Video Games, Hip-Hop and the “Ironies of Capitalism”
November 30th, 2010
This paper explores the landscape of hip-hop in connection to video games, a multilayered site, affected by several interconnected factors such as the closing of potential avenues of economic success for black male youth, the commodification of hip-hop and youth culture and the misogyny of modern hip-hop. Though I will discuss hip-hop more broadly, I will mostly focus on a contemporary figure: Internet sensation turned rap star, Soulja Boy. My paper will show that through interaction with video games, black male hip-hop artists engage in a complicated relationship with the media-centered economy—reproducing the commodification of black youth and the misogyny of these industries, while also refuting the perception of illiterate black males by producing and controlling technological output.
In 1994 Biggie Smalls rapped, “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis. When I was dead broke, man, I couldn’t picture this.” For Biggie, video games served as a marker of financial triumph in his hip-hop career. Since then, gaming has become even more intimately tied to hip-hop culture as a signifier of economic success. Biggie is only one of the many hip-hop artists that speak about gaming in their music, including Ludacris and Busta Rhymes (“Y’all see how I’m fucking this motherfucking video game up, just like I be fucking this rap game up, fucking the streets up”). Other connections between hip-hop and video games include Def Jam Records’ 2003 game Def Jam Vendetta, a hip-hop wrestling game, and 50 Cent’s two games where he voices the title character, fighting against hit men that try to kill him, featuring Dr. Dre, Eminem and other hip-hop figures. In these examples, video games, like expensive jewelry, cars and alcohol, serve as markers of financial success. But this kind of success in hip-hop comes with many negative associations—the idea that hip-hop is an anti-intellectual and ultra-commodified industry (McWhorter, 2003; Sawyer, 2008).
My paper seeks to explore how young black men in hip-hop engage and interpret their experience as participants in the gaming sphere, dealing with the “ironies of capitalism” (Watkins, 1998, p. 50). I will first deal with the positive currents of this sphere through an exploration of the work of RZA, Hip-Hop Gamer and the sampling community. The engagement with video games encourages technoliteracy which in turn enhances opportunities for black cultural expressivity in the hip-hop world. Then, I will deal with the negative side of this relationship—the misogyny perpetuated by both the hip-hop and gaming worlds, and the commodification of young black male bodies and their cultural products. Lastly, I will focus on a contemporary figure in hip-hop, Soulja Boy, to analyze how he inhabits these ironies. My main source of data will be rap artist Soulja Boy’s prolific YouTube personal video output, which I will analyze to explore the ironies embedded in the work of contemporary young black male rappers. Soulja Boy’s work will show that, through interaction with video games, black male hip-hop artists engage in a complicated relationship with the media-centered economy—both reproducing misogyny and the commodification of black creative output and refuting the perception of illiterate black males by creating and controlling technological products and self-reproducing their image through digital media.
The arenas in which hip-hop music and video games are created, disseminated and received by the young black male community overlap at several points. Both the hip-hop and the gaming industries contain the closing of potential avenues of economic success for young black males, the commodification of youth culture, misogyny, racism and commercialization. Robin D.G. Kelley (1997) explains in Yo Mama’s disfunktional!, that, for urban youths:
“Capitalism has become both their greatest friend and greatest foe. It has the capacity to create spaces for their entrepreneurial imaginations and their ‘symbolic work,’ to allow them to turn something of a profit, and to permit them to hone their skills and imagine getting paid. At the same time, it is also responsible for a shrinking labor market, the militarization of urban space, and the circulation of the very representations of race that generate terror in all of us at the sight of young black men and yet compels most of America to want to wear their shoes” (p. 77).
Kelley describes what Craig S. Watkins (1998) calls the “ironies of capitalism”—the currents that affect and transform the “social landscapes, everyday experiences and cultural productions of black youth” (p. 643). Black youths’ cultural production can function as a site of agency, struggle and social critique while simultaneously reinforcing the capitalist, racist patriarchy. The “ironies of capitalism” reflect a state of constant negotiation in a Gramscian hegemony. My goal is to explore how video games affect the complex social forces that converge on black cultural production in hip-hop.
Technoliteracy and Cultural Expression
At their worst, video games are the quintessential manifestation of the Debordian “society of the spectacle” (Debord, 1983, 7). But though they can be seen as hegemonic distractions, video games also provide an accessible and entertaining link to media technology. For participants in the increasingly global and media-centered economy, economic success means focusing their energies on enhancing technological skills and global reach through interaction with new media forms. The cultivation of technological skills through gaming allows young black men to participate in a capitalist economy as consumers and producers. My paper will look at video games as a popular avenue for the potential acquisition of technoliteracy, debunking the presumed anti-intellectualism of the hip-hop industry. This technoliteracy learned through video games opens a site for creating and negotiating contemporary black cultural production.
Black interaction with technology is limited by global inequalities and the digital divide: “Claims of black technophobia, when framed as a cultural phenomenon, extensions of say, black anti-intellectualism, tend to elide the structural conditions of access, political economy and history that structure how, where and when particular technologies are employed or desired” (Hanson, 2006, p. 8). But these conditions do not mean black people are closed off from technoliteracy. In the US especially, video games have become an accessible way to interact with technology. This is not to say that video games are the only avenue to technoliteracy, but that their popularity and wide commercialization creates a broad market open to groups generally ignored by technological industries. Video games are also fun, they are “play,” not work, and can be marketed as a distraction. In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga (1949) describes the characteristics of play. First and foremost, it is a free activity, not an obligation. Second, though it exists outside “ordinary” life, play has a necessary complementary function, “it adorns life, amplifies it, and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual—as a life force—and for society by reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, its expressive value, its spiritual and social associations, in short, as a culture function” (p. 8-10). These characteristics show that play, though it may seem unserious, is actually the utmost cultural complement to “regular” life, able to express a deeper meaning in a more detached manner. Huizinga also identifies play as outside of material interests. The fact that video games are intimately tied to a capitalist industry that seeks profit defies this last characteristic; however, this only serves to emphasize the ironies inherent in the cultural ‘play’ of video games.
The work of RZA, charismatic leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, self-proclaimed nerd and “addicted video game head” reflects this technoliterate black cultural production through video games, even within a capitalist mode. He notes in a recent interview with True/Slant on the release of his new book, The Tao of Wu: “I think me being a geek helped hip hop grow, know what I mean? Because it’s that part of me that keeps looking for creativity, keeps buying all the software, keeps being engulfed into the culture” (Sellers, 2009). His gaming is deeply intertwined with hip-hop, both as expressions of a youth culture—he remembers, “I’ve been playing video games since Atari 2600, in fact, since Coleco Vision, in fact, since Pong,” crafting his “geek” identity (Sellers, 2009). Video and arcade games engaged RZA with technological skills that he later applied to his successful music career.
The story of RZA’s alter ego, Bobby Digital, highlights his connection to gaming and general geek culture. Bobby Digital’s character expresses RZA’s personal life story through the lens of his technofetish. Bobby Digital begins as a regular man who synthesizes a substance called “honey serum” that, when smoked, allows him to travel through digital signals. Bobby notices “that there’s a digital revolution going on in the world around but the ghetto’s stuck in analog” (RZA, 2005, p. 90). To solve this, Bobby Digital “puts a signal into a bullet. Instead of shooting you and killing you, this bullet awakens you. It digitizes you” (RZA, 2005, p. 90). Bobby Digital, RZA explains, is about “what molded me: comic books, video games, the arcade scene, breakdancing, hip-hop clothes, MC-ing, DJ-ing, human beatboxing, graffiti plus Mathematics and the Gods. That’s hip-hop to me” (p. 90). In his list, the barrier between hip-hop and technology breaks down—every aspect is hip-hop. Bobby Digital is a hip-hop gamer—an ultra technoliterate savior of the black community. The figure of Bobby Digital shows that RZA places importance on technological knowledge as a way to awaken ghetto “analog” consciousness. But his interpretation is not purely “geeky,” the epitome of white technophilia. Instead, he connects it to his personal experience and to the situation of the black community. Through his interaction with video games and “geek” culture, RZA’s technoliteracy allows him to place the dislocated virtual in a specific racial space.
Sampling is a black cultural practice which has recently begun to coincide with the world of gaming. Brooklyn rap duo Smif’n'Wessun (Cocoa Brovaz) released an underground single in 1999 titled “Super Brooklyn,” which sampled Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros theme music. The single reignited the band and got them a record deal with Rawkus Records. Their work popularized video game sampling through underground mixtape distribution. In 2005, Compromise released the Chrono Trigger mixtape, a mash-up of popular rap songs a cappella laid over original Chrono Trigger game music. Initially released as a joke, the mixtape became highly sought after by the video game arrangement community. The use of game sampling has moved into the mainstream with songs like Busta Rhyme’s “The Game Room.” Tricia Rose (1994) describes the critical frame of hip-hop as “the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding ties of black cultural expressivity,” where sampling is a transformation of “stray technological parts intended for cultural and industrial trash heaps into sources of pleasure and power” (21-22). Video game sampling emerges from this critical frame, expressive of the tension between technocapitalist oppression and the ties of black cultural expressivity through contemporary media. But though video game music isn’t considered technological “trash,” the sampling of these parts is also an appropriation and re-imagining of the video game mythos as an integral part of the young black male experience. Young black men combine their technoliteracy of both sampling technology and video games to create a unique black cultural expression.
HipHopGamer, the widely popular presenter of the Hip Hop Gamer Show who also works for Def Jam, provides another example of the relationship of video games to black cultural expression. He began his show to provide commentary and analysis of video games outside the mainstream: “I knew I didn’t want to be like everybody else and I knew the industry wasn’t used to a black face representing it” (TheHipHopGamerShow, 2009). HipHopGamer’s separation from the video game industry allows him to be himself—”What makes me different [from other gaming journalists] is that I keep it real” (TheHipHopGamerShow, 2009). He places himself in opposition to the anonymous corporate image of white, college-educated journalists in blogs like Kotaku and IGN. HipHopGamer and his life story, a young black gamer (“You see my skin?”) from East New York, constitutes “a brand” that everyone recognizes. In his interview, HipHopGamer also describes his relationship with several gaming companies who often fly him out to test games and ask for his opinions. HipHopGamer poses himself as a sort of translator-messenger between the gaming companies and the black communities they don’t know how to serve (“I got the whole hip hop following as well”). He fills a marketing niche that the gaming industry does not target; and a commentary niche that mainstream blogs do not address. His knowledge of gaming adds value to his cultural production, as he becomes a unique provider of this knowledge in the industry. Similar to RZA and to sampling artists, HipHopGamer has negotiated his position in the capitalist hip-hop industry with a technoliteracy learned through gaming.
Commercialization and Misogyny
“Tell me, don’t you think it’s a shame
when someone can put a quarter in a video game
but when a homeless person approach you on the street
you can’t treat ‘em the same”
—Queen Latifah, “The Evil that Men do”
Latifah’s lyrics critique the social site where hip-hop and video games converge, arguing that gaming is “the evil that men do” because it obscures real political issues in the black community in favor of seeking pleasure, funneling money into the capitalist system. This mirrors a common argument in the hip-hop world, one that was underlying Ice-T’s critique of Soulja Boy: “that real hip-hop is openly political about the struggle of black urban life versus the ‘unreal’ images of hyper-consumption among rappers and hip-hop fans who sport extravagant clothing, cars, and jewelry that emulate and suggest wealth levels light years away from nearly all hip hop fans” (Rose, 2008, p. 134). Black cultural production through hip-hop is enmeshed in a cycle of capitalist production, where young black men flaunt and promote consumerism while their bodies, voices and images become themselves commodities, vied for and bought by the music and video game industries.
Participation in the video game industry is also part of a general economic trend of coordinated multimedia marketing (Basu, 2005). The creation of media products serves not only to provide an alternative view on gaming, or for the pleasure of play, but also to create advertising through cross-platform promotional strategies. Soulja Boy’s Braid review received more than a million viewers. This video served to disseminate Soulja Boy’s views, promoting him and his music as commodities, and marketing the game of Braid. This current of consumerism and commodification is reflected in Talib Kweli’s interview with popular gaming website UGO. When asked about his participation in Marck Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, he explained:
“What I do search for is alternative ways to market myself because, you know, I live in New York City, but I’m not your average Hot 97 spun record. If the average kid in the ‘hood is not going to hear my records on hip-hop radio, then I need to find other ways to get the music out there. That’s something that my manager, Corey Smith, has worked hard on doing, ensuring that I always have a presence in the marketplace” (Rosenberg, n.d.).
Kweli’s interview shows that the relationship of video games and hip-hop is often driven by market considerations. The connection with video games was not, as with RZA for example, born from fandom, but from a need to maintain a “presence in the marketplace” (Rosenberg, n.d.). This trend becomes increasingly obvious with 50 Cent’s video games, which have launched his career as a multimedia platform mogul. It is through the “ironies of capitalism” that success in the hip-hop and gaming industries means privileging the marketability of black cultural products and encouraging consumerism.
Latifah’s concern with video game use is also mirrored in feminist critiques of many video games (Rose, 2008; hooks, 1992). For example, in “Gangsta Culture, Sexism, Misogyny: Who Will Take the Rap?” bell hooks argues that black hip-hop artists contribute to the misogyny of capitalist patriarchy; that gangsta rap needs to be seen “as an embodiment of the norm” (hooks, 1994, p. 117) of patriarchal values. Video games in hip-hop also encourage participation in the capitalist industry, by providing another distraction that takes time away from problems in the black community. Moreover, the use of video games occurs in a testosterone-filled environment—games are shared between male friends, often accompanied by gendered trash talk, such as the frequent use of the word “bitch” as a derogatory term for someone who was “owned” (beaten) by another player. Many of the more popular games among gamers like Soulja Boy or HipHopGamer, such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Halo, play out as powerful male groups seeking out and destroying inferior, orientalized and feminized alien races. Moreover, women, and especially women of color, are rarely portrayed in video games. All of these factors contribute to making this landscape unfriendly to female gamers. The videos, games, commentary and machinima that hip-hop gamers create do little to change this atmosphere. Soulja Boy’s videos endlessly repeat homophobic and misogynistic speech. HipHopGamer rarely interviews women on his show. Female gamers are invisible to these men. As Tricia Rose (1992) explains in “Black Texts/Black Contexts” even while understanding new technologies provides new possibilities for black cultural expression, the social site of this creation perpetuates a gender dynamic that privileges men and denies technological access to women. The convergence of the video game and hip-hop worlds, as the case study of Soulja Boy will show, enhances these ironies.
The Thug-Nerd: A Case Study of Soulja Boy
Soulja Boy embodies these “ironies of capitalism”—his career shows the simultaneous currents of young black male cultural expressivity, financial success, media ownership, consumerism and misogyny. Recently, Soulja Boy has come under attack from many legendary hip-hop figures such as Ice-T, who lunged criticism at him for “single-handedly kill[ing] hip-hop” (15walsham15, 2008). But whether Soulja Boy is “keepin’ it real” or not with his message, he has undoubtedly changed the distribution and commercialization of hip-hop music through his engagement with technology. Soulja Boy first released his songs on the music-based social networking community, Soundclick, in 2005. He released an independent album titled Unsigned and Still Major: Da Album before da album, and posted most of the songs to his Myspace profile. This is more akin to the underground mixtape distribution of an older hip-hop generation than to the contemporary artists to which Soulja Boy is often compared. But it was the release of the low-budget video of Soulja Boy and his friends performing the “Crank That” dance that catapulted him into the spotlight, inspiring a slew of copycat performances on Youtube, harnessing his technoliteracy to spread his music and message. His next two albums, studio produced, were titled Souljaboytellem.com and iSouljaboy Tellem.
Clearly Soulja Boy has technological skills that have helped him succeed as a hip-hop artist. What his Youtube video diaries reveal is that his technological prowess is greatly indebted to his engagement with video games. Soulja Boy’s gaming is a critical site of media interaction, appropriation and innovation. His continuing popularity as a YouTube personality is contingent on his gaming—of his many videos, most are about playing or commenting on games. Many of his videos are machinimas where Soulja Boy, along with his friend, Arab, record game footage in the realtime 3D game engine, edit the video through the game’s cinematic view and add humorous audio tracks. The machinima scenes are purely dependent on player creativity—without the audio, most of the scenes would hold no meaning. Soulja Boy’s machinimas are not just gameplay footage; most of them are short, contained stories, usually about tricks gamers play on each other. Machinima’s repurposing of game engines stands in a complex relationship to the game industry, a style of production also subject to “ironies of capitalism”: “these practices remain subordinate elements in a dominant market regime…The games industry often tolerates, and sometimes fosters, this alternative commons economy, but as often criminalizes its many breaches of intellectual property” (Coleman & Whiteford, 2007, 936).
Soulja Boy’s videos receive several thousand (sometimes more than a million) viewers. His recommendations have begun to affect video game sales, to the point that Microsoft (makers of Xbox) sends him preview copies of most games and have considered making a Soulja Boy video game. LikeHipHopGamer, Soulja Boy has “created a whole market for [himself]” (TheHipHopGamerShow, 2009). This is partly because the remuneration for the gaming skills he portrays on Youtube isn’t monetary, but in terms of cultural capital—As HipHopGamer says, “[his] voice is money, too” (TheHipHopGamerShow, 2009). This has allowed them control over their own image, which they are able to reproduce on their own terms, in their medium of choice, in a format that is widely accessible to fans of hip-hop and gaming. At the same time, Soulja Boy’s (and HipHopGamer’s) videos and recommendations acquire monetary value for video game companies—his cultural products become commodified as advertising for video games.
During his most recent tour, Soulja Boy traveled to Tokyo and created a series of videos about his experience. In the second installment, he visits the Sega Genesis headquarters, “Game Heaven,” and is astounded by the amount of games there—a gaming paradise, he calls it (SouljaBoy, 2008). He proceeds to give a step-by-step explanation for traversing through the foreign landscape—”This is your boy, Souljaboytellem. Right now, I’m gonna take you through the process…I’m gonna show you how to get a Gamer Card, fill it all the way up to the max…and play every game there is” (SouljaBoy, 2008). He affirms his status as a knowledge provider—”I’m a professional. I can read this shit”—and heeds the viewer to “pay attention” as he slowly plays out the steps. Meanwhile, he also places himself at an accessible level—he is “your boy”—viewer and teacher are equal. Soulja Boy, who takes the name “Sbeezy” for the duration of the game, sits in a darkened booth and loads up “the biggest online game” in Japan. Though he’s somewhat confused by the Japanese on the screen, Soulja Boy recognizes the game syntax and proceeds to play and win the game, as he had boasted about earlier. His gameplay is peppered with boasts and trash-talking, dropping “nigga” and “bitch” in every sentence. With his headphones on, he can hear his teammates speaking in Japanese and often calls out to them “Konichiwa, konichiwa.” On winning, he celebrates his gaming skill even in the face of a foreign language—”That must mean I won…and I don’t even speak this shit” (SouljaBoy, 2008). Soulja Boy’s trash talk is problematic, but not any different from the kinds of things he says to his close friends. The only Japanese-specific disparagement is his repetition of “Konichiwa,” another foregrounding of the language barrier that he has overcome by successfully navigating the ultra-technological system.
Black interaction with technology, especially in the realm of hip-hop, is commonly qualified as merely consumptive. But Soulja Boy’s experience in Japan shows a particular form of knowledge production and teaching. The video reads like an instruction manual with Soulja Boy as the translator/educator. Interestingly, the camera man (Soulja Boy’s friend) notes that filming is not allowed inside, but that they snuck the camera in anyways to give fans an exclusive look into this game. Showcasing the gaming technology in Japan and the way to access it is almost an obligation for Soulja Boy. If “nerd identity” is truly a gatekeeper in technology participation, Soulja Boy and other hip-hop gamers could be seen as go-betweens, flowing easily between the porous worlds of “nerd identity” and “black identity” (Eglash, 2002, p. 49). But their existence also collapses the separation of these identities into two separate camps.
Among the online gaming community, led by blogs like Kotaku of the Gawker Media Network, Soulja Boy’s gaming is often devalued. After he professed his skills on YouTube and invited others to challenge him on several Xbox games, Kotaku and other blogs responded by publishing his gamer points and questioning his abilities and opinions on games (MGC Gamer Card). Kotaku devoted several posts to “How to Beat Soulja Boy,” filled with snarky allusions to Soulja Boy’s music, trash-talk and a general sense of Soulja Boy’s ineptitude with technology and games:
“Douse his fire in water. Super soak dat oh! Learn where the scoped weapons are and find the right place to set up a perch. Remember to crouch-walk if you want to stay off of his radar. When possible, pair your Battle Rifle with a close-quarters weapon…Soulja Boy is probably going to chase you a lot. You should go all Ice Tea on that azz” (Good, 2008).
Nevertheless, the trash-talk belies their respect for Soulja Boy’s gaming—the post does include tips, implying that he is not as easy to beat as it would seem. Their need to invalidate him demonstrates his peculiar situation in a space that is not “allowed” technological knowledge.
Soulja Boy and HipHopGamer work partly outside of the system, which allows them to provide a different take on gaming that is not widely available in the mainstream gaming world. On the release of Braid, a time-twisting Xbox 2D platformer, Soulja Boy posted a video review of the game, saying that it was “for people who smoke or people drink, like, if you drink beer and you get drunk or you smoke weed and you get high and you just… anything, like, you just get be gettin’ fucked up” (chafenhimer, YouTube). Kotaku posted Soulja Boy’s video, remarking sarcastically that “Since Mr. Boy is no stranger to video games, we were curious to hear his “thoughts” on Jonathan Blow’s time-shifting platformer” (McWhertor, 2008). Braid was well-received by the gaming community as a highly intellectual game, groundbreaking for its unusual game physics. Soulja Boy also enjoys Braid, but he explains his views with less “intellectual” and technological rhetoric. His review falls outside the norm of the gaming community and so his opinion is lambasted.
Soulja Boy’s game reviews, such as the one for Braid, provide an alternative viewpoint to the more corporate-controlled journalists. However, his connection to the hip-hop industry and his increasing ties to the gaming industry problematize his status as an unbiased critic that is “keepin’ it real.” Through their videos and media productions, Soulja Boy and other hip-hop artists are participating in the cycle of commodity capitalism. Though Soulja Boy’s gaming, and that of other hip-hop artists, can open up avenues of financial success and allow greater control over the media image of black men, their interaction with the gaming industry can also reproduce some problematic conventions of commercialization and misogyny.
In his essay, “I’m a Brotha but Sometimes I don’t Feel Black,” Hanson (2006) warns against positioning black technoliteracy inside a hegemonic white domain: “Finally, to speak of the thug-nerd problematically ascribes a particular black engagement with technology as only ever one defined by assumptions of white technophilia. Within the context of obdurate structures of black exclusion from and resistance to intellectual, institutional and political sites of technoculture, we must be aware of the risk of simply mapping black technological practices, in this case black producers, onto the normative geek or nerd techno-identity” (p. 24). The technological practices of Soulja Boy, RZA, Hip-Hop Gamer and the like are very different from those assumed of the white nerd. The intersection of hip-hop, gaming and racialized identity functions as a new domain of interaction and production for young black men where they negotiate the “ironies of capitalism.” This domain reproduces some of the problematic stereotypes and representations of hip-hop and the video game industry, but it also allows them the technoliteracy and production control necessary to create media that speaks outside the system—it allows them to keep it real.
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