Hip-hop – and music as a whole for that matter – is seemingly obsessed with materialism. And this isn’t without good reason.
For many artists, the expensive price tags and flashy accessories appeared so far out of reach for so long. Many talented artists pop up from very rough communities, frequently without much hope, and in some situations, faced a desolate reality of not knowing where their next meal was coming from, never mind thinking about buying a nice piece of clothing, or better yet, a car. Thus, when they’re justly rewarded for their talents after years of toiling, what do they do? They buy nice things, things they couldn’t have even imagined owning when they were kids forced to the brink of survival. So, they flaunt. They indulge. They live in excess.
And who can blame them?
This can’t be discussed without mentioning the state of their pre-fortune realities. Many artists who grew up in low-income environments were forcibly thrust into a world of violence, specifically gun violence. They were dragooned by their habitat to participate in violence as both a means of survival and a societal norm. Therefore, it is true that hip-hop has a stigma for flaunting weaponry – although genres like country quietly glorify guns too, just in a far different context. Yet many people tend to pull such references out of the context of the creator and label it simply as bad, although merely discussing a topic such as guns shouldn’t be labeled as bad when it’s a person reflecting on their own true experiences. Or, as my beloved Roc Marciano once said, “I mean how can I be demonized / Speaking on the s*** that I seen with these eyes?” This being said, guns are absolutely glorified in hip-hop music, but again, can you blame them when it’s what they’ve known and were forced to endure?
While much of this materialistic boasting is well-deserved, it’s created a stigma in rap music – mostly by people that don’t fully understand the genre or choose to stay ignorant concerning it – that rappers flaunt their guns and their money stupidly and hold no sense of self-awareness concerning their actions. They throw Benjamins on strippers; they wave guns in the air like high-rolling bidders waving paddles at an auctioneer; they live a pimp’s paradise with no knowledge of the repercussions their actions may have. Or, at least, this is the oft-thought perception. Yet, there are many rappers who are choosing to subvert this classic stigma and flip the widely-held narrative about money and guns on its head.
Ka, a 46-year-old Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York native, is a unique musician in every sense of the word. Yes, he brings up money, guns and violence as commonly as Trump mentions his “Wall,” but does so with a seldom-found sense of retrospection and poise that sets him worlds apart from his contemporaries.
Ka, born Kaseem Ryan, now works as a New York City firefighter, attempting to give back to the city that he once had a hand in spreading maleficence in. This really speaks as a microcosm of his music; through rap, Ka is attempting to both sort through his adolescent wrong-doings in a cathartic, therapy-like manner and right his past wrongs by giving advice and wisdom to those that may be going through a similar existence as the one he once encountered.
Interestingly enough, the New York Post once ran an article claiming Ka to be a New York City firefighter by day (accurate) and a police-officer-hating rapper by night (inaccurate). While Ka does often speak on grisly subject matter, he does so with a keen sense of sagacity that could only stem from years of a troubled and crime-ridden, albeit self-aware and now-regretted life. One of the best examples of this is on his 2016 song, simply titled “$.”
Ka wants money, like any other rapper, or human, does. Yet he no longer wants it for cars, Cuban links or women. As he puts it, “I need money, not for trivial material / Just to fix our floors (flaws), the whole cause is ethereal,” and later on in the song, “I need money, not to bling, self-boast or greed reasons / But to bring health to the most diseased regions.”
The funny thing is, most rappers would come off as severely sanctimonious claiming what Ka is claiming in this song. But the Brownsville rapper does so with such an astute level of groundedness that he demands respect from the listener as he bobs and weaves through densely-knit internal rhymes and double entendres that speak of giving back in hopes of a brighter future. Ka isn’t bragging about his charitable work, rather he’s hoping to make a change no matter how small that may be, which is why it can be interpreted either way when he says, “Just to fix our floors/flaws.” Ka wants to fix the money-hungry flaws in our society; he wants to fix the societal flaws that leave thousands of broke families hungry in the city; he wants to fix the foundation our country is built on, or its floor, to create a more empathetic universe; or more simply, he wants to start by merely fixing the cracked-and-broken floor of a family who can’t afford to have it fixed themselves. Ka wants to fix a lot of things, both big and small, and he recognizes that while money can’t supply happiness and materialization will never solve he or his community’s problems, what money can do is supply power, and in this situation, the power to start helping those without it.
Ka softly, yet powerfully, speaks some of the most striking lines I have ever heard in a piece of music in this song. He states, “You tellin’ stories that’s celebratory in times of war / With bars of greed, I plead, how many cars you need? / When fathers bleed to fill ribs of kids that hardly read.” The imagery he writes with and the strain his voice limps along with as he delivers these heart-wrenching lines is draining in every facet. These lines give me goosebumps every time I hear them, and only further subvert the typical image many have in their head of the cliché rapper wasting money like its dirt.
While Ka discusses money, Detroit rapper Quelle Chris tackles the difficult subject of guns in his new song titled, well, “Guns.” Quelle brings up the most important thing to remember when hearing songs that display rappers bragging about their firearms: guns are ubiquitous. They’re in your neighbor’s safe; they’re in the hands of criminals; they’re even in your grandma’s hands. As he puts it, “Granny keep a loaded 45 right inside the glove box / Brandon shot his first keystone ‘fore he could spell his last name/ Junior learned to load from uncle Charlie at the card game / Kelly lit her school up like it’s 4th of July.”
Everybody has access to weapons, as he points out; it’s ingrained into the fabric of our society, which is why Quelle takes the stereotypical catch-phrase of a touring artist and applies it to guns: “Coming to a city / I be in your city / Coming to a city near you.” But, he reminds us with the first line of the song, “Just because you packing out hear, ‘lax fam you ain’t 2pac.” Just because everybody has access to guns doesn’t mean we’re all revolutionaries or symbols of savior for our community. But he semi-sarcastically falls into the societal pressure at the end of the song and admits, “Might as well get you one / Procrastinatin’ will get you popped.”
If you don’t have one, in other words, you’re bound to get hurt, so you better go and get one before one gets you.
Ka and Quelle give distinctive perspectives to important subject matters that we too often brush over as larger societal problems that will never get fixed. In doing so, they flip the standard narrative for how rappers are perceived in dealing with money and guns while still standing by those before them who chose to go the other route and flaunt what they have now attained. It doesn’t diminish rappers who brag about these things; rather, it gives more context to why they boast the way they do, and reminds us to be open-minded, empathetic and consider every angle when digesting a piece of art that comes from a culture we are not accustomed to or aware of.