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Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Made In America" an essay on Hip Hop by Catalina Byrd

This may end up being a bit long...before we get into the "hip-hop" discussion let me give a little background to my position on certain subjects. I've never really cared for the term African-American, as a strong believer that there is power in every word spoken - I refuse to purposefully remove myself from my country. I belong to a race that was created right here in the United States of America. My ancestors built this country and it is my brth right. I am an American anywhere else in the world why shouldn't I be in my home? Another social discussion I took an open position on was that of generational indifference. An ill of our society that I'm certain happens in all races but I find most pervasive among my race. All elders are not guilty of this of course, but far too many are and some of whom are in positions of power too vain to concede even the knowledge of how lead - cultivating the polar opposite of wisdom...blind faith. I'm certain I don't have to go into my feelings about political parties versus the political process lol, have every confidence that you are clear on that one, so know that I take special objection to this myth that is continuously spread that Black and Democrat or Black and Christian are in any way race came before Christ and the Democrats. We are not obligated to be either and do not become any less Black if we are not. All of those things being considered - let me see if I can shine some light on the only American made industry surviving national and international financial and power shifts all while being a Black business.

Let's begin with acknowledging that hip hop culture and the hip hop industry are not one and the same. One is a way of life the other a product that is sold on the open market. The culture is older than the industry - know that too. Using the industry as a vehicle for success did my generation see the realization of the most Black millionaires than ever befor ein the history of our race. Sadly, the collective didn't see the value in this achievement unable to get over their dislike for the product long enough to be proud of what we post-civil rights era babies did with this freedom that they'd died for us to have. I don't like Payless Shoes - I don't choose to judge those that do or condemn the makers of them as the sole conspirator that is keeping people in unattractive footwear...but somehow the product of the hip hop industry got the blame for everything wrong in urban communities as if rappers write policy. I can understand where a passion for the people can create some subliminal righteous indignation - but the belief of some that having lived through the civil rights era (whether they contributed or not) entitles them to a right to judge is false. Only God can judge - and furthermore if you are not using every teachable moment to help correct the behavior that is harmful to our collective and choose instead to mock or block - you are equally as harmful. I've watched in my lifetime too many talented individuals of my generation get hurt in the process of working with elders the way people get hurt in the church, so much so that some others opt not to seek the wisdom too often not shared anyway and still find themselves blocked in certain arenas with the accusation that they haven't "paid their dues", left in the end to make their own way. For quite a few of us it is the arts, the arts accept all people - regardless of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. For many the arts are more their religion than any habitual practice that they may claim. The hip hop industry is an arts industry - music, fashion, culinary arts, painting, dance, etc. 

If you've known me any significant amount of time than you know that I have since 1996 been adament about the contribution to the collective that Jay-Z was making and would continue to. So much so that I named my first born son after him. Some of the people that I respect the most have strong feelings about Shawn Corey Carter, as a top producer and earner in the hip hop industry did he become an international icon anyway much to their dismay, they can't get past the product long enough to recognize the contribution to the collective. All far too intelligent to not truly understand that no product available ever can outweigh the effect of social injustice and core corruptive policies - let's just let it go already! Roc-A-Fella Records didn't put more young brothers on street corners, a systematically designed pipeline from the hood to the penal system did, the undereducating of poorer and non-white children did, if anything - Roc-A-Fella made smarter hustlers and helped a few figure a way to find that third door...out of the life and still alive to see their children grow up. There was a time when there were only 2 ways out...death or prison. The life expectancy for Black men in my generation is beyond dismal, at 30 I've never known one of my own to have died of natural causes, and I've lost countless friends and family - addiction or violence very few to war post 9-11. So I get very emotional over 40+ years old Jay-Z because I don't know how you watch a whole generation get targeted and killed off and still look down upon them as if they aren't down enough. It's not by accident that drugs found their way into our communities or that they want our generations to remain disjointed from one another - look what freedom can make way for us in America with the talents and testimonies that we have.

15 years ago Forbes didn't track top earning Hip-Hop artists, Jay just topped the list, no one on the list ONLY makes music. Branding was the business model that Mr. Carter utilized and continues to hone. The problem with the collective is they want to make one man responsible for all of his race instead of his race being responsible for making sure he is supported while he adds some color to that upper crust. The structure of Roc-A-Fella Records was unheard of at the time, independent artists had yet to successfully create viable record labels to this degree, similar to the way that Ray Charles had been a pioneer in the owning of his masters. With the financial success of Roc-A-Fella Records the opportunity was created for Roca-Wear, Armadle' Vodka, Roc Nation, Carol's Daughter, State Property (record label and clothing line), Jay-Z Blue (trademarked color available on GM cars on certain makes and models), minority ownership of the Brooklyn Nets, just to name a few. Leading by example, teaching by practice that branding and diversity are best used business practices for optimal succes overall, not limited to just the art that you make. America is built on capitalism...nothing more nothing less, painful parts of our history overshadow that for some, residual emotions from the struggle - understandable...we went from being the product to making one that allowed us to circumvent the design without recreating the wheel. Money is green, business is color blind, the standards and principles of success apply to all and when used correctly can propel one beyond the circumstances of their norm and create a new norm. As a collective are we also guilty of trying to reinvent the way business is done in the name of being Black as opposed to being businesses with Black proprietors. Do it their way with knowledge of self. Jay-Z much like Oprah, Martha Stweart, Andre Aggassi, Tiger Woods, and many others - branded himself. Branding also is color blind might I add, the most successful brands are those that become synonmous with the product they produce, for example Michael Jordan branded himself in the athletic footwear industry and now "Jordan" can mean the person or the shoe or piece of apparell from the clothing line. By any means necessary doesn't cross paths often with the path of least resistence - and our parents heroes were ours too.

On September 11, 2001 New York City was attacked and thousands on Americans were killed, on that same day Shawn Carter released The Blueprint - not only did it brand the Roc-A-Fella sound from that point forward with the production of Kanye West, it went on to go double platinum, and the tour that followed raised over a million dollars for the families of the emergency response teams that were also lost in the tragedy. Since 2001 America's financial resources have been taxed by orchestrated wars on drugs and terrorism that has lead to our current recession and continued loss of value in our currency and contribution to other nations. All the while the hip-hop industry continued to grow and thrive. Hip-hop culture enthusiasts created divisions among the artists of the genre and sectioned off types of hip-hop decided by content, composure, and creativity. As with any industry there are quality products and poorly made product counterparts - hip-hop is no different. In my personal opinion Soulja Boy Tell 'Em is as a product the same as that Payless Shoe - but as my brother I know that his success is widening the lane for the I can't knock his hustle. Countless others followed the formula - brand yourself, reinvest in yourself, diversify the options with the products that you create. How much does a white kid in Beverly Hills dressed in a Roc-A-Wear outfit, riding in a Jay-Z blue Tahoe, listening to Kingdom Come add up to? Or an asian man dressed in a Sean John suit, sipping Ciroc at the bar, waiting for a table in Justin's? Oh this would probably be a great time to also add that in each industry that you delve into producing in will you also need to create a quality product because since business is color blind so is success - your product will be compared to all others made by all races. To excel it will need to be the best product regardless of the race of it's creator. Eminem is a prime example of quality of product over race in this minority saturated hip-hop industry. Notably all of those succesful in the hip-hop industry did not begin as artists, Daymond John owner of Fubu and Coogi is not a rapper, but his clothing companies as brands are internationally associated with hip-hop culture and are popular abroad among the varying demographics that are the consumers of hip-hop industry products. In a post-NAFTA America where we have been surpassed in the production of almost every other industry and we don't make anything anymore - this American made industry continues to grow. The week that the United States lost it's AAA bond rating Jay-Z and Kanye West released Watch The Throne, a collaborative album that went #1 in 23 countries in less than 72 hours, continuing to prove my point about the potential of this industry still being underestimated and unappreciated as an American industry. In the video from the first single "Otis" Jay and Ye stand in front of a large American flag mural while making alterations to a Maybach ($280,000 car), immediately critics jumped into their rhetoric with their distain for the materialism and wastefulness they perceive that the hip-hop industry promotes, on Friday (August 12, 2011) when Watch The Throne was released in stores Jay and Kanye rented a store front in Soho with the one of a kind Maybach on display for 3 days only - it will then be auctioned off to benefit causes in East Africa. Once again, with knowledge of self does he always feel obligated to invest in opportunities for less fortunate people, without being made to or asked. The lyrics and subject matter of Watch The Throne are about much of what I have touched on in this article, peppered of course with some lighter material, and personal experiences as artists and individuals. Overall, it is a celebration of Black wealth, Black excellence, and the survival of our race against all odds. All along did too many in the collective mistake the celebrating of acquiring that which had been previously denied to our people for the glorification of what one did to get the material things and now his brand has so much value that what looks like destroying an expensive car just appreciated the value of the car - quite the opposite. In business it's about who gets there first, the first of anything, sets the standard for everything else. As an artist and an entrepreneur Shawn Carter has been the "first..." of more things than Thurgood Marshall and Fredrick Douglass combimed. No way in the world you can tell me that that isn't for the greater good of our whole as a collective. 

I don't know if Gloria Carter or Dr. Donda West told their sons that they were a part of the Talented Tenth or not, can't say for sure if they raised them to believe that their every action was a reprsentation of themselves, their families, and their race or not, and as a result would their every accomplishment and failure effect the whole. That is what my parents taught me, so regardless of whether or not I ever said or intentionally pursued an interest in Black anything - every hurdle I climbed did I make just a bit easier for anyone else that happens to be Black that may follow. As the talented we have an obligation to the collective of our race before any religion or political party for the continuation of our kind. That obligation doesn't come with the perameters of a necessity to be liked always, agreed with all of the time, or in line with any mold that has been fashioned to define what being Black means. A race that was made in America, created an industry in America, that is the wealth generating vehicle that can save America - that's karma. We that were brought in bondage have to be free to continue the last thriving American industry in modern times. My how the tables have only to bridge this gap in the collective between those that got us free and we who break glass ceilings for sport now as a result - because we both want the same thing in the long run, the continued advancement,success, and survival of our people be they here in America or abroad.

KRS is a great rapper, but his brand's value on the open market doesn't come close to Jay's, but thanks to Jay's accomplishments should KRS decide to expand his brands reach by offering additional products - there is a continuously growing market to shop it to.  If the struggle was for us to make it in America without losing our righteous souls in the process than we are doing just that. If those that died were meant to scare us into believing that we couldn't overcome it didn't work. What you mistake for arrogance is an attitude of a blessed and talented group of artists that find affirmation in the truth that we were always created equal and happy to have defied the odds and conventional wisdom. When we as a collective all let go of the need to judge the product can we get together and dictate that which we leave our children to work with when it is their turn to make their mark in the world on behalf of us as a people - the Black one's that are exclusively Made In America.

This used to be my screensaver all of 09...the merging of the only 2 cultures I know - hip-hop & politics...this pic inspires me still!

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