“In the early 1940’s, Detroit was at its industrial zenith, leading the nation in an economic escape from the Great Depression. Between 1940 and 1947 manufacturing employment in Detroit increased by 40 percent, a rate surpassed only by Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.” [i]
Inherent in Detroit’s zenith were forewarnings of its decline. Positioned as one of several U.S. magnets, Detroit drew in hundreds of thousands of desperate workers from disparate regions of the country. It was a terminus for black migrants fleeing the Jim Crow South, as well as European immigrants new to America. The catalyst: the American Dream. People were in march with the expectation the country would fulfill the promise engrained in its founding documents. No doubt, it would come about. Yet, challenges to Detroit’s zenith were already in ascension. And two of its competing cities—Los Angeles and San Francisco—were located in the state which would become the nation’s most populous, attracting millions of migrants and immigrants in its own right.
“In the U.S., there are at least two dominant musical manifestations of hip-hop culture: one (tributary-like) characterized by staying independent, sticking to old-school hip-hop ideals, ‘keeping it real’, the other (river-like) characterized by ‘ghetto fabulous’ aesthetics and a bling-bling attitude.”[ii]
Gucci Mane opens the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards in fur coat and jeans. Shirtless, multiple diamond chains serve as his mantle. Recently released from jail, he is ready to perform capitalism. “In bling-bling (culture) one can find a way to perform capitalism…(a) trope of reappropriation.”[iii] His rap lyrics swerve around the themes of drug sales and his own vulnerability as an object of violent pursuit on the streets. Gucci removes his coat as rapper Travis Scott joins him on stage. Now Gucci is in boxing mode. He moves his arms and head as if in a boxing ring, battling. Contrasting with Gucci’s opulence, Travis shields himself in padded bomber jacket and jeans, as he raps about sexual prowess and drug use. Himself creative director of this performance, Scott alternates between pointing at the audience and curling his free hand towards his waist, usually not quite touching it. As the song segues into the lyrics of “Pick Up the Phone,” Gucci exits the stage and Young Thug, aka TG, aka Thugger, aka Jefferey, surges forth from a phone booth on stage holding his microphone in one hand and using the other to seemingly push back the encroachment of his own idiolect. Thugger’s lyrics then race ahead of him so much so that he appears to be pursuing them on stage as he rhythmically paces forward while alternately retreating, still, of course, clutching his mic. He’s amped. Finally, using humming as a signal of intrusion, Quavo, possessor of one of the most discernible voices in contemporary male rap, enters through an aisle amongst the audience, accompanied by a convoy of females. Minutes after his joining the artists on stage, the three men close the song.
“Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors had their headquarters in the Detroit area.”[iv]
The Big Three corporations, after enlisting American workers, engaged to satisfy the desire of the American populous. As a society, we crave more. We yearn to be more mobile. We covet the newest model. Yet linked with the growth of the automobile industry was the war economy of 1939-1945. World War II commanded that auto plants convert to the production of military planes, tanks, and vehicles. As huge numbers of soldiers went off to war, there were more jobs for additional workers, black migrants, even women. The corporations profited from the war, as did we. The war economy was lucrative for the country. Yet it doesn’t end here. Corporations aren’t easily satiated and will seek more profit. Advances for CEO’s, increases for executives, dividends for shareholders. As such, big business will be antithetical to unions that try to organize workers for a dignified wage and working conditions befitting the workers’ true worth. As agents of capitalism, corporations will utilize the tools of racism, sexism, and xenophobia to atomize workers who are both means and menace. Dialectics. Inherent in the growth, is the portent of the decline.
“For large numbers of African-Americans, the promise of steady, secure, and relatively well-paid employment in the North proved illusory.”[v]
Escaping from the Jim Crow South, the expectation is for an improved life liberated from the social limitations of segregation and the historical legacy of slavery. Yet black migration is often a catalyst for white flight. White flight to the suburbs. White flight into whiteness as European ethnics hasten to discard their ethnic markers and join the “white race” of the United States. White flight in Detroit’s employment agencies that were classified in the yellow pages as “Colored” and “White.”[vi] White flight in the advertisements for employment that until 1955 “regularly specified racial preferences in job listings.” [vii] White flight into the better auto factory jobs leaving blacks male employees in the most subordinate and the most hazardous positions which would eventually shorten a worker’s life, such as that of paint room operator. [viii] White flight as some of the penny-pinching auto plants abandon Detroit and relocate to the off-limits, Jim-Crow South seeking cheaper labor. [ix] White flight in some unions purporting to represent all members of the working class, but at times complying with management’s deployment of the tool of discrimination. [x] White flight into separate neighborhoods that have “rates of segregation barely changed between the 1940’s and the present.”[xi] White flight that would result in 1980’s Detroit having “eighty-six municipalities, forty-five townships, and eighty-nine school districts.” [xii]
“I KNOW ALL MY WHIPS ARE FOREIGN…” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid,” rec. 2015)
Little wonder the lack of brand loyalty. For some, the desire for a whip, or car, shifts from the American ideal to the foreign. The Big Three did not envisage our growing inclination, as consumers, for less grandiose and more efficient cars. That preference would be fulfilled by economical Japanese imports. And for the upper class, the European import became a public badge of one’s ranking.
“I KNOW ALL YOUR BITCHES BORIN’” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid”)
The use of the profane term “bitch” can undoubtedly cause wincing in a room. Sweaty hands will clutch. In academia. At the corporate news headquarters often owned by the same companies that sell rap music with profane lyrics. Parents who span a wide cultural array and are members of varied social classes. Parents who are determined to do the best for their kids, shudder. The profane word “bitch” and how it divulges the speaker’s perception of women and affects the female’s perception of herself within the speaker’s gaze.
In my workaday environment, the public secondary school, being the recipient of this profanity is not unfamiliar territory. A few elementary teachers may have also been branded with the term. It isn’t the student with which one has a good rapport but who suddenly has a bad day that decides to call the teacher “bitch.” If the teacher is fair, professional, and consistently delivering instruction, the profane epithet will most likely be delivered by a student who did not like the teacher from day one. The friction and defiance were already present and remained a constant. Perhaps because the student, given his or her own background, had trouble with authority. And in a moment of being disciplined, the teen will mutter or exclaim outright, “bitch.” The goal being to chip away at the teacher’s power, relegate her to a lowly position as a woman, and heap on humiliation. Contrastingly, in heated moments of confrontation, are my male colleagues down the hall branded “bastard”? Seared with an f-bomb? Probably neither. “Bitch-ass” is more than sufficient since it achieves the aforementioned humiliation while also emasculating the male working in a predominately-female field.
“A masculinist discursive strand is clearly identifiable in both rap music and its parent culture, Hip Hop…Both women and men have participated in Hip Hop culture and rap music in ways that have been both oppressive and liberatory for women.”[xiii]
In his song, “Pull Up on a Kid,” Young Thug raps about a particular type of “bitch.” “Ooh she bad, damn she bad, yeah, she bad, yeah.” A bad bitch who is able to fulfill the sexual appetite of the man who, in this song, will probably not be faithful given his desire to “wet” not just one female, but also “yours.” Although almost virginal and/or impeccably dressed (“Fresh as a peppermint”), she is not adverse to a sexual threesome. This woman knows how to hang with a man with major money. She is travelled, having formerly lived in Miami. She is able to easily cross class and cultural lines having hung out with Haitian zoes, or street gangs.
“Hip hop, including rap music, is a complex and contradictory arena in which regressive and oppressive elements sometimes complicate and at times even undermine what fundamentally remains an oppositional and potentially liberatory project.” [xiv]
Potentially. Yet late capitalism is sloppy. Sloppy indeed.
And African-Americans are a complex people.
“Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.”[xv]
“Black women gained the least…”[xvi]
The Black women of Detroit’s manufacturing zenith had no crystal stair. A meagre 20% of them were able to acquire factory jobs in the auto plants by 1950 [xvii] where all females had to labor to climb a seniority list separate from that of males. Many worked for white families as domestics – an occupation they would soon weary of. It was their own bodies’ ability at reproduction that would open up more avenues for work in the black schools of Detroit where black female teachers would serve as a rung for the rest of the family to climb the ladder towards the coveted middle class. As the barriers of discrimination came down, more job opportunities would open up for black females in city work. [xviii]
“BALMAIN JEANS, EXTENDED TEE, THAT MY SWAG, YEAH” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid”)
The love of the foreign, whether it be the car, the woman, or French, Balmain jeans. What should we expect in a global economy? Germany and Japan now rival the U.S. in auto manufacturing. When we casually shop at the local store, we not only select from American-made goods. We are consumers in a global market in which “American” companies have moved across the border and overseas for bargain-priced labor. The corporations pay a pittance to workers as the profits of execs and shareholders balloon. At the expense of American workers hoping for secure lives for their children. To the detriment of middle class America budgeting like the working class. To the deprivation of impoverished blacks, people of color, immigrants who have not yet disappeared into the vast anonymity of whiteness and its social advantages. Glance at the tags, the label, the VIN number. More than likely, made somewhere other than America. Swag is foreign.
“Rap lyrics may or may not contain an overt critique of capitalism, but they are generally supported by a communal value system where linkages between people are held together by loyalty and blood.” [xix]
So much so that Young Thug warns, “Playing with my slimes, you won’t make it out the exit.” In Thugger’s idioglossia his slimes are his confidants, his homies.
“In expressing the collective dream of becoming something else – of taking flight – the statement becomes inseparable from the collectivity and the community.” [xx]
Capitalism will link us together just as potently as it rips us apart. If we survive the inherent violence of the plunder, we may be forcibly marched off land that our ancestors down the ages and through folklore vowed was ours. We may be overpowered, shipped off to new lands, and auctioned off as chattel. We ourselves may relinquish family ties in a particular region to migrate into a distance where there is the promise of work, higher pay, improved living conditions, a new life. We leave our country and cross borders in search of a material dream. We abandon the familiar, the bloodlines of generations. We relinquish the customary and are forced to become accustomed to new regions. We learn new countries, cities, languages, rules on the job. In an effort to combat the ravages of capitalism and to resist its ripping us apart, we form alliances in social movements, unions, politics. Inherent in the new fusion is capitalism’s desire to tear us apart. By social class, by gender, by race. The psychological, social, and cultural tolls on us can be terrifying, and for some, insurmountable.
“In the case of Hip Hop, ‘the street’ is a site where the sensibilities of black lower class people prevail.” [xxi]
Class stratification within the black community is a reality. In the geographic regions of the urban North, Midwest, and West where blacks migrated in search of nebulous dreams, not all, in many cases few, made it up the rungs to a coveted, continuous middle class life that promised to be easier with employment steadier. The deterrents to black progress were not only economic because racial barriers had also been set up. Blacks carried the double burden of having started far behind whites in the country and whites new to the country who capitalized on their whiteness. As the U.S. deindustrialized, automated, and outsourced “a seemingly, permanent class of underemployed and jobless blacks had emerged” [xxii] who were often told they were to blame for their society’s shortcomings. [xxiii]
“The process of deindustrialization – the closing, downsizing, and relocation of plants and sometimes whole industries – accelerated throughout the twentieth century.”[xxiv]
“Employers left industrial centers with high labor costs for regions where they could exploit cheap, nonunion labor.”[xxv]
“ALL MY WHIPS ARE FOREIGN…” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid”)
The dialectics of rap music: “the marginalized celebrating that which marginalizes.”[xxvi]
As some of Detroit’s automakers relocated to the South in search of cut-rate labor, others eventually spread production to myriad regions of the globe where workers would manufacture parts of the automobile and then ship those parts back to the U.S. for assembly and the sticker “Made in America.” The automation of U.S. plants meant many workers lost their jobs and were being displaced further and further away from the American Dream of an irrevocably secure life. For frugal middle and working class U.S. consumers, the Japanese car became an economical alternative to the large gas-guzzling American models. For the wealthy elite, German engineering supplied luxurious, high-end autos.
How do members of the black working class survive? Education. Hard work. Follow the rules. Some will defeat the barriers of sky-rocketing tuition, racism, family conflict, and personal predicaments and make it into the coveted middle class. Those who don’t will find that minimum wage, low-skilled service jobs are no entry into a gratifying and secure livelihood. A fraction may be tempted to “pull up on the mail truck” (“Pull Up on a Kid”) and possibly risk the consequences of a federal heist, not unlike the federal heist of multinational corporations currently not paying U.S. taxes. Or, for those with lyrical skills, there is the music industry, specifically hip hop and rap, where one can engage in the dialectics of being able to “perform capitalism,” voice its dreams, shortcomings, and how it functions, all the while “retaining specific cultural markers.”[xxvii] In other words, performing capitalism while staying black.
[i] Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 19
[ii] Alf Rehn & David Skold, “All About the Benjamins—Hardcore Rap, Conscious Consumption and the Place of Bragging in Economic Language,” “Culture and Organization, April 2005, http: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228623915
[iii] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”
[iv] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 16
[v] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 8
[vi] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 95
[vii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 94
[viii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 99
[ix] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 262
[x] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 11
[xi] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 8
[xii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 266
[xiii] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephens, “Oppositional Consciousness Within an Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop, 1976-2004,” The Journal of African American History, Vol. 90, No. 3, The History of Hip Hop (Summer, 2005, pp. 253-277, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20064000
[xiv] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephen, “Oppositional Consciousness Within an Oppositional Realm,” 254
[xv] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 146
[xvi] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 28
[xvii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 28
[xviii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 111
[xix] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephen, “Oppositional Consciousness Within an Oppositional Realm, 260
[xx] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”
[xxi] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephen, “Oppositional Consciousness Within and Oppositional Realm, 259
[xxii] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 144
[xxiii] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 156
[xxiv] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 127
[xxv] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” 138
[xxvi] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”
[xxvii] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”
3 thoughts on “Foreign Whips and Detroit’s Decline”
Fun to see an old piece I co-wrote with my then PhD-student so gracefully cited! 😄
Excuse me for not seeing this sooner. Thanks for the praise and your research! Best regards.