouch’s analysis seems to hold up. Many even refer to it as "modern minstrelsy." However, this section of hip-hop is by no means the majority, nor is it representative of the origins of the culture.[21] Crouch would do well to include in his analysis hip-hop culture as a whole before leveling judgment on those whites who consider themselves "hip-hop heads."[22]

Kitwana, though well aware of this divide, and of the harmful images and ideas mainstream hip-hop is infamous for, ignores these crucial observations and critiques in favor of a blurred vision of racial harmony. The fact of the matter is hip-hop is just as complex as any other culture. The constant, and what both Crouch and Kitwana should be able to agree upon, is how the media plays its role perfectly: perpetuating images and ideas that fit neatly into the boxes the dominant culture constructs.

Kitwana and Crouch are by no means the only critics approaching hip-hop as if it were hegemonic. That is to say, they are not alone in their failure to acknowledge the diversity, or, perhaps more accurately, divide in the hip-hop community. This divide has at its foundation in the desire for entry into the mainstream economic market. So, while commercial hip-hop -- the hip-hop which is produced by corporations -- is the most visible manifestation of the media perpetuating privilege via the propping up of caricatures and stereotypes of blacks, they are by no means alone in this endeavor. Young "underground" artists all over the country who have not been "signed" are producing music that mimics the commercial model. Perhaps this is best illustrated in Byron Hurts documentary, "Beyond Beats and Rhymes," during an interaction Hurt has with a group of aspiring emcee’s waiting for their chance to audition:

PERSON #12: I could walk up to you right now and say [rapping], "Yo, I coulda been a doctor or I coulda been a pops. Wonder what woulda happened had I woulda been a cop. Would I help the block? Protect the good from the bad? Or just be killin’ n****s ‘cuz the power of my badge?" That’s nice, but nobody wants to hear that right now. They don’t accept that sh*t.

BYRON HURT: Who is they?

PERSON #13: The industry.

PERSON #14: They usually don’t give us deals when we speak righteously and things of that nature. They think we don’t want to hear that.

Clearly the young men are cognizant of the fact that those with the power to better their lives via economics, those with the ability to pay them, want to hear certain themes. It makes sense then that "underground" rappers would take up these themes in their quest for class mobility. Further complicating the situation remains the facts that much of what is being rapped about is not a front. There remains the sobering truth that much of what is being rapped about: violence, drugs, and misogyny, is reality; which returns us to the subject at hand -- the media. There is little doubt that the media shapes reality, for many. So when Lupe Fiasco speaks candidly about the murder rate in his hometown, Chicago, and calls out Chief Keef as a rapper that embodies the culture of violence which makes such a rate possible, the response is one of hostility and more violence. At some level, Chief Keef has internalized the images of black men perpetuated by the media. This is not to say he is not being truthful about his reality. Yet, even that acceptance, the acceptance that his reality is as brutal as his music would suggest, demonstrates the level of influence the media wields over creating reality. If it wasn’t for the images of poverty and blackness that the media continuously put forward it is hard to imagine a situation where the types of conditions that the poor and people of color survive in everyday would be acceptable to the wealthiest nation on earth. Instead, we have a national narrative, produced and perpetuated by media, that pathologizes poor people of color and is at the same time strangely attracted to its most brutal and vicious elements, as evidenced by the popularity of emcees that exploit these images for their personal entry and ascendance in the mainstream economy. When the media ceases to be a tool of the privileged and used to manufacture justifications for their overabundance, we will see a shift, not only in hip-hop, but in the entire culture of America -- one that will certainly move us towards more equality.[24]

1] Marilyn Frye, "oppression" in Privilege: a reader, ed. Michael S. Kimmel et al. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003), 16.

2] Bill O’Reilly single-handedly got Pepsi to rescind an offer to rapper Ludacris.

3] I am thinking here of courses like the one on 2Pac offered by Professor Michael Eric Dyson at Georgetown University, as just one example.

4] This is most heavily the African-American community but also includes Afro-Caribbean immigrants such as Kool Herc who is often cited as the founder of hip-hop.

5] Privilege for my purposes refers to the systemic benefits granted dominant groups of society. For example: here in America straight, wealthy, white, men would be the most privileged with deviations from this standard receiving less privilege depending on the severity of deviation.

6] Privilege for my purposes refers to the systemic benefits granted dominant groups of society. For example: here in America straight, wealthy, white, men would be the most privileged with deviations from this standard receiving less privilege depending on the severity of deviation.

7] Victor Lebow. "Price Competition in 1955." Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955.

8] Media, in this sense, is anything that purveys information. It includes but is not limited to: magazines, news broadcasts, music, movies, newspapers, television shows, and advertisements.

9] Louis Althusser, "Ideology as Ideological State Apparatus: notes towards an investigation," in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 85-126.

10] Jared Ball, I Mix What I Like! a Mixtape Manifesto. (New York: AK Press, 2011), 25.

11] As close as the conversation around the media comes to this analysis is the debate between a liberal or conservative bias in the media. Notice, this debate is completely void of understanding media as a tool of the privileged, who are both liberal and conservative.

12] Gregory Mantsios. "media magic: making class invisible," in Privilege: a reader, ed. Michael S. Kimmel et al. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003). 99-109

13] Ibid, 100-102.

14] Murdoch owns Fox networks and other media outlets globally.

15] Mantsios, "media magic," 99.

16] Ibid, 100.

17] Ibid, 108.

18] Ball, I Mix What I Like, 25.

19] Corporate hip-hop is anything distributed by a major record label it is also called commercial hip-hop.

20] Kitwana, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, 108.

21] South Bronx in the 1970s with an emphasis on community, having a good time, and eventually truth telling with Grandmaster Flash’s "The Message"

22] Those that consider themselves a part of hip-hop culture

23] Hurt, Byron. "Beyond Beats and Rhymes." 2007. DVD

24] Similar to the defenders of hip-hop during the "Google Versus debate: hip-hop on trial" hip-hop is a reflection of society as a whole. If we don’t approve of what we are seeing we need to get to its root rather than its flowers.

{ exclusive feature}
by Ryan Williams-Virden (Minneapolis, Minnesota:USA)

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