June 18th marked the release of two of the year's most anticipated hip-hop albums, Kanye West's Yeezus and J. Cole's Born Sinner. Both were met with immense hype, huge sales, and passionate discussions amongst the artists' fans and detractors about each album's merits.
But if you look just below the surface, another important similarity, beyond release date and mentions of Jay-Z, appears. Yeezus' "New Slaves" rages about how private prisons enslave black people to make money. "Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with the CCA," he raps. "They trying to lock niggas up, they trying to make a new state."
But the song also points out that all of us, of every race, are enslaved by the pressures of consumer capitalism:
Used to be only niggas, now everybody's playing
Spending everything on Alexander Wang
J. Cole's "Runaway" starts off by talking about chattel slavery and its legacy, but then moves on to make a similar point:
Rich white man rule the nation still
Only difference is we all slaves now, the chains still concealed
According to academic and writer Marc Lamont Hill, the rappers' use of slavery as metaphor is a mixed bag. "Kanye and Cole are saying that while the form of oppression has changed, we're always trapped by other stuff. They're trying to get us to wrestle with the idea of unfreedom."
That said, Lamont Hill is a little wary. "I would caution them about using slavery as a metaphor," he said. "It has some legitimacy, but it leaves some space to say 'Whoah!' I'd encourage them to show how power operates, but I would tell them to never let America off the hook for previous injustice by equating those two things, current injustices and slavery."
Michael P. Jeffries, hip-hop commentator, author, and Assistant Professor at Wellesley College, has a more positive outlook. "It's an provocative metaphor, and one of its primary purposes is to shock and attract attention, which it certainly does," he said. "I have no problem with rappers saying controversial things and/or exaggerating; it's part of the art. Further, I'm glad that both artists are talking about racial oppression and racial stigma, especially in an era where they're under tremendous commercial pressure to maintain broad appeal to non-black listeners and in a political climate that is hostile to open condemnations of racism."
Singer Mela Machinko feels ambivalent about the idea that everyone is a slave now. "Overall," she said, "I take umbrage at the comparison between the modern day slavery to which they are referring, and the historical enslavement of Africans in America. If you are drawing a correlation between the African slaves of American history and your love of money, or things you can't afford and subsequent challenges you face, you are too loosey goosey and disrespectful with your metaphors. " She does allow, though, that "Anything that brings the focus away from the abject decadence to which popular music has succumbed is a positive thing."
Rapper Jasiri X relates Kanye and Cole's takes to their positions as artists. "I think the 'new slaves' metaphor comes from artists understanding where they rank on the power scale inside the music industry, and it's at the bottom," he opined. "At the end of the day, even though they have the most exposure, they get paid the least, and often aren't free to say what they really feel."
Lamont Hill agrees. "These guys are finding out that, even when you get $100 million, you still have bosses. This is something rappers wouldn't have known twenty years ago, when none of them had that kind of money."
Reggie Osse, a former music attorney now known as media personality Combat Jack, made the point that very language of artist contracts has overtones of slavery.
"Sure the label invests in the artist/slave but once signed, the artist has to recoup the label/publisher's investment," he explained. "The artist becomes the exclusive creator of 'intellectual property' for the sole purpose of 'exploitation' by the labels. The labels own the 'masters,' the original physical embodiment of the artist's creation 'in perpetuity.' Artists bust their asses in the fields of studio/ appearances / tours as label execs, though some may work hard, can sleep and cut deals as their artists toil in the physical labor that is their craft/career. The terms I used are legal terms in nature with regard to ownership and obligation. In essence, corporations own the creative souls of artists in the same manner slave owners own human chattel."
Poet, singer, and performer Saul Williams has spoken to West directly about related issues in the past. "I've talked to Kanye quite a bit," he said. "He ain't ignorant, although he may be caught up in his material fixations."
Williams is a fan of provocative racial metaphors in general - "I have always been a fan of the Yoko Ono/John Lennon usage of the term 'nigger,'" he explained. "Particularly in the statement, 'Women are the nigger of the world.' I think that a broader/down home labeling of a disenfranchised group can often be useful for broader and personalized understanding. We make connections. We empathize. I believe in the useful purposes of metaphor and analogy. I'm a poet. Forgive me."
"In the tradition of James Baldwin, I would say real niggers don't exist except by choice and proclamation," he continued. "Yet, real slaves do exist, in actuality, without choice and through true subjugation in many parts of the world, including America. Thus, stretching the idea into metaphor may not be as strong of a choice because it overlooks where slavery exists in very real instances."
Williams was also critical of the idea of the artists as "slaves" to consumerism and the pressure to acquire more and more. "I think the slavery West references most accurately is more of a psychological complex than an actual form of slavery," he continued. "Material values gone awry. But that is more of a choice. One could just as easily get that big check and go to a used bookstore. I'm pretty sure that's what Erykah Badu did. One could visit Paris' many African squats, where they sell food and share resources. But being a fashion victim doesn't count as slavery."
Everyone we spoke with had opinions about why the "new slaves" idea suddenly has so much cultural currency. Lamont Hill thinks it's a case of hip-hop yet again discovering its past.
"Hip-hop is always trying to rediscover its political identity," he said. "There have always been voices in the wilderness - and they have rarely been the so-called 'conscious' rappers. Hip-hop is at its best when regular people are offering a critique through their own lens. Even if it's imperfect, they're trying to bear some sort of witness."
Williams believes similarly, pointing out that, as Q-Tip said, things go in cycles. "We've exhausted our gangster resources," he explained. "50 got shot 9 times and lived to rap about it. YouTube brought us 50-Tyson. And slowly things are coming full circle."
Osse likewise mentioned that what he termed "progressive rap" died out in the 90's. "But we know so much now. And rap has become so corporatized. Modern Black culture has never been in as much a need to challenge the established power structure as it is today. If it takes a Kanye or a J. Cole to be ground zero in terms of the audience moving back into independent critical thinking, then I'm 1 million percent behind that shit."
Machinko thinks that the wealth gap has quite a bit to do with the popularization of the "new slaves" idea. "Wealth disparity in our country is only growing," she said. "You can only sell people on luxury rap for so long when the middle class is becoming the working class. People will still dance to your hot track but you're not changing lives. If these artists are venturing a peek beyond their noses, they are seeing changes and the need to address them."
Jeffries points out that the social unacceptability of overt racism while institutional racism is alive and well sets the stage for these kind of conversations. "I don't think it's a coincidence that these frustrations are being aired so publicly and angrily during our current historical moment, when anti-black racism is out of fashion as a political and moral issue, despite the terrible reality of racial inequality and ongoing discrimination," he told us. "In their own way, these artists are shouting back against that tide, even if the message is a little muddied."
Jasiri, whose answer song "New Nat Turners" deals with this very issue, hopes that Kanye and Cole's realizations will cause them to depart from the corporations that are so problematic. "Now that they know they're a slave, what are they going to do to get free?" he asked. "If you recognize you're a 'slave', but still continue to be a part of the corporations that are enslaving you, you're basically a house nigga like Stephen in Django [Unchained]."
Jeffries hopes that, in the future, the artists' complaints will be tempered with more nuance, as well as practical action. "I do think they could find space to break down the differences between slavery as an institution and labor arrangement and slavery as metaphor, or slavery in previous eras versus the 'slavery' they're talking about today," he explained. "Also, I wish artists paired these performances with substantive political action to interrupt the social patterns and arrangements they're so angry about."
Williams tempered his criticisms with an acknowledgement that Kanye and Cole addressing these issues, with all their overstatements and excesses, are ultimately part of the "path to freedom."
"Like the person who's been denied food and then eats too much, eventually you learn the balance. Rich Nigga problems, Poor Nigga problems, 'Problems of the world today'- are all things we pass thru and hopefully learn through. Learning out loud and in plain sight is part of the age of transparency. Hip Hop, like both artists, is clearly on its path. Without having gone through these travails we wouldn't be able to speak from greater experience as time progresses. I salute both and all & am always open to either break bread or beats."