Through this “double-consciousness,” hip hop artists have learned to place a foot in both doors of white capitalism and black realism, so they can continue to profit and become successful in America against all racial odds.
From a sociological perspective, cultures are both a reflection of and an influence upon the individual socialization that takes place within a society. As hip hop rose in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, it crafted a culture dependent on the actions of its leading figures of DJs, emcees, breakdancers, and graffiti artists. In the years following hip hop’s emergence, these leaders of the genre were faced with the conflict of their ascribed and achieved individual statuses as they related to race and economics.
One’s social status “provides guidelines for how we are to act and feel” (Henslin), therefore adjusting an individual to their proper ‘space’ to fill in society. In the case of the African Americans who initiated the rise of hip hop, they were born into the ascribed status of their family, which indicates “race-ethnicity, sex, and the social class of your parents” and other “involuntary” traits (Henslin). The Bronx in New York, the area where hip hop emerged from, was subject to the “post-World War II surge of government investment” (Chang 11) which resulted in urban builders such as Robert Moses gained power and infringed upon the daily lives of Bronx residents by bulldozing their homes to create projects such as the Cross-Bronx Expressway. As a result, minority families were pushed further into poverty and ruin, impeding the opportunities of their children and themselves for education and work. Hip hop’s founding artists were born into and lived through these circumstances involuntarily, meaning that their status as poor, undereducated, and African American was ascribed to them from birth.
As hip hop’s sphere of influence became more widespread, white capitalist notions became evident in the personas of the artists. American media began framing rap songs through a violent, gangster image that was both resisted and desired by white audiences; for instance, listeners were shocked by the lyrical violence of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, yet applauded the gangster film genre of movies such as Scarface and The Godfather that heavily influenced ‘gangsta rap’ aesthetics. As Trinity College American Studies researcher Davarian Baldwin posits, “The gangsta subject would not continue to exist in commodified form if there were not buyers waiting for the product” (Baldwin 148).
This relation of the African American artist to commodity streamlines their socialization into another level: the achieved status. In contrast to the ascribed status, the achieved status reflects the roles you “earn or accomplish [as] a result of your efforts” (Henslin). In the state of hip hop at this time, the achieved status of these black artists translates to their external portrayals of their art through music, graffiti, and dance. To delve even deeper, one must take into account who is the audience of hip hop artists, and consider that in many cases, it is the white Americans paying more attention to the African American works and how they present their communities.
Racism is embedded into the social construction of hip hop, as simply being African American is a “master status” for these artists, meaning that no matter what you accomplish and what other ascribed or achieved statuses you may hold, you will always be considered foremost by this characteristic (Henslin). Although it can be asserted that “being black is not necessarily the irreductible fact of black people’s lives,” (Walton 138) the African American communities in the nation are still held up to certain expectations from both white and black companions based solely on tropes of their race.
As black hip hop artists entered the realm of capitalism through their success in the 1980s, they were subject to the overbearing traits of American neoliberalism, a motion that encouraged not just “survival of the fittest, but gratification of the fittest” (Chang 220). Neoliberalism sparked outcry at the highest levels of capitalism, meaning that America’s government officials and other elite destroyed welfare programs and refused to provide money for education in impoverished neighborhoods, instead focusing on a “massive redistribution of wealth back to the wealthy” and an understanding that “responsibility was no longer preceded by the word ‘social’ but by the word ‘individual’” (Chang 220).
American neoliberalism infringed heavily upon the conflict of African Americans’ ascribed and achieved status, particularly in hip hop. The phrase ‘selling out’ arises in the midst of hip hop and neoliberalism’s conjunctions, where hip hop musicians and artists begin profiting off of the very forces that previously forced them into poverty. In this, the African American interpretation of neoliberalism as a punishing terror that they must not entertain through profit is ascribed, based on the roots of black inequalities and poverty in America, starting from slavery. However, achieved is the white capitalist’s interpretation of neoliberalism, as a way to promote individualism and competition in hopes of the ‘American Dream’ of success. Although black hip hop artists felt obligated by their roots, they used the constraints of neoliberalism to their advantage because “while they don’t like government restrictions any more than the Republicans and endorse rampant individualism within the markets, they also expose how the fervor for deregulation extends to everything except certain genres of the American music industry” (Baldwin 142).
This black activist perspective can be further deconstructed by understanding that based on the ‘master status’ of being African American, the genre of hip hop is more heavily controlled by external forces than any other musical genres, simply because hip hop artists are assumed to speak of the ‘real’ issues and politics in their communities and are therefore granted expectations by all races for ‘keeping it real’ in their lyrics. The abstract concept of ‘real’ aligns greatly with DuBois’ theory of “double-consciousness,” in which a black man lives through the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (DuBois). The state of hip hop relations with their multiracial audience can best be expressed through Anthony Walton’s “My Secret Life as a Black Man,” in which he compares living black in America as obtaining “a sense of the self as a shape-shifter.”
Through this “double-consciousness,” hip hop artists have learned to place a foot in both doors of white capitalism and black realism, so they can continue to profit and become successful in America against all racial odds. Instead of identifying purely with their ascribed or achieved status, hip hop artists must learn the art of balancing these social worlds; in this, “rappers are not trying to hold black identity to some place of total opposition to consumption, commodification, or social mobility. They are claiming their U.S. citizenship by partaking of conspicuous consumption and performing the identities of a U.S. gangsta government and elite-class capitalists” (Baldwin 158).
Baldwin, Davarian L. “Black Empires, White Desires: The Spatial Politics of Identity in the Age of Hip Hop.” Black Renaissance Noire, vol. 2 no. 2, 1999.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Print.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, 1903.
Henslin, James M. Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach, 14e. Pearson Education Inc., 2018.
Walton, Anthony. “My Secret Life as a Black Man.” The Oxford American, iss. 23, 1998.