There is opportunity within black communities. The untapped economic and intellectual capacity of black communities is mind-numbing. Mainstream solutions that promote community economic stability often result in more nail shops, hair shops and liquor stores emerging in our community or a chain store, whose owners are not local. There is nothing wrong with any of these fine establishments.
The only issue is one that has been discussed before. Generally, these stores are not owned by African Americans or local residents. Retail is only one aspect of building economic capacity. Black communities cannot build wealth by being everyone else’s customer or patient. We must explore production and distribution in order to create wealth and economic stability in communities of color. If the cornerstone of personal wealth accumulation is home ownership, then the cornerstone of community economic stability is community business ownership.
The fourth Kwanzaa principle, Ujamaa, honors the value of cooperative economics. The definition of cooperative economics is “local people cooperating with each other to provide for the essentials of living.” The essentials of living include food, clothes, housing, education, and entertainment.
An interesting place to explore the principle of Ujamaa can be found within the hip-hop music industry.
Lately, icons of the hip-hop generation are also being used to market mainstream products. This is not necessarily a new trend. Yet it goes beyond Kanye West being a spokesperson for Pepsi or Queen Latifah and her mom and Destiny’s Child and their families being featured in prime time ads for Wal-Mart. We have always known that African-American culture provides the backdrop for everyone else in the dominant culture to do their thing, but something else is happening here.
I have been quite critical of the hip-hop culture. Images of predatory sexuality are disturbing. It seems that so much of what is honored in the music videos and song lyrics are images of hyper-consumption, fast money, guns and drug dealing. Real life stories of the artists or made-up marketing gimmicks designed to sell more records, these images are detrimental to the collective psyche of our community. Children are particularly susceptible. The objectification of women is never a good thing, no matter whether the lyric or images come from a male or a female artist.
While these things seem to be characteristic of the marketing of hip-hop, this imagery is used to sell almost every product. We are sold things based on a couple of feelings: fear, greed and my favorite: aging. There is tremendous pressure to stay young?”not healthy, just young. However, fear and greed, are the core of messages that hold the “isms” of our society firmly in place, against the backdrop of hip-hop music.
It is well known that artists have sometimes been cheated?”Little Richard comes to mind. Many blues artists were never properly compensated for music recorded by singers such as Elvis Presley. Even though their songs made Presley an international icon, he too, died broke.
White men mostly owned the most powerful music companies until Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, started his ascent to the highest rungs of the music industry.
In one way, those who are involved in the business end of hip-hop seem to be following in Gordy’s footsteps but with added elements. These present-day entrepreneurs are not just artists, they are part owners of the labels and they produce and create distribution deals that help them build and accumulate wealth. These folks are into diversification.
This genre of the music industry has given rise to a number of entrepreneurs who are making small fortunes. Obviously, the music industry is a vehicle bringing messages to those who are interested in buying a piece of the hip-hop image. However, the message of hip-hop goes beyond the lyrics and images painted by the artists. It extends to the way we should think about doing business in and with our community.
The real story is who these artists are and their ability to build viable, successful businesses with friends and family as supporters. The careers of Russell Simmons and Jay-Z illustrate this point.
Each has started a small business that now includes recording labels, soft drink products, and clothing lines.
Russell Simmons was president of Def Jam, perhaps the most well known if not most successful hip-hop label. Simmons is currently president of Rush communications. At one point, Rush included the recording label Def Jam, a management company (Rush Artist Management), a clothier (Phat Farm), a movie production house (Def Pictures), television shows (“Def Comedy Jam” and “Russell Simmons’ Oneworld Music Beat”), a magazine (Oneworld) and an advertising agency (Rush Media Co.) Simmons has sold off his interest in many of his companies for an estimated $400 million. It is said that Simmons is more successful than Barry Gordy was during his tenure in the music industry.
Simmons is also credited with creating the plan for business diversification that all hip?”hop moguls have tried to emulate. None have followed in Simmons’ footsteps better than Jay-Z. Roc-A-Fella Records is one of the largest U.S. hip hop/rap record labels; co-founded by Damon Dash, Kareem, and Shawn Carter, who is known as Jay-Z. The group could not secure a record deal for Jay-Z and began Roc-A-Fella out of frustration. The group began pressing records, selling them out of their trunks and requesting time on local radio. From that, Roc?”A-Fella branched into other ventures, which included Rocawear clothing company; Roc4Kids, a community outreach program; and other ventures which include producing movies. Earlier this year, Jay-Z was named president and CEO of Def Jam Records and retained control of Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z is one of the few African-American record label executives.
Ujamaa speaks to the ability to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
A deeper exploration of Ujamaa teaches that within our immediate network of family and friends, someone has the ability to create businesses that will comfort, feed, clothe, entertain and house millions.