Work is always secondary in the aesthetics of hip hop. It is strictly a means to an end. It is the hustle that allows the lifestyle, which is always what matters, for it is the lifestyle that allows the artists to be able to describe how far they have removed themselves from the marginality and disempowerment facing many members of the communities from which they emerged. Besides the hustle, traditional forms of work are generally ignored by hip hop. The elevation of informal routes to financial success represented by the hustle and embodied in such figures as the gangster, the pimp, the drug runner, the baller, and the rapper himself or herself represents the lack of faith of communities of color in general and African-American communities in particular toward achieving success through conventional avenues. The persistently pervasive forms of racism facing workers of color throughout all levels of contemporary society suggest that this lack of faith is well-justified. Nevertheless, hip hop also often mentions, if only in passing, the hard work of parents and the struggle of relatives barely keeping their heads above water through constant labor. It is not often, however, that work is the central object of representation in hip hop.
In its insistence on work against ballerness, Kat Dahlia’s “Gangsta” is quite unlike most commercial hip hop. Against conspicuous consumption and empty posturing, she poses the struggles and sacrifice of everyday life. Mom, dad, grandparents, and siblings are all shown to be managing in their own ways with obstacles placed before them. In its evocation of an entire family confronting the reality of scarcity “Gangsta” reminds me of Phillip Levine’s great poem “What Work Is.” In that text, the poem’s protagonist imagines he sees his brother ahead of him in a line of people hoping to find work for the day. But even while the person turns out not to be his brother, the narrator is overwhelmed by the love for his brother and his stubborn ability to work. Thus he metonymically affirms his love for all the other workers standing in line with him—theirs is a brotherhood based in their shared knowledge of what work is. The protagonist of “Gangsta” also knows what work is: “I’m paying for this session/And I’m paying for rent, food, clothes, phone, Christmas presents/6 shots in and I’m just counting all my blessings/No days off baby I’m not resting.” There is a value to work here, and hip hop is divested in this song of all flashiness and is rendered as a kind of labor that makes possible a better life for the performer and her family. Hip hop matters only in so far as it is work.
Hip hop as a calling. Weber argues that the Protestant idea of a spiritual calling was what made possible the modern notion of work as something which could be spiritually fulfilling instead of something that one is simply compelled to do in order to eat. He argues that capitalism initially penetrated everyday life in the transatlantic Protestant homelands of modernity because it was there that people first considered the banal idea of laboring in order to make money as something that could be seen as demonstrating one’s closeness to god, that economic stability was a sign of one’s good standing in the eyes of god. Work came to be seen as something good instead of something that simply was. What emerged as way for relating this crass world of ours with the other, better world of salvation became in time an asphyxiating limit on imagining human flourishing. The case isn’t that work couldn’t be for some people a satisfying thing but that labor often becomes in modern capitalist society something that eats up people’s lives, particularly poor people’s lives since they are unable to save for vacations or to take time away from work or to take early retirement and thus not have to work constantly. This is an aspect that cultural objects like “Gangsta” and “What Work Is” touch on obliquely but don’t quite come to terms with: work maybe a worthwhile thing in and of itself but it can also so consume people’s time that they are not able to live proper lives outside of it, and again this is particularly acute for poor people. Work can perhaps be meaningful for poor people but the one thing that it cannot guarantee and which could be potentially even more beneficial spiritually to poor people is freedom from work.