Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.



“Cash rules everything around me/Cream!/Get the money/Dolla dolla bill y’all” (Wu Tang Clan, C.R.E.A.M).

The naked celebration of money–and the drive to get money (hustlin’)–permeates mainstream rap. It’s long seemed to me that if capitalism had a soundtrack it would be rap music. This might offend some, and of course, we need a touch of nuance at the outset. I’m talking about one theme within a genre, and by no means does the theme “I’m rich/I get money” cover all rap. But there are many lyrical moments in rap where I feel like the voice of capital is spitting flow directly into my ear. As Marx puts it:

“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value . . .” (Capital 342).

In rap, the “money theme” takes a distinctly capitalist tone, because it is not just about the accumulation of capital, but rather about capital’s circulation (most often by earning capital and then putting it back into the market through purchasing extravagant commodities). “Thinking beyond deeper than Ghandi/While I’m in the Diamante/Counting my G’s/I’m out to be a millionare/Dipped in gear/Flickin’ hundred dollar bills in the air/Oh yeah, Cuban Link is into getting benjamins/Cuz if it doesn’t make dollars/Then it doesn’t make sense” (Cuban Link, Glamour Life).

Often this “money theme” appears in rap in a “rags to riches” narrative that involves moving from poverty to crime to rap. “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster/Blame Oliver North and I ran contra/I ran contraband and they sponsored/Before this rhyme was stuck, we was in concert” (Jay-z, Blue Magic). This “worker-turned-criminal” becomes a member of the capitalist class by leaving crime (or not) and turning to hip hop music. After all, when your collar turns from blue to white, your crimes get whitewashed too.

Once the rapper has entered the capitalist class, s/he often has no problem becoming part of the establishment, usually the entertainment industry.  “What I’m doin?/Gettin’ money/What we doin?/Gettin’ money/What they doin’?/Hatin’ on us/But they never cross/Cash Money still a company/And B***h I’m the boss” (Lil Wayne and Birdman, Stuntin’ Like My Daddy).

Herein lies the most insidious side of rap’s money theme: it reinforces the current capitalist system (and its inequalities) by offering salvation through the system itself, saying, “I’m the biggest boss that you seen thus far” (Rick Ross, The Boss), and so implying that the listener might also find success, wealth, and meaning in climbing the capitalist ladder.

At the same time, rap is testament to the great creative force of capitalism. The fact that the simple theme “I’m rich/I get money” can be expressed in so many different ways, that it can continue to circulate in new permutations, shows how the circulation of capital demands the shattering of limits. But at what cost? “In this white man world/We the ones chosen/so goodnight cruel world/I see you in the morning'” (Kanye West, Power).


  1. Really interesting commentary. Not sure I can wrap my head around the ramifications of it all, but had two tracks pop into my head as I read. I’ll drop these lyrics on you, and hope for some more commentary.

    I can’t help the poor/ If I’m one of them/ So I got rich/ And gave back/ To me that’s the win-win… –Jay-Z

    So eat this black music and tell me how it taste now/
    And f*** Jesse Jackson cause it ain’t about race now… –The Game

  2. Sheesh, it’s so hard (and artificial) to restrict a discussion of rap lyrics to the theme of capitalism. The Jay-Z line you quoted definitely illustrates an idea that pops up in certain rap songs–trickle down economics. Another form of this is the “I make it, my crew makes it” theme: “And my whole crew is loungin’/Celebratin’every day/No more public housin'” (Notorious B.I.G., Juicy).

    As I reflect more on it, the fascinating moment in the “rags to riches” narrative comes when the ones who rail against the injustices of the system embrace a privileged place within the system. “It may not mean nothin’ to y’all/But understand nothin’ was done for me/So I don’t plan on stoppin’ at all/I want this S*** forever man” (Drake, Forever). There is a recognition that things are not OK, but the solution is to “get mine” at any cost, which plays right into what makes capitalism tick.

    I actually really like the Game lyric you quoted (though I’m not sure I fully agree). You can’t talk issues of class without dealing with issues of race. For a completely different message to the one I’ve sketched above, check out this amazing song/video by Ded Prez–Hip Hop

  3. This blog brings up so much for me right now. I’ll try to be succinct.

    You said: “As I reflect more on it, the fascinating moment in the “rags to riches” narrative comes when the ones who rail against the injustices of the system embrace a privileged place within the system.”

    I feel like most of us are stuck in that mode. The when-I-have-enough-to-leave-the-system-altogether-I-will sort of thing. But as much as I’m stuck in the mode, it’s a mode that makes me feel increasingly impotent.

    Just look at Wisconsin (union busting), Rhode Island (union busting), the NFL (labor dispute), the NBA (pending labor dispute), the current shenanigans in the US House (divesting Medicare, etc) and you will see that “the man” is trying to take back as much of the rags-to-riches power as “he” can.

    After all, if rags-to-riches can remain an “American Dream” while the social hierarchy becomes increasingly static, “the man” gets to keep all “his” capital generating apparatus in working order, even as “he” denies the fundamental promise of capitalism to the masses.

    This may sound a bit naive, but I want art to throw the system off kilter, rather than reinforce the illusion of its success.

  4. One more quick comment. In so far as hip-hop is taking part in rapitalism, it appears as mere rapoganda instead of art.

  5. I’m appreciating your reflections. It is interesting to ask the question “what is art” in relation to ideology. Does art always work against dominant ideologies? I think of what many would call ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. Both of these types of art definitely reinforced dominate ideologies. Are they only art now in retrospect? Because they stand in a museum? Ultimately the interesting question for me is not drawing a line in the sand between art and (non) art but to recognize art as a field invested with power relations. This is why the idea of rapitalism isn’t just an interesting commentary, but a key issue. It influences the way people think and act.

    “Energy is felt/Once the cards are delt/With the impact of roundhouse kicks/From black belts” (GZA, Liquid Swords).

  6. Something from our conversation this morning stuck with me, and I want a better answer from the guy who just read Capital.

    What does the Marxist mode of production look like?

    And furthermore, it appears that there are three options available to folks who live under the capitalist mode of production. Correct me if I’m wrong. (By the way I am excluding Riches to Riches as a category, partly because they don’t live “under” the mode of the capitalist production, but try to maintain their position on top of it.)

    1. Rags to Riches (Rapitalism)
    2. Buying into the illusion of the American Dream (rags to riches) and perpetuating the cycle of exploitation by submitting to it
    3. Workers of the world unite

    Here’s the big question: do any of these options provide any sort of meaningful way forward? And a follow up, if any of them offers a way forward, what does that way look like?

  7. Pingback: Rapitalism II | Happy Mortal

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