It’s not uncommon to see web, tabloid, and newspaper images of Jay Z sitting courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game. He’s a mogul, a purveyor of “cool,” and a world-famous musician; he belongs there, he fits the bill. But the scene is really peculiar within the scope of American history: a black male flaunting his wealth and enjoying the heights of cultural prestige. This image would be unthinkable half a century ago.
Why is this would-be peculiarity now the norm for Jay Z, and many other famous black men like him? Words. The power of words. Of course there are a billion cultural factors that make 2014 different than 1950, but the narrative of hip hop up to this point in our history is one of word conquest. Jay Z is a high profile wordsmith, owing his achievements first to his talents as a musical poet. In fact, Jay Z frames his success in one of my favorite rap verses from “Brooklyin (Go Hard)”:
I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them
I jack, I rob, I sin
Aww man, I’m Jackie Robinson
‘Cept when I run base, I dodge the pen
Lucky me, luckily, they didn’t get me
Now when I bring the Nets, I’m the black Branch Rickey
I suggest listening to the song to hear the full effect of Jay Z’s delivery in casting himself as both the groundbreaking player (Jackie Robinson) and owner (Branch Rickey) of Brooklyn’s past. He parallels his breakthrough as an outsider player to the barrier-breaking Robinson, using criminal behavior to mirror the latter’s name (jack-ie/rob-in/sin). The fourth line wraps up the Robinson comparison with an impressive triple entendre–Jackie Robinson’s base-stealing is the jump off for Jay Z’s history of running base (dealing cocaine) and mastering the bass as a hip hop artist (the beat). Like the great Dodger, he isn’t caught–he dodges the pen, which again touches on his crime (no prison time) and his art (he famously does not write down his lyrics before recording). Branch Rickey was the owner to sign Robinson into the Major Leagues, and Jay Z boasts of a similar significance in his role as a man of color transitioning the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn (“when I bring the Nets”).
Rap is certainly popular, but one of the genre’s common features that drives many Christians away (or simply reinforces a preexisting disdain) is the ubiquitous boastfulness that runs through rap lyrics. While there is plenty of humility and honesty in the genre (Red Man’s appearance on “MTV Cribs” is a humorous example), there is greater notoriety for hip hop that regularly boasts of wealth. One of my hangups with hip hop used to be the artifice of these boasts. It’s present in the song above: Jay Z actually owned less than 1% of the Nets, but he built up the perception that he was a majority owner. Rappers often claim they are rolling in stacks of money on the first single of their debut album, crossing their fingers the song actually produces the piles to roll in. Renting out luxury vehicles and gaudy jewelry for a music video is common practice, another way rappers build the hollow image of their bottomless wealth.
To be clear: pride and greed are sins. This fantasy ideal of riches is obviously not a healthy one to grasp at, and fans would be much better served seeking a modest living through hard work than a pipe dream of wealth. Personally, however, I’ve gotten past my initial hang up around boasting. For one reason, such exaggeration and conceit is not unique to rap. The eternal romantic devotion proclaimed in many pop songs is simply a fleeting reality. The hard work esteemed in country music, and the good times that make it bearable, are both overwrought ideals for the listener. One could even argue that such unrealistic boasting is true in some hymns and praise songs. Are Christians that sing “At the Cross” on a Sunday morning really “happy all the day”? Rap just wears its conceit on its sleeve, more so than other music that is just as aggrandized at heart.
So what moved me from cynicism to appreciation of the over-sized rap narrative? Realizing that it was actually a true story. Rap as we know it today didn’t just appear out of thin air. The music industry did not simply put mics in the hands of a historically oppressed people and ask for their best brags. One of the best arguments for hip hop’s inception and explosion in a few short decades is the Christian understanding of ex nihilo, God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, the creation of something out of nothing. Dorothy Sayers has written that the image of God in mankind is necessarily tied to God’s creativity. Since the Genesis narrative first presents God as a creator, then man is like that. Further, God is lyrically creative, forming the universe with spoken words. With hip hop, generations of emcees have spoken a world into existence. The form itself has always been marked with original expressions (rap lyrics) voiced over repurposed music (sampling). The idea, however, that a disenfranchised community could gain footing and even power through a skillful use of language is an out-of-nothing reality.
Hip hop artists really were “the black men that struck oil,” as Wu-Tang Clan raps in “For Heaven’s Sake”. They really did move from the margins to the mainstream, crafting their own story with their own voice, relying on the power of words. KRS-One details the word-wrought beginnings of the story in “Just Like That”:
But in ’81 this was just a dream
But we kept dreaming, kept decreeing, kept seeing
Kept being hip hop, breaking, MC-ing
Graffiti writing, DJ-ing on the weekend
Rap has moved from a prophetic mantra, “Our words will create a new reality for us,” to a refrain of victory, “Look what we’ve created.” And while some rap is truly two-dimensional, constructed around a narrow, idolatrous lust for individual wealth, much of it is closer to communal storytelling. “I do this for my culture,” Jay Z proclaims in “Izzo”, “To let them know what a n**** look like when a n**** in a Roadster.” A poor, disenfranchised, and largely ignored people are responsible for building hip hop from the ground up. Most emcees don’t want us to forget that story. While the rapper drawing attention to his G’s might shock with his brazenness, the greater shock resides in the word-based tradition that makes his boast possible. As hip hop thrives, the image of God is affirmed and goes forth through lyrical skill. Instead of hearing all rap lyrics as individual boasts, let’s open our ears to the celebration of a community’s word-wrought empowerment.