The narrative of Hip Hop has encompassed a wide range of –isms affecting its listeners, including racism, sexism, absenteeism, egoism, hedonism, optimism, humanism, self-determinism, and even romanticism. However, one of the isms that is featured most prominently in the mainstream Hip Hop narrative of today is materialism. The 1993 song C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) by the Wu-Tang Clan captures the essence of the struggle endured by people that come from poor socioeconomic conditions to acquire money and thus security. However, as the profitability of Hip Hop as a music industry gold standard has increased exponentially since that time, along with the net worths of the artists themselves, many Hip Hop songs now stress the importance of spending earned money in the acquisition of desirable goods and services. The large majority of Hip Hop songs of today incorporate bragging about the “good life”, which includes but is not limited to the possession of fancy cars and yachts, designer clothing, expensive jewelry, mansions, and credit cards with high limits. Notable promoters of Hip Hop materialism include P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rick Ross, and all of the YMCMB artists. Nas is a rare artist that has both promoted and derided materialism in his music. His 2000 song “You Owe Me” brags about his attractiveness to women because of his materialistic wealth, yet in his 2006 song “Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas decries the commercialism of Hip Hop. Notable exceptions to this trend of Hip Hop materialism include artists like, Dead Prez, De La Soul, The Roots, Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, who are known for incorporating anti-materialistic steams of consciousness and images in their music and corresponding videos.
The materialism displayed in the mainstream narrative of Hip Hop represents the concept of “nouveau riche”, or new money. The idea of “nouveau riche” is that individuals who previously had a lower socioeconomic rank who later acquire wealth spend it lavishly and frivolously. Hip Hop artists have often embraced this “nouveau rich” image as a positive outcome of the “rags-to-riches” life trajectory. The concept has even been portrayed by Hip Hop artists in a comedic light in which they highlight the cultural and societal tension with and discrimination against them by people that come from “old money”, or trans-generational wealth. Several Hip Hop artists have portrayed members of the “old money” crowd as being nervous or uncomfortable in their presence, or have parodied recruitment of the “old money” crowd into their lavish, celebration-laden “nouveau rich” lifestyle. The quest for wealth and the resultant “nouveau rich” discrimination, which can be rooted in racism and well as classicism, is captured in Kanye West’s song “All Falls Down” in which he says: “We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us/We trying to buy back our 40 acres/And for that paper, look how low we’ll stoop/Even if you in a Benz, you still a n**** in a coupe.”
Kanye West’s song “All Falls Down” offers a thoughtfully unique perspective on the materialism in Hip Hop culture, in which he suggests that people with new money spend it on frivolous lavish things because of their self-consciousness and low self-esteem resulting from the perpetuation of American capitalism. In blaming members of the establishment for making people “hate [themselves] and love their wealth”, he is also somewhat justifying the behavior. However, he soundly addresses what some perceive to be the goal of marketing: “to make us dissatisfied with what we have, but also with who we are.” While it is naïve and unreasonable to expect newly wealthy Hip Hop artists to completely reject materialism, they along with other upwardly-mobile individuals should be advised to spend their wealth on things that increase in value as opposed to things that depreciate the instant they are purchased. E-40 said it best in the song “Players Ball” in which he advised the up-and-coming not to “buy an eighty-five thousand dollar car before you buy a house.”
As today’s Hip Hop artists are generally significantly better-off than earlier artists, they are often advised by their labels to properly manage, invest, and save their earnings. Andre 3000 gives this advice in the song “Hollywood Divorce” in which he asks the up-and-coming to “promise [him they’ll] invest three fourths of it all/For what? So your kids…can have some cheese/Can’t get wit it? Get… on your knees/Cause wealth is the word, rich is round the corner from the curb”. Jay-Z is a prime example of an artist that has made sound investments in the perpetuation of his fortune, including the development of clothing line and the partial ownership of a sports team. Ace Hood is an example of a young artist of the current Hip Hop generation that has learned from his successful mentors in Hip Hop, including Birdman of Cash Money, Rick Ross, and DJ Khaled, to save and invest his money. Once achieving financial success, the first thing he purchased was a house for his mother. However, for every artist that practices good fiduciary habits, there are a slew of others that mismanage their newly found wealth. For example, there have been several instances in Hip Hop where artists received an advance, spent it irresponsibly, and failed to return on their advance with record sales and thus became in debt to the record company.
The paradigm of the devastation of wealth mismanagement in the Hip Hop community is MC Hammer. MC Hammer was among one of the most successful artists of his era, and revolutionized the Hip-Hop-Pop genre. However, in 1997, MC Hammer filed for bankruptcy in the virtual loss of a $30 million fortune. The loss of his wealth was due in part to supporting a lavish lifestyle, but was more due to supporting a payroll of over 200 people in his desire to help family, friends, and people in the community. MC Hammer has served as the example to artists that have come after him to be cautious with the fruits of their success in the music industry.
Opening up an honest conversation about the promotion of materialism at this juncture is critical because of the spending and saving habits of its listeners, especially Black Americans and/or youth. While the average income and consequent purchasing power of Black Americans had risen steadily in decade prior to the Great Recession, the average savings of Black Americans is less than half that of White Americans. Also, recent consumer research has demonstrated that Hip Hop music and culture has had a profound effect on the spending habits of young people between the ages of 12 and 34. While many artists are very smart with their money, their listeners often aspire to consume the goods and services those artists describe in their music and music videos. This content can only exacerbate the spending habits and poor saving habits of many young people and Black Americans among others that revel in Hip Hop culture. Lavish spending habits and poor saving habits not only jeopardize long-term security in family life and retirement, but it also leaves individuals vulnerable to the devastating effects of financial emergency. For example, health emergencies are the number one reason for bankruptcy in the United States, and the disproportionate burden of poor health as well as high rates of uninsurance or underinsurance amongst Black Americans causes many sectors of the population to be prone to economic disaster. There is also evidence to suggest that materialism is detrimental to mental health and well-being. There have been several psychology studies that have demonstrated that materialism is associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, problems with intimacy, and overall dissatisfaction with life.
The question that remains is: If Hip Hop artists began boasting more about the robustness of their stocks, bonds, investments, and other assets as opposed to their ostentation of their cars, clothes, and other “nouveau riche” accoutrements, would it translate into a change in the money management of their listeners? Straight Out of Hip Hop summed it up nicely: “having or wanting material possessions isn’t the problem; it is holding those possessions to a higher value or standard than that of uplifting the people and helping the culture move forward.”
In addition to physical health education, Hip Hop Public Health greatly values financial health education in underprivileged communities. For example, Hip Hop Public Health’s own Terry Nelson conducts educational presentation educating Harlem youth about how to achieve financial success. If more young people are educated about the importance of investing in their financial health from an early age, they are more likely to enjoy good health for themselves and their families in the future. We encourage all to save their pennies and save the people.