Materialism in rap and hip-hop masks deeper messages

By Sam Nephew

Music is an artists’ outlet for expression, an opportunity to send messages that mean something to the world, and the ways in which artists express their feelings and knowledge, as well as who they attempt to reach, varies by genre.

Hip-hop and rap follow that general rule but get a lot of negative attention for being materialistic because so many artists use their songs to brag about designer brands and “gettin’ paper,” like those that inspired this post. The artist could be talking about serious themes and issues, but if its packaging is too flashy or bejeweled, that message can get lost behind the sheen.

Much like blues and jazz music before it, rap and hip-hop stem from the roots of oppression, so it’s not too surprising that, again like those earlier genres, struggle and hope are two topics often mentioned in lyrics — but in a way that’s a little less “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” and a little more “We gonna party like it’s your birthday.” Having lived in the “ghetto” or “the hood,” artists use their music to share with the world exactly what it’s like to live with very little or nothing at all. And when you grow up like that, the easiest way to explain how far you’ve come and to prove that you’ve “made it” is to show off your wealth.

Buffalo, N.Y., rapper Dante Stubbs, or $tubb$ Br!m as he’s known on stage, puts it simply: “Most rappers, including myself, come from nothing, like poverty, broken homes or abuse. So when they start making money, that’s what they want to talk about since they never had it before.”

Looking at rap and hip-hop with a sociological eye allows for a different perspective on the roots of the genres. The music, lyrics and underlying messages are sources of praise and controversy, undoubtedly essential creative outlets for many people, and an art form crafted from particular social issues. Though many artists focus on other issues they endure — like poverty or abuse — they still often include materialistic references to represent overcoming adversity. “Most rappers, not all,” continues Stubbs, “they struggled to get to where they are, so they want to tell the world.” The materialism is an effect of the “rags to riches” mentality.

When Nicki Minaj appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, her interview showcased that desire for “bling” and money. Minaj, who was raised in South Side Jamaica, Queens, a predominantly poor New York City borough, is draped in diamonds — a representation of her money and riches, the materialism that represents social challenges met.

Music in general has always been an outlet to effectively convey a struggle, be it related to family, work, love, abuse or failed ambitions. Socioeconomic hardships clearly fall into that “struggle” category and, thus, are fodder for lyrics to which a broad base of people will easily relate. But sometimes, when the listener comes from a world outside of the socioeconomic realm from which the genre was born, it becomes harder to understand (or easier to misinterpret) the connotations and message.

Does this materialism bother you, or are you just listening for the beat? Do you think it distracts from a bigger, more important message?

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