“It was all a dream/I used to read ‘Word Up! Magazine,’” The Notorious B.I.G. raps at the beginning of his rags-to-riches anthem “Juicy.” He outlines the hardships and struggle that defined his youth and contrasts them against his present luxury. ”Birthdays were the worst days/Now we drink champagne when we thirs-tay,” he states.
Biggie truly seems to embody the American dream. Growing up poor in the slums of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, B.I.G. (nee Christopher Wallace) felt like the only ways to escape poverty were “slinging crack rock” or “a wicked jump shot.” But Wallace used his art to escape a life of poverty. His knack for detail and gift for language, delivered with a thick forceful voice allowed him to escape what seemed like a sure fate. There were other factors, too: Catchy beats, hustle. It all came together in a classic story of social mobility and transformation.
But here is the problem. Too often our stories of free market success glorify the individual without acknowledging the systemic failures that make these narratives so few and far between. There are reasons why Wallace’s story is exceptional, and they are not just his outstanding talent and motivation. They also have to do with the oppressive conditions that foster poverty all over the country.
Now, Biggie seems exceptionally grounded. He enjoys his mother’s pride at seeing him in prominent hip hop publication “The Source.” He boasts about staying true to his roots by living in the “same hood” and having the “same [telephone] number.” He aims to enhance the lives of those close to him with his newfound financial stability. His generosity and perspective are both remarkable given the enormity in the change in his lifestyle.
Primarily, though, his efforts to improve life for his friends and family have to do with providing the material comforts that they had never experienced. Diamonds. Liquor. Marijuana. Video games. Limousines. He expresses loyalty and gratitude and is eager to “spread love” to those in his inner circle.
But, here is the shortcoming of this narrative. The immediate community is where the ripple effect stops. Certainly, other children could be inspired by the success story and feel more agency and power within their own lives. But, at the end of the day, “Juicy” does not question or offer alternatives to the flawed system, but rather an example of how to succeed within it.
These societal problems are alluded to, for sure. Biggie ironically dedicates the song to “all the teachers that told [him] [he would] never amount to nothin’” and relates the experience of being seen as “the stereotype of a black male, misunderstood” as well as “a fool ’cause [he] dropped out of high school.” He also mentions that he formerly sold drugs to feed his daughter. Wallace clearly maintains an awareness of the pressures and difficulties of his upbringing that are still present in America’s urban areas, but that is where the dialogue ends.
Now, it wasn’t Christopher Wallace’s responsibility to improve the state of affairs in America’s ghettos. His story is just symptomatic of a larger trend towards glorifying the upper class, inspiring the lower class, and ignoring the need for a stable middle class. Of course his story is more dramatic than that of a young man who puts himself through culinary school and saves up to buy a brownstone in his neighborhood. But that story is arguably more important.
In a capitalist system, not everyone can be the most famous rapper in the world. There are winners and losers. And while it is great to hear a story of an unqualified artistic and financial success, we need to put systems of education, health care, and other resources so it becomes increasingly possible for people to view social mobility as possible through brick-laying or nursing or restaurant management instead of celebrity and wealth.
We are a nation obsessed with fame. We keep up with the Kardashians, we head for “The Hills,” we care about 16-year-olds’ birthday parties. This obsession with wealth and fame is, in part what causes us to believe wealthy industrialists and lobbyists who convince us to vote against social programs that benefit the many at the expense of only the select few at the top of the pyramid.
Jay Gatsby, though fictional, typified Biggie’s dilemma decades before the rapper rose to prominence. He focused too tightly on the trappings of wealth and success. He took to heart the idea of American exceptionalism without considering the large-scale ramifications of a rapid rise from the bottom to the top without a stint in the middle. Like Biggie, Gatsby died a violent death.
In a more recent song, rappers Nas and Jay-Z rap about being “Black Republicans.” Now, it makes sense that two men who have grown up in poverty would seek to protect their financial stability, as would anyone. But it seems like a vast departure to align one’s self with a party the espouses the social and fiscal conservatism that arguably exacerbates this poverty to begin with. When we do not have money, we seek to earn it, and once we get it, we want to protect it at all costs because we realize that it is fleeting.
I know it’s not cool to rap about starting a Roth IRA or servicing underfunded public schools. In fact, artists who make social issues a prominent focus of their music are often pushed to the margins. (See: Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, Saigon) And again, it is not the artist’s obligation. But until we make the improvement of life for the oppressed masses a part of the rags-to-riches narrative, we are doomed to a rigidly striated system with a few shining exceptions that seem to make mobility possible while obscuring larger goals.
Tupac Shakur was the one who got it right. In his posthumously released “Changes,” he raps: “Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live, and let’s change the way we treat each other,” as well as “Instead of a war on poverty, there’s a war on drugs.” But by the time of the song’s release, 2Pac had died of bullet wounds.
But taken on its own, “Changes” is a bleak indictment of American culture. ”Juicy” provides the ballast that shows that an escape is possible. Neither provides a complete philosophy on its own, but they complement each other, yin and yang. The harmonious blending of two divergent outlooks gives us the insight for how to look at our successes and failures and learn from both.
And if you don’t know, now you know.