Critics who sneer at rap stars are ignorant of the world of violence, drugs and racism that formed their determination to survive
When a rapper with as high a profile as 50 Cent declares bankruptcy, you could power a small nation with the schadenfreude. Twitter wags – inevitably – weighed in, with various puns on Curtis Jackson’s chosen alias, while others laboured to make jokes about the EU bailing him out. Newspapers printed pictures of him festooned with gold and captions advising him to visit the nearest branch of Cash Converters. There were few well-wishers, or people organising volunteers to run “a mile for Fiddy”.
On the face of it, this gleeful celebration of misfortune is hardly surprising. The setback follows hard on the heels of a jury ordering Jackson to pay $5m in an invasion of privacy case that saw him delivering a tasteless and unfunny narration over a sex tape. 50 Cent’s larger than life approach – encompassing a hugely successful rap career (2003’s album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sold over 12m copies that year alone), high-profile business ventures (his stake in Vitaminwater is rumoured to have made him $100m), spats with other rap stars such as The Game and Rick Ross, and acting (he plays the trainer in the recent Jake Gyllenhaalfilm Southpaw) – was bound to have commentators chiding him for his hubris when he hit a bump in the road. Despite the fact that he’s only filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, actually seen by many financial experts as a wise move to protect assets and investments, the nuances of his financial situation have hardly stemmed the tide of hatred and smirks.
It’s a cliche that the first things rappers buy when they get a deal are a gold chain and a house for their mother
Why do people love to hate 50 Cent so much? Perhaps for the same reasons they laugh at Diddy, line up to lambast Kanye West or delight in the ups and downs of Lil Wayne: they simply don’t understand the hip-hop mindset. If you wanted to be simplistic, you could level accusations of racism. These people are delighting in the downfall of a black man who rose from nowhere to have his wings burned like Icarus. They want him back in his place. And undoubtedly some feel that way. But the majority of people warming their souls on 50 Cent’s “downfall” aren’t really racists, they just don’t understand what drives him and many rappers-turned-entrepreneurs like him.
The privileged few prize what they see as “authenticity” in music, and they don’t think commercially successful rappers provide that. In their view they’re churning out mush for the clubs and the masses, rather than making difficult material that only connoisseurs can appreciate. And they’re not just making hit records, they’re wearing jewellery and being all brash and arrogant about it. Couldn’t they do with a reality check?
Of course, as anyone who has grown up with hip-hop will tell you, this is par for the course. (Largely) white critics and commentators have always loved telling us what “real” hip-hop should be: it should be intelligent, fierce, political and, it goes without saying, friendly to liberals. But what about “actual” hip-hop? The stuff that (largely) black people actually buy in their millions, the stuff they dance and listen to? Stuff like 50 Cent, Diddy, Kanye, Young Thug, Future, 2 Chainz? The real stars of hip-hop are seen as gaudy figures of fun to these critics, rather than what they are: the true leaders of a still restlessly inventive music form.
Hip-hop’s roots in the abject, drug-ruined poverty of New York’s South Bronx in the late 1970s aren’t just a historical fact, they have shaped its aspirational worldview. What many of its detractors don’t recognise is that these millionaire rappers they instinctively hate largely grew up in that world – one of absent fathers, crack cocaine, racist policing and hustling to survive. It’s a hip-hop cliche that the first two things rappers buy when they get a record deal are a gold chain and a house for their mother. It’s also instructive – the first is to show you’ve made it against the odds, the second is to reward and protect the key figure in your life.
In 50 Cent’s case, he couldn’t buy a house for his mother – she was murdered when he was a boy, in the tough New York neighbourhood of South Jamaica, Queens, and his father was nowhere to be seen. Raised, along with nine others, by his grandmother, he was selling crack on the streets by the age of 12, carrying a gun by 15. If he hadn’t been mentored by Run DMC’s Jam Master Jay, he’d probably have died on those very streets. When a rap career offers the promise of freedom from that life, you grab it and you make everything of it as quickly as you can. After all, rap is no country for old men.
Money and success is important to black US rappers because not so long ago they were legally second-class citizens, and as recent events in Ferguson and Charleston have shown, life for young black men can be short and brutal. For 50 Cent and his generation, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ isn’t just an album title, it’s a mantra born of a struggle. One that people slinging puns on Twitter just don’t understand.