The President and First Lady’s recent commencement speeches at Historically Black Colleges Morehouse and Bowie State, respectively, have been getting their fair share of coverage and critiques the last few days. One of my favorite writers and critical thinkers, Ta-nehisi Coates, already read these speeches up, down and sideways in The Atlantic, particularly regarding the Obama presidency’s tendency to single out the black community with “convenient ‘race-talk’” about not making excuses and not just dreaming of being rappers or ballers. Like Coates, I take much pride in the First Family. I also appreciate that the Obamas make a point of giving addresses to HBCUs, knowing the significance the First Family’s racial identity means to African Americans in the context of our country’s racial history, and well, let’s be honest, present.
The statement from the First Lady last Friday that’s stirring up the most conversation is her reference to the aspirations of some black students these days: “Instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.” The next day at Morehouse, President Obama, reflecting on his own past, felt called to remind these particular young men that excuses aren’t acceptable: “We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses.”
Ok, noted, and noted. [Raises hand] But about those rapping dreams and bad decisions: what if they’re paying me, though?
In other (not entirely unrelated) news, yesterday I read that 17-year old rapper from Chicago of "I Don’t Like" hit single fame, Chief Keef, was jailed overnight in Atlanta for marijuana possession. The arrest constituted his second parole violation. To me, Chief Keef is a quintessential example of a lost soul who just doesn’t give a damn. He’s on parole in the first place for pointing a gun at a police officer. Given 18 months probation and an order to stay away from guns, within months he was violating that parole for filming a promotional video in a gun range. The promotional video, which was clearly being executed under poor management, was in relationship to his new record deal at the time with Interscope Records. A 3-album, $6 million, $440,000 advance kind of deal. His first album released was aptly titled Finally Rich. While the rapper with the rap sheet who raps about getting rich is nothing new, reading the latest news of Chief Keef in the context of the Obamas’ thoughts on the rapper career path and no more excuses, especially struck me.
Indeed some young black men “limit” their aspirations to being rappers, and Keef’s recent newsmaking reminded me that the poverty-producing policies Coates highlights in his article are not alone in their work. These young men, specifically those who are struggling to stay in school and out of trouble, have been and are being shown by the music industry and our popular culture as a whole that if you get enough YouTube hits with a hot enough song, flaunting assault weapons and a codeine addiction, impregnating a middle schooler and getting sued for child support, violating parole, serving 60 days in jail and rapping about ‘shit you don’t like,’ can still potentially lead to a multi-million dollar record deal with a hefty advance—all before the age of 18!
Maybe Chief Keef’s bad behavior will catch up to him and he’ll self-combust, proving that being a doctor or lawyer is the more promising career route (you know, student loan debt aside). There’s even a clause in his contract that gives Interscope the right to exit the deal if he doesn’t sell 250,000 albums by the end of this year. But whether he ends up being dropped or not, the deal itself lets us know what kind of payday putting your poverty and miseducation on blast can possibly lead to if you’re lucky. And maybe, just maybe, if you work hard enough at your dread-shaking and “I don’t give a ——” attitude. I mean, what a deal. Keef’s payday didn’t even require pulling up any bootstraps! Just come as you are. There may not be equality in access to a good education, but there is equality in commercial exploitation.
So while schools and communities continue to lack resources and fail some of our children, but getting rich by any means necessary remains the goal and dominant definition of success we’re taught, as reinforced by some rapper and Wall St broker behavior alike, who can fault a desire for any dream necessary to leave poverty and be “Finally Rich”? Who can fault the kid who maybe wants to be a doctor but his school doesn’t have a decent science program or any guidance at home, but he has a smartphone, a YouTube account, enough stop-and-frisk experiences to give him that good angst for the video, and “success” stories like Chief Keef to keep hope alive?
In the end, I’m a fan of thought-provoking speeches. I deliver them myself from time to time. So I’m just thinking, while we’re in the speech-giving mood, how about adding a speech to Jimmy Iovine at Interscope and fellow record executives on the social consequences of endorsing and exploiting black pain and poverty for record sales. A speech to the lawyers not being forthright in answering Elizabeth Warren’s straightforward questions about holding big banks accountable for their actions in crashing the U.S. economy, the ramifications of which have disproportionately affected the black workforce. A speech to schools, law enforcement and the private prison industry about concerns over the devastating school-to-prison pipeline. Or a speech to local leaders who could use some extra accountability for their actions when it comes to serving their constituents.
Nine-year old Asean Johnson from Chicago already got a jumpstart on that last one at a rally this week to save his and other schools from closing. He’s got quite the commanding voice and presence, too. Let’s hope he doesn’t just have dreams of being a rapper, though. Oh, and that his school doesn’t close.