Marx on the Mic (Hip Hop & Capitalist Ideology)

Marx on the Mic (Hip Hop & Capitalist Ideology)

What is rap for? A seemingly unimportant question ‘cause there’s so many answers for it, even Sway got one. Don’t you listen to rap ’cause you can both party and cry to it? Emcees break down political problems, complex emotional patterns and discourage wack rappers from touching the mic… often in just one verse. It’s a voice for the oppressed. It’s a way to degrade women. It celebrates violence. It tells you to be you, and no one else. It’s a killer and a medic.

(Words: Space Baby | Illustration: Mladen Luketin)

Cool, so you can hold rap to many different standards and get different outcomes. Not exactly a breakthrough conclusion. But I actually feel there’s one question that’ll reveal the true nature of rap. A question that shows how it functions and affects all booty shaking humans. Does rap perpetuate or work against capitalist ideology? Prrap, I didn’t even need a drum roll for that one.

But what the fuck is capitalist ideology and what the hell does rap have to do with it? Interesting question, right? I was actually just writing an article on it. Keep reading.

Rap & Capitalist Ideology

Capitalist ideology is pretty much a set of ideas and practices here to keep capitalism in place. It’s a system of oppression. Economically it means that ten people have millions of dollars while the majority starves. That’s because employers don’t do any labor and make all the guap. Employees do all the work and get jack shit.

On paper, you’d think that the employees would get together and say fuck this. Those who do all the work should receive the fruits of it. But they don’t. Why? Ideology. You’re not going to rise up against your boss if you think it’s natural for people to have a boss. That people starving is their own fault. That individuality is good. That you need to be working against your co-workers, rather than with them. “We’ve always had private property, how can we stop that?”

Your art either supports capitalism, or perpetuates it—either by celebrating capitalism or ignoring it which, if you think about it, is the same thing”

During feudalism, most ideology was connected to the church. You ain’t gon’ take up arms and slay the king if you think God put him there. Same shit goes for capitalism. A big part of ideology is culture. Viewed in this light, all culture then becomes a part of this struggle of the haves and have-nots. Your art either supports capitalism, or perpetuates it—either by celebrating capitalism or ignoring it which, if you think about it, is the same thing. Not even hot 16’s escape this shit.

Because capitalism is the reason for the system of racism (originating in the capitalist venture of the trans-atlantic slave trade), patriarchy (gotta have women at home to nurture future labor producing babies and working men) and poverty of oppressed nationalities.. you’d think it’s a pretty big deal for rappers, right? Ain’t these the things they fight hard against? (maybe when it comes to rapping men, patriarchy not so much though)

Rap & Politics

Let’s see how this works out in practice and take politics in hip hop music as an example. You would say that rap music in this case goes against capitalist ideology, right? For example, on his new record Joey Bada$$ says nobody in Congress represents him. In 1990 Phife Dawg asked a politician to represent him on “Can I Kick It?” because Ed Koch was literally killing New York’s working class. For Chrissake, Paris literally shoots George Bush in the fucking face on the intro of Bush Killa. Isn’t that an open militant stance against capitalist politicians?

As Marxists like to say: it’s more complex than that.

The trick is that all politicians are actually used by the bourgeoisie. Yes, even Run the Jewels’ backed Bernie Sandahs. It ain’t even the illuminati doing this shit. The bourgeoisie is really just CEO’s, share and stockholders, managers and all those muhfuckas with the big bucks. Because they’ve got the money, they can buy off politicians. Why do you think Boots Riley came up with “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO”? You know how long it takes to come up with that shit?

You see, in their verses Joey Bada$$, Phife and Paris are still supporting capitalist politics. Capitalists actually fucking love parliamentary democracies. If I think it’s Ed Koch who’s responsible for my poverty, I’ma vote for David Dinkins to solve my problem. But if I realize it’s the fault of the companies who buy off every single mayor of New York to serve the rich, then I’ma stop voting and start tearing down the system in its entirety. ‘Cause no matter which person is in office, they become a puppet of the ruling class. And the working class is so oppressed working crazy amounts of hours every week, they don’t even have time to think beyond their daily needs. While that’s going on, we have muhfuckas at Goldman Sachs literally writing laws for politicians that benefit their evil empire.

Interestingly enough, Phife’s wish was granted. David Dinkins did become mayor of New York and oppressed the working class just as hard as Ed Koch did. What a surprise.

Around the same time, Paris lyrically blew out Bush’s brains, but treated him like an extraordinary evil. But wasn’t Bush just doing exactly what every president before him did? And who put countless of black men in jail in the 90’s again? Oh yeah, it was Bill Clinton’s democrat ass. And I don’t know who Joey Bada$$ wants to put in congress instead of the ones muhfuckas we have there now. But by not linking parliamentary democracy within a capitalist system to class interests of the bourgeoisie, he’s still legitimizing the way contemporary politics keep the working class poor.

“According to Killer Mike, all presidents are merely puppets of major corporations. Fuck yeah! But even then, capitalism is never named as the root of evil”

Somebody who breaks this scheme down well is Killer Mike on tracks like Reagan. According to him, all presidents are merely puppets of major corporations. Fuck yeah! But even then, capitalism is never named as the root of evil. Killer Mike still sees banking black as the solution for oppressed nationalities to escape the claws of the ruling class.

These type of solutions seem out of place, especially when we compare them to teachings of the cultural predecessors of hip hop. Political groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers party (in their early and mid-stage) called for the downfall of capitalism. They saw solutions modern-day emcees are coming up with as reformist. What this means is that banking black for example might make some black people better off, but in the end we would still live in a system with poor people and rich people. Compare this to the cry of The Last Poets: “When the revolution comes!” They claimed the whole system needed to be torn down to build up something new.

Torch Carriers

Luckily we have emcees still continuing that legacy. Maoist group Digable Planets spit rhymes referencing the teachings of Chairman Mao. Contemporary artists like Bambu and Rocky Rivera are combating individuality, by calling for community power to overthrow the oppressor. We can’t get shit done solo when the ruling class is organized tighter than Pharaohe Monch’s flow. Now if that ain’t combating capitalist ideology which dictates we should only lookout for ourselves, then what is?

In hip hop history, many rap artists have called for people to come together, but without a political program. When Tupac called for community, his goals were often vague. Build community for what? To stop violence? How would that work? Did he think we needed a revolution or not? Compare that shit to The Coup literally spitting about the working class installing Socialism. Remember, they thought of “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO”. All you have to do is pick one. If it’s not about a revolution overthrowing the ruling class, how can we achieve liberation?

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.”

Many rappers that call for community, also call major corporations for sponsorship deals. The same corporations that impoverished the communities they were born in. Put this way, emcees’ rags to riches stories make a little less sense. And that’s a big deal ‘cause these songs are a major archetype on many critically acclaimed rap albums. Shit, all day we hear about emcees who started from the bottom and now they’re here. But what’s good with the rest at the bottom?

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.

We can do better

So what is rap for? Point blank, it’s either made to support capitalism or to combat it. And emcees don’t even need to know they’re doing it. All the better. The system loves people who perpetuate its toxicity blindly. And since capitalism is entrenched in every cultural production while perpetuating all the misery and tragedy in the world, you can say that’s a big fucking deal.

Listen, it makes sense that emcees support capitalism. It’s all working class people are taught to do. This makes supporting anti-capitalist artists all the more important. As well as holding emcees to a higher standard. Saying the media lies shouldn’t be enough for us to call a rapper woke. Give me a 16 that speaks on how media supports capitalism. How it changes our values and keeps us complacent. How the media stops us from achieving revolution. Because in the end, that’s what matters.

I don’t want to live in this system forever. So I’ll fight. And now I’m asking for other emcees to do the same.

Mladen Luketin
(Illustrations) | Marx on the Mic (Video Series)


Space Baby is a Marxist writer and musician. He recently released a video series on Youtube exploring the relationship between Marxism and Hip Hop.