Street Smarts? The Distortion of Masculinities of Color – Part I – Money

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Introduction

I’m not entirely sure of the extent, but I know for sure that what we collectively came to call “street smarts” as a young man, was by and large informed by emerging technology in the industries of Film, Music, Television, and interpretations produced by a capitalist academy. What we considered “street smarts” were rules of masculinity that in hindsight appear to have come directly from the films and television we watched, the music on radio that we listened to, and the cassette singles and later CD’s that we would buy based on word of mouth recommendations from cousins and family friends who lived in urban cities where we would sit for hours watching Music Videos and comedies on cable.

Motion pictures and the academy of the times would lay claim to the popular belief that pop culture extended from the reality of the masses. That there was such a thing as an authentic urban experience that informed the stereotypes we witnessed in the corporate media that we consumed.

Most everyone would have to admit that these representations of our lived experiences did not match this urban fantasy production. But we did our best to emulate it, as even in my own rural upbringing, we consumed the “gansta rap” and “barrio culture” aesthetic, and took it on ourselves as something to celebrate with our uniforms of sports team parkas, air Jordan shoes, and walkman mixed tapes of “Chicano Hip Hop” and “Gangsta Rap” going around quoting the films we watched, and acting “hard” because we too, were “street smart” on our rural gravel roads and asphalt basketball court with posts made of refurbished irrigation pipes by a creative farmworker who knew how to weld.

We embodied what we were taught to consume, “Money, Power, Respect” and the masculinity we practiced was distorted by this process. Putting us all at risk of criminalization in an emerging era of mass incarceration of those who like us embodied the distortion of who we really were.

This is the first part of a three part series that further explores the distortion and reproduction of a capitalist and misogynist masculinity that many have internalized and taken on as a common sense, or street smarts. In interrogating what has been celebrated as a way of life of an “authentic” embodied people of color masculinity, often lauded as an integral part of barrio culture or hip hop culture and defended fiercely, the point is for us to stop its reproduction and clever redeployment, often in ways that allow us to only challenge one aspect of a wrong done to us, such as a recent “Straight Outta Compton” fashion line that was met with fierce backlash due to “appropriation” without ever addressing the misogyny it redeployed.

THE ROLE OF MONEY IN CIRCUITS OF CAPITALIST PRODUCTION AND ACCUMULATION

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This rendering of the basic circuit of capitalist production begins with the M= money form of capital; C = commodity form of capital; L = labor power; Mp = means of production; . . . .P. . . .= process of production; C’= the commodity produced by the process of production with exchange value to be socially realized in circulation phase; M’ = profit, the surplus value (s/v) realized after the sale of the commodity in the market. It is important to think about the circuit(s) of capitalist reproduction as a complex circular process the reproduction of capital takes for the capitalist as much of the surplus value abstracted from labor power through this process is reinvested into a new circuit that further extracts surplus value through the production of commodities and further abstraction of labor power. In many ways for Marx, the circuits of capitalist reproduction was an avaricious self-perpetuating machine, a moving train, that could only be slowed down by society’s limited capacity to buy and consume commodities. In order to overcome these societal limits, the increased extraction of surplus labor, the freeing of laborers to work for a wage that can be used to purchase commodities, was necessary to maintain profits.

This alienation of the worker from the real value of their labor into a wage, led to growing discontent and further to class warfare. Marx believed that the proletariat (working class) would be victorious in this class war and that the end of capitalism was inevitable. It is in understanding the laws under which capital is reproduced in industry. It is here that we begin to understand the capitalist use of Money for accumulation.

INTERROGATING MONEY IN THE DISTORTION OF MASCULINITY

There is no doubt that there is a connection between attitudes towards money and the construction of masculinity in the context of the energy crisis of the late 1970s. This crisis initiated an era of deindustrialization in the United States, mass unemployment and the intense stratification of the labor market through mass displacement and immigration leading to the extreme devaluation of the wage in the United States that made way for the destructive march of neoliberal globalization. It is in the context of precarity that the “hustler” emerges as a model capitalist and role model for the masses.

It’s a dog eat dog world

The first rule about money, is an ideological view of capitalism that celebrates competition. In a regularly quoted film Scarface (1983), the main character, Tony Montana claimed the following about this type of competition, “You know what capitalism is? Getting fucked!” (Scarface 1983). Here capitalism is linked to a sexual act and by extension influences the construction of masculinity, or better yet its distortion. In Spanish, ¡O Chingas o te chingán! (Either you fuck or get fucked) is a phrase I grew up hearing often, it is a reiteration of this very commandment that had been internalized. This worldview frames the rest of the rules or commandments that govern masculinity.

“Man made the money, money never made the man”

This line from LL Cool J’s Loungin’ (1996) reinforces the number one idea that is advanced by capitalism through popular culture, which is basically a reinscription of the protestant work ethic and meritocracy. The ideas that if you work hard enough, you will be a self-made man. Unpacked just a bit further, there is the idea that a real man is a self-made man.

To begin an examination of this capitalist mentality of a self-made man, it is important to begin with an examination of what it takes to be a self-made man for a person of color. Consider New York rappers Jay Z and The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls as case studies.

Jay Z

In a public controversy in 2012, Harry Belafonte criticized media mogul Jay Z and his wife Beyonce for not using their wealth and social status for social justice. At the core of this issue was Jay Z’s success as a media mogul with an estimated net worth of $500 million combined with Beyonce Knowles estimated net worth of $300 million. In his critique, Belafonte stated,

“It is sad. And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example.” (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/harry-belafonte-locarno-mitt-romney-359192)

To this Jay Z responded,

“I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is. You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone….” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Re8S3xZbRNI)

Jay Z who grew up in Brooklyn, had been abandoned by his father and sold crack cocaine as a youth, became a millionaire through his business. Having experienced a “rags to riches” story through his own success, Jay Z named his company after a similar supposedly “self-made” New Yorker, John D. Rockefeller, who made his millions via the primitive accumulation of oil at the turn of the 20th century. The trope of the self-made millionaire is something that the film Scarface emulates.

In his lyrics, Jay Z explains, “”Scarface” the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me/ Still that ain’t to blame for all the shit that’s happened to me” (Ignorant Shit Lyrics, American Gangster, 2007).

He later explained this pair of lyrics in the following way,

“We give violent movies a pass but come down hard on a rapper like Scarface, who is ultimately a storyteller just like Brian de Palma. And neither of them is responsible for the poverty and violence that really do shape people’s lives — not to mention their individual choices.” (Decoded)

In this answer, Jay Z admits to embracing Individualism on top of his reinforcement of the protestant work ethic and meritocracy. In doing so, he defends his ability to not do anything about injustice, arrogantly considering his presence as a wealthy black man anywhere a type of charity.

THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.

Also known as Biggie Smalls, this rapper’s autobiographical “Juicy”(1994) is literally a “rags to riches” story. Biggie Smalls relationship to Money is one of conspicuous consumption, the basis for the rule of masculinity that follows.

The interests of capital even went so far, in an oddly Marxian tradition, of sharing a formula of how to be a self-made man of color.This formula was often referred to as, Money, Power, Respect.

Notorious B.I.G. is said to have ghost written Lil’ Kim’s lyrics. Here the rapper Lil’ Kim quotes with flair, Tony Montana’s lines, “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women” (Scarface 1983). Even with a female rapper, the rules for masculinity are completely reinscribed over and over again over fifteen years later,

See I believe in money, power and respect
First you get the money
Then you get the motherfuckin’ power
And after you get the fuckin’ power
You get the fuckin’ niggaz to respect you
(Lil’ Kim Money, Power, Respect, 1998)

The transition between “Women” and “Respect” is subtle, but unpacking it, “respect” is distorted here to mean the possession of other human beings. A model masculinity becomes distorted to embody the oppressor and to uphold the industrial capitalists of the turn of the 20th century and the slave owners of the U.S. south as people to emulate, embodied in the personas of drug lords.

Money goes fast so enjoy it

Conspicuous Consumption is not a new Capitalist value, in fact it is a value that led to the great depression as it was practiced during the roaring 1920’s in the United States as described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. This type of masculinity found a new home through Scarface and made an appearance amongst youth of color, specifically black youth like Biggie Smalls,

Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis
When I was dead broke, man I couldn’t picture this
50 inch screen, money green leather sofa
Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur
Phone bill about two G’s flat
No need to worry, my accountant handles that
And my whole crew is loungin’
Celebratin’ every day, no more public housin’
(Notorious B.I.G. Juicy 1994)

Of course for youth like myself, at 14, this command created a desire for these commodities that otherwise would not have existed. In unpacking this subliminal message further, unsustainable spending habits in the interests of capital were encouraged.

The idea of a “culture of poverty” that seeks immediate gratification was not coined in this era, rather it was advanced by anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the 1960s based on research that he conducted in the 1940s in Mexico. He later argued that there were certain characteristics that demonstrated the presence of what he coined, a “culture of poverty” which included a victim mentality, strong sense of dependence and helplessness.

It is in the context of this type of self-serving and patronizing analysis, that people of color were first cast in a manner that demonstrated that their populations required management by the interests of capital. It was self-serving in that anthropologists like Lewis were paid by the United States to conduct research that advanced the Rostovian “take-off” model of development which included foreign aid, structural adjustment and the so-called “green revolution”. This foreign policy of capitalist first world nations resulted in a tremendous amount of national debt for nations like Mexico, an economic crisis and it also opened Mexico up to U.S. for further primitive accumulation, through the dismantling of collective land rights in the 1990s and today with the privatization of nationalized oil reserves.

Sociologist Martín Sánchez-Jankowski built upon Oscar Lewis’ idea of a “culture of poverty” and applied it to Latinos in the United States. He suggested that there were two types of spending behaviors practiced by the urban poor, one ‘security maximizing behavior’ that appeared to fall in line with dominant ideologies and the second an ‘excitement maximizing behavior’ which amounted to conspicuous consumption not just of money, but of other life choices. He stated, “the first is focused on and designed to maximize personal and family socioeconomic and physical ‘security,’ and the second to maximize ‘excitement’ and pleasure in personal life” (Sánchez-Jankowski, 2008, 20). Sánchez-Jankowski observed that the ‘excitement maximizing’ behavior led to a masculinty culture that was more likely to abuse women and avoid responsibility.

Keep your family and your business completely separate

This rule had to do specifically with making money on the capitalist black market, or hustling. In the album Ghetto D (1997) by rapper Master P, the title track almost exclusively redelivers the Scarface commandments verbatim. “One, never talk on the phone in ya house/ Two, never slang dope out ya baby momma’s house” (Master P, Ghetto D, 1997)

The Notorious B.I.G. frames this rule as, “never sell no crack where you rest at/ I don’t care if they want a ounce, tell ’em ‘bounce!’” (Notorious B.I.G., Ten Crack Commandments, 1997).

Though it may not seem obvious at first, this rule influences the formation of masculinity by creating the illusion that it is possible to live a double life. For most men, this double life almost never has to do with selling crack or making money, but more to do with constructing the conditions under which misogyny can go unchecked.

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