Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” is a celebration of meritocracy. She “dropped two mixtapes in six months”, she no longer has to work the pole, she’s now a celebrity constantly walking into and out of banks, “making money moves”.
What’s referred to as “the [rap] game” has always had a simple formula at its core. Allow me, a rather knowledgeable outsider, to synthesize it as follows: “Be though (as thought as your difficult upbringing forced you to be), be willing to do whatever’s necessary, hustle, know you’re good at what you do and act accordingly, work hard and get rich.”
This model of the anti-hero’s journey (poverty - hard work that might have involved criminality, at some point - success and redemption under capitalism) is common to all rappers, either as people, personas, or both. And, it justifies the fetishization of wealth in its last stage. Consider that this genre is, in its core, black. It started as poor black people’s music and this is one of the traits in which this is explicit: The struggle that getting wealthy entails for a working-class black or hispanic kid who suffered the societal, cultural and even environmental disadvantages of growing up marginalized, entails justifies the tone in which rappers discuss their wealth. It explains their kitsch, petulantly expensive clothes and sport cars.
In a sense, the journey of the successful rapper is “the dream and the hope of the slave”.
The root of all evil
Space Baby wrote a wonderful piece titled “Marx & The Mic (Hip Hop & Capitalist Ideology)”, in which he noted that, even in politically loaded, progressive hip hop, capitalism is never recognized as the root of the problem.
Mainstream rap isn’t anti-capitalist. Ladies and gentlemen, this is quintessentially American. The goal is not to dismantle the system, but to succeed within it, to be exceptional. Quoting Baby S., et al:
"Listen, I'm happy to hear that Biggie made it out of poverty on Juicy. But until everybody has food to eat and a place to stay, that shit doesn't hold value to me."
Trap as a gentrified genre, trap as cultivated identity
Trap, as the youngest form of rap, is plagued by working class people making waves. This is not always the case. Specially, if one dives into the Trap scenes of peripheral countries, such as Argentina.
While the genre is the cultural product of marginalized Americans, its reproduction, its replication, its parody in Argentina is predominantly on the hands of middle and upper-middle class people, who can access, not only the art itself and the resources to make it, but also the products surrounding it and making it a cultivated identity. In order to make trap music, a youngster from Buenos Aires not only needs to have access to the material resources necessary to make the music, but also to the clothes and accessories that create the facade they need, in order to present the music competitively, to be up-to-par.
The starting budget to become a trap artist is inflated by the fact that it isn’t merely about music. It’s also about clothes and about clothes that convey success and wealth. Whether real or simulated, it doesn’t matter. When it comes to South American trap, everything is simulated. No one has that life in Buenos Aires. It’s not genuine, it’s not real. Apart from lyrical, melodic or technical expertise (or lackthereof), what pierces a whole at the center of South American trap is that it isn’t genuine, it isn’t true, it’s fashion, it’s parody.
The narratives of trap music are not only far removed from trappers’ experiences, they’re also far removed from the experiences of poor Argentinian teens.
My friend’s brother, who went to a Catholic school and didn’t have to work a single day in his life, might not identify with the drug-fueled doom of the ghetto and the orgasmic pleasure of buying the Maserati the system was designed for him to never get. But nor does a paco-addicted teen with a jailed father and an unemployed mother, tied to a bed, shaking from abstinence in a villa miseria. It’s not their story either. The language used in Argentinian trap music is the Spanglish of the middle class, not the slang of the Lumpenproletariat.
The appropiation of poor people’s art by the privileged isn’t solely a transnational phenomenon. It happens, all the time, “at home”.
American trapper Qveen Herby is immensely talented, but she’s a Berklee College of Music graduate whose claim to fame was Karmin, a Top 40 covering pop duo she started with her fiancee. You could only get whiter and upper-middle-classer if you performed with a Nespresso machine by your side.
Writing about Amy Noonan’s transformation into Qveen Herby and its racial connotations, Adam Bulger notes:
"...Whiteness was at the heart of Karmin's appeal. The white girl rapping with a twinge of blaccent was meant to be funny and cute. Noonan's over-the-top physicality and the stripped down instrumentation of the initial Karmin videos sold the humor and cuteness. It was an "adorkable" take on rap. It was caucasian and midwestern by design; in their original song "Hello," Noonan makes a point of saying that she's from Nebraska, one of the whitest states in America. (...) [Now h]er persona's been stripped of all whiteness and replaced by an alarming attempt to seem genuinely not white..."
Treating Qveen Herby’s music from a strictly technical standpoint and comparing it to most mainstream trap made by females, one is almost forced to ask why Herby’s videos plateau at approximately 1 million views.
Beyond the music itself, what makes rap music valuable is that it’s genuine and born from struggle. It’s the seat at the table of those who were denied one. Pulling the metaphor’s veil, one could say that, of course, that seat is fame and money.