Jay-Z, the Hegemon?
Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor, has a fascinating interview up on NPR (listen here or read the text here…i would listen) where he basically says that Jay-Z can be understood as a metaphor for U.S. hegemony:
See, Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) is the closest thing to a hegemon which the rap world has known for a long time. He’s #1 on the Forbes list of the top earning rappers. He has an unimpeachable reputation, both artistic and commercial, and has produced some of the all-time best (and best-selling) hip hop albums including standouts Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint and the Black Album. He spent several successful years as the CEO of Def Jam Records before buying out his contract a few months ago to release his new album on his own label. And he’s got Beyonce. Nobody, but nobody, in the hip hop world has his combination of hard power and soft power. If there be hegemony, then this is it. Heck, when he tried to retire after the Black Album, he found himself dragged back into the game (shades of America’s inward turn during the Clinton years?).
But the limits on his ability to use this power recalls the debates about U.S. primacy. Should he use this power to its fullest extent, as neo-conservatives would advise, imposing his will to reshape the world, forcing others to adapt to his values and leadership? Or should he fear a backlash against the unilateral use of power, as realists such as my colleague Steve Walt or liberals such as John Ikenberry would warn, and instead exercise self-restraint?
The changes in Jay-Z’s approach over the years suggest that he recognizes the realist and liberal logic… but is sorely tempted by the neo-conservative impulse.
It’s a fascinating idea, if only because it quickly devolves into an oddly dead serious interrogation of the pros/cons for Jigga and The Game (yes, The Game) if they choose to engage each other in a beef.
I’m all for a serious, critical interrogation of hip-hop culture, but what intrigues me about this interview is that this is not at all about the music, so much as the way in which rappers market themselves in the corporate structure. It’s oddly disconnected from a critical understanding of how beefs have operated in hip-hop culture versus how they have operated as hip-hop has functioned in the corporate structure.
The first question for me: Is there hegemony in hip-hop culture?
Or put a different way: Is Jay-Z’s hegemony, which I concede he in fact has, something that could have happened before hip-hop went completely corporate?
In short? No.
For instance, Rakim is the greatest rapper alive because he’s the man who rethought what emceeing could be. All roads in emceeing lead back to Rakim. This is not to say that someone couldn’t take him out, but to say that if they do they’d be using weapons he fashioned to do it.
But if we accept Lynch’s definition of hegemon to include media dominance, money, etc., then I wouldn’t call Rakim a hegemon since artists like MC Hammer and LL arguably had greater claims to these sorts of things.
Hip-hop has always been about constant innovation. People battled because there was a tacit assumption that you did so knowing at any time you could be destroyed. You battled not just to maintain what little status you had, but because you wanted to preserve the culture as you had helped to define it. So sure LL and Kane wanted to be seen as the best, but they were also fighting for the integrity of the music, the culture as they viewed it.
Not the case nowadays, I would say.
Lynch, bound by his Jay = U.S. construct, goes at it bizarrely:
So what does Jay-Z do? If he hits back hard in public, the Game will gain in publicity even if he loses… the classic problem of a great power confronted by a smaller annoying challenger…If Jay-Z tries to use his structural power to kill Game’s career (block him from releasing albums or booking tour dates or appearing at the Grammy Awards), it could be seen as a wimpy and pathetic operation — especially since it would be exposed on Twitter and the hip hop blogs.
Simply – If Jay can’t take The Game out, then Jay loses his title. There’s no such thing as picking on someone small in hip-hop (well, going after…oh say, Souljah Boy or Mac Daddy from Kriss Kross might fit that definition, but that also wouldn’t really happen).
Someone should tell Lynch — In hip-hop, your title is always up for grabs.
Side note – Lynch acknowledges that Nas was the victor over Jay-Z. He gets props for stating the obvious.