It’s 2019, and rap music is finally the most popular of all forms of pop music worldwide. This accomplishment arrives wherein the world-at-large is in the throes of economic recession and a digital-first hegemony across all industries. Plus, music as a business is aggressively restructuring its commercial identity. Thus, for rap, it’s the worst time to experience the best access to the most creatives possible.
Allow me to explain.
On Thanksgiving, Chicago rapper Noname posted a photo of a woman in clown makeup along with the caption: “Me consistently creating content that is primarily consumed by a white audience who would rather shit on me than challenge their liberalism because somehow liking Lizzos music absolves them of racist tendencies.”
One day later, Noname continued the conversation with a since-deleted tweet featuring a photo of actor Morgan Freeman wearing clown makeup that read, “My black fans in my mentions talkin bout ‘what your mean primarily white? We support the fuck outta u’ clearly proving they never been to a show.”
Continuing, Noname wrote, “Y’all really pushing the idea that black people can’t come to my shows because of black death and financial restraint??? As if Dababy, Megan and Smino shows ain’t black as hell? Say you don’t like my shit and move around lol.”
In final, Noname opined, “Unfortunately, I’m not going to keep performing for predominantly white crowds. I have two shows on the books then after that I’m chilling on making music. If y’all don’t wanna leave the crib I feel it. I don’t want to dance on a stage for white people.”
To fully understand Noname’s concerns, we must consider some important data points. In 1999, the music industry generated $27.8 billion in revenue and roughly one in five songs on the Billboard year-end Hot 100 prominently featured a rap artist as a lead performer or collaborator. By comparison, in 2018, the music industry generated $19.1 billion, while 50 percent of Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart featured a rap artist as a lead performer or collaborator. In 2018, streaming drove just under 50 percent of that revenue total, with the pay per-stream rate to artists from the world’s most popular platform (Spotify) sitting at roughly four-thousandths of a cent.
With those numbers in mind, Noname likely generated close to $620,000 over the past four years on Spotify alone, a total which is based on the popularity of her 10 most popular songs. Of course, making $150,000-plus per year as an artist is amazing. When we factor in fees attached to self-releasing this music via her label, plus her management, marketing, public relations, booking, touring, and production, however, what was once a terrific take-home income for a 28-year-old creative isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be.
Then there is touring, an income generator that for most artists has become a necessary evil. For the first three quarters of 2019, Live Nation reported earnings of $8.7 billion in concert revenue (a six percent increase from the same time last year). With rap being a globally popular genre with a cross-cultural appeal, the 23-city nationwide tour Noname kicked off 2019 is an interesting case study in the changing dynamics of the hip-hop concert. Yes, concert attendance continues to grow. However, when the people fueling live concert attendance and growth don’t properly understand the unique cultural cues associated with the black and brown cultures from which hip-hop was born, naturally, artists and fellow black concert-goers begin to worry.
To this point, let’s look at Taylor Crumpton’s 2018 Paper op-ed, “Have White People Stolen Rap Concerts, Too?” While attending a Kendrick Lamar concert, she noted the following:
- “I ain’t never seen so many white people in my whole entire life, and I’m from Texas.”
- “...the fetishization of the black experience by white people is reminiscent of the larger social and power dynamics in this nation... We live in a reality where the black communities who gave life to a rapper’s artistry are then not awarded a seat at the table of prominence.”
- “The white experience in America is one of acquisition of property, and the latest commodity to go is hip-hop.”
With this commentary provided as context, Noname’s angst about being a black creative performing black music in white spaces isn’t as stunning as it may initially seem. In diving deep and long into the socioeconomic condition at-present of rap as a genre and hip-hop as a culture, we should be applauding Noname’s potential decision.
“Whats funny is most black artist are just as uncomfortable performing for majority white crowds but would never publicly say that out of fear and allegiance to [money bag emoji] Which isnt a bad thing necessarily cause niggas gotta eat but yall wouldnt be up and arms if I quit workn @ McDonalds,” Noname later tweeted.
Even deeper still, she continued, “When I go to work, thousands of white people scream the word nigga at me. and no I’m not changing my art so it is what it is. catch me @nonamebooks.”
To feel like a wage slave to your music, and a metaphorical slave to slavery as an institution—specifically, as a Black American aware of African-American history and creating in the spirit of self and Black empowerment—must be damning. Perhaps, to the point of not wanting to record or perform anymore. On the surface, Noname’s decision to read and assign books for the book club she started this past July is a more relaxing proposition.
Full disclosure here: I, as a journalist and rap fanatic, would be devastated by Noname quitting. While serving as editor-in-chief at Brooklyn Bodega from 2012 to 2013, I discovered her SoundCloud page. Before Noname’s breakout performance with Chance the Rapper on Acid Rap single “Lost,” I compared her lyricism to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. Noname referenced the Brooklyn Bodega piece in her old EPK.
All things considered, though, I’d much rather see Noname less stressed, more peaceful, and while discussing strong female protagonists, maybe break into a few bars of “Cherrypie Blues.” Noname being a rapper in what is—for someone as socially aware as she—an awful socioeconomic climate feels like a burden too sad to bear. Social conditions will only cause her concern to persist.
When Noname realized she could sell-out herself and her politics to increase her income, she came to a natural conclusion: Not worth it. Unless you’re Black and have experienced a white person gleefully screaming n****r to your face, you can’t understand Noname’s predicament. And that is after staring long and deep into earnings statements that inform you 155 million streams isn’t enough to help you break even. Heartbreaking.
In her 1998 single “Lost Ones,” Lauryn Hill rapped the following relatable and apropos words:
“Gained the whole world for the price of your soul / Tryin’ to grab hold of what you can’t control / Now you’re all floss, what a sight to behold / Wisdom is better than silver and gold”
It’s cool to be a pop star when who you are is desirable. But to be a pop star when what you do and who you are is demonized is chilling. Noname occupies this difference. If we lose her as a musical force, her wisdom would likely be gained by Black people in another realm, on her terms. See: Noname Books. And for that, we should stand and applaud.
The truth is, we’re likely to lose one of the best rappers for one of the worst reasons, and there’s not much we can do about it. If soon we lose even more artists, it shouldn’t be shocking, either. At present, remaining aware of the how and why of these losses is doubly essential. Generations to come are sure to love rap as a genre and work in music as an industry. What will make those fans and workers more mindful of society, economics, and an artist’s need for human and commercial fulfillment?
When good things come to an end, what we learn in absence may resonate greater than the sum of what we were presented.