In a Juneteenth special of her monthly column, hotep-in-training Maya Kotomori puts on her Dr. Umar kufi to analyze the commodity fetish of hip-hop

“All the greatest writers read the Bible.”

While I’m not sure who said it first, I remember hearing this phrase from my performatively and unnecessarily mean senior-year English teacher, Ms. So-and-So. While she was a huge bitch, I realized she had a point when everyone except me seemed familiar with how the story of Lazarus related to Raskolnikov’s final confession in Crime and Punishment. I was obsessed with earning her approval, but reading the Bible felt like doing too much for validation from an old white lady.

So-and-So was also the kind of teacher who, while popcorn reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, would look to the three (four?) Black students in the room whenever Nigger Jim was mentioned because “apparently everyone else is not allowed to say the word at all otherwise they’d be racist.” She would then apologize to us Blacks for making us read aloud and explain how we’re forced to do the labor she’d gladly take on if it weren’t for some arbitrary rule that non-Black people are not allowed to say “nigger” even when it appears on the pages of a published book. I mean, the Bible could’ve offered her a different justification: “As it is written, so shall be done” (Matthew 4:4), right?

If all great writers have read the Bible, all the best journalists listen to rap music, and I would also contend that the best rap lyricists would write the hell out of an op-ed. Azealia Banks is a full-blown music critic via her lengthier Instagram stories, but I would challenge either Coscarelli to write “Heavy Metal and Reflective.” Having lyrical talent in hip-hop is incredibly valuable because it talks the talk of those who walk the walk—again, see Azealia Banks’s pointed and sometimes brutal honesty. To boot, the broader genres of hip-hop and rap have created styles beyond sound, and in turn they have become perhaps today’s most coveted cultural commodity. Everyone wants to speak the hip-hop language, but no one wants to acknowledge that this want reflects a deeper desire for Black culture minus the Black people who made it.

This is a fundamental shift in taste: sociocultural taxation without representation, so to speak. In Shoptimism, Lee Eisenberg references 19th-century economist Thorstein Veblen’s rather famous book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that the working middle class’s newfound buying power at the turn of the 20th century disrupted the notion that taste was produced from the top down. Eisenberg contends that “Leisure Class’s chapter IV, ‘Conspicuous Consumption,’ introduced the term that would come to characterize this drive to trade ever upward while proving useful to Buy Scolds as a lasting indictment of the wastefulness of the American buyer.”

“As the former cultural elites fall from their towers, they adopt hip-hop for their own identities, while hip-hop in turn remixes the traditional codes of luxury that kept the ruling class ruling.”

In today’s marketplace, taste isn’t top-to-bottom, it flows side to side, bubbles up from south to north, arcs diagonally in confusing parabolas. Taste now free associates: “Beginning in the ’60s, it became apparent that tastes no longer just trickled down, they trickled every which way. They trickled in from the bohemian and hippie outer fringes, up from the ghetto and the grunge. While it remains swell to be, or pretend to be, rich and classy, it became even sweller for many of us to be, or pretend to be, hip and cool,” Eisenberg continues. He summarizes cultural critics Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s social history Nation of Rebels rather aptly: “Straight guys opt to be made over by queer eyes. Suburban kids wear ghetto-baggy shorts, their lids turned backward. And does anyone in America—including those who go by Muffy, Bunky, or the Chipster—not have a tattoo?” The tastes of the have come to influence the moneyed few.

Hip-hop emerged from the streets as a bottom-up movement, yet became a luxury product for the privileged classes who need to be culturally influenced so they can feel something. The “suburban kids in the ghetto-baggy shorts” Eisenberg writes about both subvert and support the traditional ideas of taste as a tenet of the elite, as something that filters down to the masses. Justin Timberlake needed cornrows and beatboxing to rebrand from his Wonder Bread boy band days, features which then became their own image of cultural clout. The teenagers Ben Lerner writes about in The Topeka School sag their denim and don chains as a manifestation of their suburban white boy rage. Hip-hop shuffles taste through both the 19th-century Veblenist top-down flow as well as in today’s multidirectional way. And as the former cultural elites fall from their towers, they adopt hip-hop for their own identities, while hip-hop in turn remixes the traditional codes of luxury that kept the ruling class ruling. The evidence? YSL means both Yves Saint Laurent and Young Stoner Life (free Young Thug). Pharrell Williams is the Creative Director of Louis Vuitton. Lil Uzi Vert single-handedly brought Goyard to the youth.

As the Bible says—and no, I still haven’t read it—“The murderer rises before it is light that he may kill the poor and the needy and in the night he is like a thief. The eye of the adulterer also waits for the twilight saying, ‘No eye will see me.’ And he veils his face” (Job 24:14–15). Who’s the murderer, the poor, the adulterer? You could say hip-hop murdered taste. You could say hip-hop is the poor and needy, and capitalism is the murderer. You could say that hip-hop is the adulterer, perverting simple ruling-class structures of what’s good and what’s bad. You could say hip-hop reflects the problem with money generally, and you could think and think and think about it so hard you wish for bombs over every major Western nation and no currencies, no borders, no nation-states. But then you wake up and brush your teeth and go about your day, because dreams of such a biblical proportion feel counterintuitive to being alive. As I go about my day, I remember So-and-So’s own obsession with Black and white, and I picture her screaming Chief Keef lyrics in her car (she changes the As to hard Rs because she’s in need of that catharsis but is also hateful deep down inside) and I think about the rudimentary Marx of my pink-haired years in undergrad. So-and-So wants to say nigger/a so badly because whether she knows it or not, her want signifies that she’s bought in to hip-hop. The genre and its culture is a commodity right in front of her, yet that one word remains out of her white reach; the forbiddenness heightens the fetish of its value. Her obvious yearning is commodity fetishism, or the spurious idea that a commodity has intrinsic value, rather than value resulting from the labor of its production. Hip-hop and rap music has proven itself a luxury item in that the Black labor behind its value has become eclipsed by the very taste it inspired.

Hip-hop’s explosion over the past-half century demonstrates that we have arrived to a post-Veblenist era of multidirectional taste that is neither bottom-up nor top-down—and that perhaps has erased the distinction between them. I’ll call it omnitaste. Rapid-fire history: hip-hop is a musical movement that began with largely Black populations across urban America in the ’70s. The Kennedy Center for the Performing arts cites a party thrown in a Bronx apartment by DJ Cool Herc in 1973 as the first instance of scratching, the technique of moving records on two turntables simultaneously to create new rhythms within songs. The percussive breaks that scratching created spawned breakdancing, an aptly named movement style which gave partygoers an opportunity to groove between the beats of the music mixed on the decks. Breaking spread through word of mouth across local neighborhoods, and thus began parties dedicated to emcee battles where b-boys and b-girls would compete. In the early ’80s, you had the birth of the boom bap on the East Coast, and gangster rap in the late ’80s from the West Coast (N.W.A) as well as the South (Geto Boys). The ’90s would see major commercial success through mainstream artists such as Biggie and OutKast, as well as underground darlings Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. By the early aughts, haters and imitators alike would don oversized basketball jerseys, baggy jeans, crispy AF-1s, hats turned sideways, and gold chains like they were prepared to spit a 16 bar at any second.

Hip-hop was able to have such a profound impact just in these 30ish years because it merged art, innovation, style, and personal struggle into a movement that carried with it a specific look. Over its 30 years, hip-hop’s look and sound had spawned a new genre of white people—the wigger (or wigress, if you’re a girl; wiggem for those who choose not to identify along a binary). Perhaps, in a fucked up way, this is white people participating in the art form the only way they know how, mimicking rather than innovating. Consider the sound—it’s based on found materials (i.e. samples) much like the Dadaists used readymade materials to create art, and the end result is a completely new style of music that didn’t come from the invention of a new technology, but the innovation of a new technique. The uniform of baggy clothes, clean sneakers, and bling is an appropriation of the readymade tastes of the street, one that was previously relegated to those with a shared experience in an urban environment but exploded among wiggers/esses/ems with the combination of the music and its hood-entrepreneurial spirit largely narrativized in rap lyrics. This perfect storm made hip-hop a perfect product for consumer America, a nation whose gaze on the cultural output from its Black citizens had existed long before the modern birth of the wigger, but was able to reach critical mass in this particular contemporary moment at the turn of the century when the advancement of capitalism meant “representing” the oppressed on a main stage. Hip-hop had everything—an art form, an attitude, a manner of dress—that blows up the idea of bottom-up taste: the movement completely re-calibrated “cool” to an image of Blackness on the streets where actually being Black wasn’t a prerequisite anymore.

“Majority-white creative teams can’t just pay lip service to the culture because a lot of hip-hop is predicated on shared experiences: going to the underground parties where the sound comes from, or knowing someone who did, or living on the streets narrativized in lyrics.”

“Behold the birth of an American phenomenon. Now watch it spread.”—Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman, Chasing Cool: Standing out in Today’s Cluttered Marketplace

Noah Kerner, the marketing wizkid responsible for the ad campaign for Facebook’s first mobile application, and Gene Pressman, a former co-CEO of Barneys, describe hip-hop’s spread in Chasing Cool, a book about how branding strategists have been able to construct allure among consumers. “Authenticity isn’t enough,” the pair write. Using hip-hop’s commodification as an example, Kerner and Pressman detail how “the ‘urban market’ presents its own distinct paradox. Just as authenticity is critical, aspiration is also a must. When you come from one side of the fence and look across to the other side, you always want what you don’t have.” Majority-white creative teams can’t just pay lip service to the culture because a lot of hip-hop is predicated on shared experiences: going to the underground parties where the sound comes from, or knowing someone who did, or living on the streets narrativized in lyrics. For people in the suburbs with the emotional range of a manicured lawn, luxury is the very idea of the hood. And for people in the hood, at least as the lyrics tell us, luxury is luxury, only the Most Expensivest, to reference 2 Chainz’s former Vice TV show. A lot of hip-hop is about flexing your accomplishments in the form of name-dropping luxury goods. These lyrics express a near-universal aspiration: kids on the street want money, diamonds, and cars; kids in the suburbs want to feel cool. Sometimes, authenticity and aspiration converge in the same four bars.

Came up, came down
Stayed down, Ridin’ long
Stayed real, caught the clown, took his crown, with the steel
Made moves, broke free, new deal, big D, 500, S-E-L, D-e-c, A-t-l
Ghetto Mafia, “Straight from the Dec,” 1996

My favorite way to observe the twoness of hip-hop is to look at the rappers themselves. In 2003’s “Supposed To Be,” KRS-One rapped, “You see, hip-hop’s not a product like pants or sweater” as a dis to the growing commercialization of the movement through radio hits like “Special Delivery” by G-Dep (the chorus is literally “I want that, I need that, can I have that, c’mon give it to me”). KRS-One also vocally opposed a tribute to 50 years of hip-hop at The Grammys saying, “Never will you ever see me standing in the environment where our culture is being exploited,” and yet he proudly spoke alongside Mayor Eric Adams in an arts and culture related statement… inspired by the 50 year anniversary of hip-hop.

Hip-hop has become a cultural product via this paradox of being “real” while participating in political song and dance for greater visibility. This is not a value judgment. It represents a movement with a rich history, and it also sells dreams, cars, sneakers. For our friend KRS-One, hip-hop isn’t a product like “pants or sweater,” it goes several steps beyond that. It’s selling an authentic opposition to the 50 years of hip-hop Grammys tribute while appearing beside Eric Adams to talk about how excited you are to see “hip-hop as mayor.” It’s selling the image of underground while becoming the product—and the mouthpiece of the state, in the case of KRS.

A lot of rap lyrics glorify conspicuous consumption—see “Throw It In The Bag” by Fabolous, the fact that Gucci Mane is named Gucci Mane, and a significant portion of music made between 2001 and now. As heard in “My Adidas”—a 1986 Run-DMC track known as one of the first product-placement hip-hop songs, which also skyrocketed the German brand’s sales—rap is a great platform for not-at-all-subliminal messaging. This is in direct opposition to marketing research that shows that such up-front advertisements alienate consumers: At the time Chasing Cool was published in 2007, Kerner and Pressman reported that 79% of TiVo customers said that they switched cable providers solely to avoid in-your-face advertisements. The same year, “Throw Some D’s” by Rich Boy ft. Polow Da Don—a song about all of the wonderful things that happen when you trick out your Cadillac™—remained a top-10 chart topper for 21 weeks in the US and three weeks globally.

Hip-hop is able to produce the success of marketing campaigns without any strategy because it has the history of a movement with the influence of coolness. Eisenberg writes “that we buy because our personalities are reflected in brands, and that brand loyalty extends membership in a tribe, are propositions firmly fixed in the Buy zeitgeist.” In other words, brands manufacture identity groups that go beyond race, gender, or age demographics, but which are instead based on attitudes: My Mac computer means that I do things differently, my Jordash jeans mean that I’m not afraid to be sexy. Kerner and Pressman synthesize these strategies into the idea of virality, noting that “in order to get consumers to open their wallets it’s necessary to create an integrated strategy that fuses a great product with marketing, and communications that reflect the product’s core attributes.” Run DMC’s “My Adidas” had a similar effect, but there was no marketing strategy; the hip-hop group was just really brand-loyal to its sneakers and made a song about them that saw commercial success both for them and Adidas. There was no exclusive messaging like “wearing Adidas means that I do things differently” or “my Adidas mean that I’m not afraid to be sexy,” because the lyrics weren’t messaging; they were a song, and yet they produced the results that creative associates at agencies all over the world spend years striving for.

“Rap’s lyrical product placements function just like subliminal messaging—its carrier form (the track) plants the idea that a brand’s name is associated with a certain cool and certain success—but without any subterfuge.”

That rap will just yell a brand at you is precisely what sets it apart from actual advertising. It also challenges what we think we know about the conspiratorial top-down vision of taste manufacturing. I think of the scene in Josie and the Pussycats (2001) where Josie realizes that the record company she and the band signed to was embedding cheap-sounding ads like “buy Steve Madden shoes” and “Starbucks, yum” behind all of their tracks to brainwash audiences, and then I think about rap lyrics that contain lists of brands and diamond retailers and how this media feels distinctly non-ad even though the language is so similar (the chorus of “Versace” by Migos repeats the brand name for four bars). In this way, rap’s lyrical product placements function just like subliminal messaging—its carrier form (the track) plants the idea that a brand’s name is associated with a certain cool and certain success—but without any subterfuge.

Rap speak sells stuff, marketing language tells on itself because it’s not “cool.” The messages in stunting-driven rap lyrics are clear—I got this car, I get girls, I feel happy. I got my girl, I make sure she looks good in her designer clothes so I look good to all my friends, I feel happy—but the language isn’t so cookie-cutter. It appears in a flexicon: new whip, new bitch, we’re stylin’ in that Gucci and that Louis, the homies jockin’ me cus I’m winning. Because hip-hop culture more broadly sells a dream, the colloquialisms of the message are able to advertise physical items without alienating listeners, or engendering a sense of paranoia like in Josie and the Pussycats. Rap lyrics are able to serve the roles of both advertisement and anthem for the oppressed because their inherent value as a commodity is a fetishized idea of what it means to be authentic, to struggle for your paper and become a Louis Vuitton don. Though the aims of conscious rap (the domain of Talib Kweli or Blackalicious, for example) are different in that the subgenre abhors flex culture, I’ll return to KRS-One: “Rap is something you do, hip-hop is what you live.” And it’s true; the luxury name drops aren’t so much as messages with the intention to get people to buy as much as they are examples of the feeling of buying into a hip-hop lifestyle. The statement is universally true even in the flexicon of luxury because rap is the language of hip-hop, whose messages promote the innate value of an authentic hip-hop life.

When I first felt the realities of racism as a youth, my mom would tell me everyone wants to be Black, they just can’t admit it to themselves. Hip-hop—as a movement, a lifestyle, and an art form—is able to be commercially successful due its multitudinous cultural value. Marketing bigwigs and record label executives and cultural studies professors scratch holes through their heads trying to identify that value, looking to advertisements and song lyrics to try and understand. Hip-hop does move in the complex ways these professionals might be able to identify, but ultimately hip-hop can’t be the commodity they fetishize. Unlike a product it does have an intrinsic value: that of Blackness. Hip-hop and rap and all of its subgenres are America’s biggest contemporary cultural phenomenon because the dream they’re selling is the secret desire to be Black, the desire to say “nigger” aloud in a classroom full of 17-year-olds. It’s not that hip-hop signals a new era where the visibility of a Black art form signifies a positive shift away from buy-buy-buy, as Eisenberg writes: “The point isn’t that we are no longer conspicuous consumers, it’s just that the culture has shuffled who we choose to emulate and what we conspicuously consume.” But I don’t think the choices Eisenberg writes about are ones we’re aware of—that’s what earns a phenomenon like hip-hop its title, it spreads so fast that no one knows why, and they can only speculate as to how it was able to do so. I can provide infinite close readings on the hip-hop I grew up on, the mixtapes my mom would play in the car, the first cuss words I said in song. The conspicuous consumption of Black art and aesthetics is the phenotype of a new mutation within culture’s DNA. Its genotype is a perceived fluency in Blackness by way of its attributes in hip-hop. It’s a false “access granted” key that is now seen as the pinnacle of value.

In “Gorgeous,” Ye asked “Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?” And it’s a good question. Has hip-hop become the new universal language of shopping and storytelling, is hip-hop the new Bible for writers who aspire to be great? I don’t feel like I want to answer that question. But Jesus was Black.