If I’m Not a Hustler, What You Call That?

When I was in high school, I took the SAT, did well–and my mom made me get a private tutor to raise my score a few hundred points. Not only did I not want to go–because my time was precious, because the desired score was only incrementally higher than the one I’d already received–but also because my burgeoning social consciousness told me (and told Mom) that This Is Not Fair. That is, using my family’s economic standing to artificially raise my SAT score was unjust viz. all the people who did not have the social and economic resources to do so. Her response?

“Tessa, it’s a game. Play the game.”

Yep, that’s my Machiavellian Mama.

But it turns out, hustlin’ is a generational skill. Sure, Nielson has decided we 18-to-34-year-olds are Generation C (that is, Generation Connected), but it’s been clear to me for a while now that we’re the HipHop Generation. We share hiphop’s values: connectivity, yes, but also community, intertextuality, multiculturalism, diversity, revolution, empathy, storytelling, political engagement, art, self-expression, global awareness and local impact.

In his book Decoded (2011), Jay-Z (and dream hampton) declare that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for human struggles: the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18). To Jay-Z, “the story of the hustler” is rap’s central tale, the hustler its archetypal hero (10). But when my students and I discussed an excerpt from the beginning of Decoded, I realized how central the hustle is to our generational experience writ large. We hustle to get into a good college, to get good grades, to get into that organization we have our eyes on, to maintain social position, to get a job, pay rent, secure health insurance, please our parents, make something of ourselves. As Jay would say, “If I’m not a hustler what you call that?” (10).

Two recent articles in GOOD bring a similar message home. Mychal Denzel Smith writes about “How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers.” This article is too specific for my taste, not least because I’m excluded from its demographics. Smith argues that Jay-Z has become the wise uncle figure for “millenial black males,” articulating a radical new politics where “wealth is revolutionary.” Jay-Z is “representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat by standing next to Warren Buffet on the cover of Forbes.” I’d argue that the revolutionary power of wealth here isn’t limited to young black men, but to all millenials out there hustling. This is a world where autonomy is dependent on self-sufficiency.

More compelling, though, is Smith’s “What Generation Overshare Can Learn from Biggie.” In this piece, Smith takes Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” seriously, zoning in on the first two which both tout the value of silence. Though this article’s central drive is about the strategy of not sharing–not “livetweeting the interview process,” for example–Smith makes claims about “Generation Overshare” in the process of developing his argument.

I’m part of that generation known as Millennials, and even if we don’t know whether social security will be around when we retire, or if we’ll be able to retire, or if we’ll even have jobs to consider retiring, we know this: We are hustlers. We’re gangsta. We pimp. We grind.

Most of us don’t do any of these things in the literal sense, but my generation has come of age listening to the sounds of hip hop, and we’ve borrowed the language of illegal hustlers to describe our legal hustles. It feels only natural we should also adopt aspects of their code of conduct and apply them to our quest for survival and world domination.

Back to Biggie and the “Ten Crack Commandments”: It’s no accident that the first two commandments have to do with learning to keep quiet. “Rule nombre uno, never let no one know, how much dough you hold” and “Number two: never let ‘em know your next move, don’t you know Bad Boys move in silence and violence.” Any hustler worth his weight knows that he should draw as little attention to himself as possible….

And imagine negotiating a deal that would expand your territory or triple your income, bragging about it to everyone you know before it goes through, and finding yourself filing fingerprints and a mugshot because word got around and reached the wrong snitch. Silence is a valuable asset. (Smith, “What Generation Overshare Can Learn From Biggie”)

I like this article because it takes the implications of Jay-Z’s metaphor seriously: if we’re all hustlers, we can learn from the hustlers, like Biggie, who have gone before. And sure, this is another answer to the perennial question of why White kids love hiphop: ’cause if I’m not a hustler, what you call that?

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