“I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them,” raps Jay-Z on The Black Album, though Ronald Reagan may as well have been his ghostwriter. In this way, the “God MC” is actually more like a thugged-out Michael Steele, a black man who profits personally by lending the illusion of diversity to a system that ignores and exploits poor people of all colors. Is it really surprising that Steve Forbes would put Jay-Z on the cover of his magazine?
I bring all this up simply to point out that hip-hop music and culture, while often nihilistic and self-sabotaging, from a political standpoint is almost never radical or even merely progressive. There is a reason the hip-hop generations have never produced a Huey Newton or a Malcolm X. Hip-hop — when it transcends the gutter and goes beyond the streets — doesn’t want to overthrow the system; on the contrary, it wants desperately and at any cost (“Get Rich or Die Tryin'”) to join it.
For an African American to question the values and motives that inform hip-hop music and culture is not in itself a conservative act — it’s common sense.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. Follow him on Twitter.