The Curious Race/Case of Lil’ Wayne

Image Source: B&W picture of Lil’ Wayne staring forward with a microphone in hand. Image taken from a BET hip hop cypher video clip.

[This essay includes some derogatory language that may be unsuitable for some.]

This whole Lil’ Wayne situation has got me thinking a lot about the intersection of race and class. Here’s a recap for those who don’t know: Recently, the rapper (and now author) sat down with ABC correspondent Linsey Davis on Nightline for an interview. What people have focused on the most (and perhaps rightly so) are his troublesome comments about Black Lives Matter. Here is the full interview.

Wayne is undoubtedly a brilliant artist. The things he does with words are comparable to Shakespeare and Morrison – but he does them off the top of his head. He’s an intelligent person, but he’s an example of intelligence perverted, especially on the subject at hand. Folks are mad at him for his thoughtless and dismissive responses (and blatant disrespect shown toward Davis). And then, he issued something like an apology “to anyone who was offended” via TMZ, which was really him blaming Davis for her justified line of questioning. That sounds a lot like this now infamous non-apology. You see, I don’t think Lil’ Wayne understands racism at all, and that’s the problem. He thinks that years and years of preferential treatment and attention from scores of white people, white eyes directly on him in not-so-menacing ways, means that he is immune to the effects of racism. He also thinks that his spending power keeps racism at bay, keeps the racists out of sight. The man needs education. And I’m not talking about the kind he might’ve gotten had he not dropped out of high school to pursue a successful music career, or the kind he began to get when he obtained his GED and started courses at the University of Houston (my own Master’s degree alma mater). I’m saying that Wayne needs some real schooling on what racism looks like, and how regular people – his beloved fans – experience the world on a daily basis, since supposedly, he doesn’t.

Take a look, too, at his previous interview (or roundtable, or interrogation) on Fox Sports with Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless where he initially tried to (and rightfully so) back out of the conversion (about Colin Kaepernick’s protests) by repeatedly saying he was ill-informed and not qualified to address the topic. But then, as you can see, he went downhill when he started saying, on his own, that he was too “blessed” to see, feel the effects of racism, or to have a real opinion on any of it. He needs education. Here’s a little start.

Exhibit 1. “I am a young, black, rich motherfucker,” says Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. in an arrogant profession toward Davis. Oprah – who has enough money to buy out Wayne, his kids, his label, his albums, his tattoos, and his fans 10 times over – is a survivor of a racist encounter at a department store. Remember that? Perhaps, Lil’ Wayne “got money” but he doesn’t have wealth. He has spending power, sure, especially compared to his neighbors in the city he loves so much. But does spending power equal class privilege? Wayne thinks that his ability to flaunt “cash money” from the 99s to the 2000s (and I mean that with several more zeros) allows him a collection of “get out of race free” cards tantamount to the number of dollars in his bank account. But consider this: give him a mirror and a window, not just a microphone. What he needs to understand is that his amount of earnings does not grant him a seat at the table in what would be considered high class America. Even Oprah can’t always have that seat. I wonder why.

Exhibit 2. He believes that the attention his white fans pay him means that racism doesn’t exist – for him. He recalls concerts in predominately white, affluent cities where he looks out into the crowd and only sees one black person among a sea of white faces. Yes, white people love hip hop. But that white folks enjoy and buy [black] hip hop records and attend those concerts more than perhaps any other group, contributing to the financial security of many musicians in the industry one way of another, does not mean that racism doesn’t exist. In fact, this all reinforces the idea that racism is indeed alive and well. I’m not at all saying that all white people who enjoy hip hop are fake, and are making fun of the black performers or are enjoying themselves, intentionally, at the expense of the ridicule of the black performers. However, the optics are clear, and loving hip hop doesn’t automatically alleviate white people from racist behaviors and thoughts. Have we collectively forgotten the prevalence of the minstrel show? White America’s infatuation with black hip hop (and black athletes too) is indicative of something nefarious. And that Wayne is entirely ignorant of any of it is exactly the point and part of the problem. The key to running a successful plantation business is to break down ensure/insure the slaves employees, make them feel needed and wanted, hide them from the outside so that they don’t even feel like they’re on the plantation at work. [Parts have been redacted for clarity.]

Exhibit 3. He keeps referring back to his early life episode where, after mistakenly shooting himself in the chest, a white cop (among black cops searching for drugs), a “good motherfucker” who was “white as snow” and named Uncle Bob, stops to carry him to the hospital. Again, attention from white folks. That’s nice and all that you were cared for by a decent human being. Yes, there are many, many wonderful white cops in the world. (That felt so weird to type.) But that does not excuse the many corrupt, racist men and women in uniform. Wayne’s one encounter with a good white cop doesn’t erase all the bad that their peers continue to do, all the terror they inflict on black communities and black bodies around the country on a daily basis. Moreover, never once in these interviews has Wayne seriously acknowledged that he truly understands or sympathizes with those who protest, or those who have lost loved ones, or those who have been unfairly detained or beaten by law enforcement officers. But he keeps on referring back to that one childhood episode, and it feels like an erasure or dismissal of everyone else’s experiences. He wants people to listen to him, and take his word for it that white police officers aren’t bad, because of the one who saved his life. But he doesn’t want to listen to everyone else’s experiences. It inches toward victim blaming. “The cops found me, so I must’ve been doing something wrong, and I got caught. Next time, I won’t get caught.” That’s bad logic.

Exhibit 4. Wayne has been in the industry, on some level, since was 9 years old. Nine. That’s when he met Birdman, and eventually dubbed himself “Birdman, Jr.” He recorded his first song (the first of a career of highly successful collaborations) when he was 11. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even remember where I was and what toys I was playing with at 11, much less at nine. For Wayne, white record executives (the ones at Universal Music Group behind the visible black faces of Cash Money Records) were again, paying attention, taking an interest in his musical talent, investing in those talents and capital earning potential. He recently sued Birdman for $51 million because of the continued and irrational delay of the completed album Tha Carter V, which is at least two years late by now. This means that he wants recompense for the $51 million he thinks he would’ve made between the original album release and the time of the suit. Fifty one million dollars, folks. He’s made hundreds of millions of dollars in his thirty years in music, all because white people noticed him. Since money is all he claims to care about (and his kids) and money is what keeps him safe from racism, why speak out against the hands that feed him his lifeblood?

For him, love/care and money are intertwined and have been since he was 9. When Wayne met Birdman in 1991, he saw a father figure (one of two in his life who he acknowledges – the other was his late stepfather). Bryon Williams, “Birdman” (or Baby as he used to be called), has served as a father figure, in one way or another, for three decades. But as the 2006 song “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” professes, Wayne’s connection to Birdman is inherently prefaced by the notion of capital gain and profitability. Well, no. It’s about spending money, not gaining or saving it. “Stuntin” is the flashy exhibition of one’s earnings by way of cars, clothes, houses, parties, and women. As the first line of Wayne’s first verse suggests: “Bitch, I’m paid. That’s all I gotta say.” Wayne wants to stunt like Birdman, the CEO and face of the same Cash Money Records that took over the 99s and the 2000s (I mean that this time). He admires his business acumen and his capacity for getting and spending so much that, in 2005, Wayne founded his own label, just like his daddy: Young Money Entertainment. With headliners like Drake and Nicki Minaj, and a cut of their profits flowing into his own pockets, Wayne’s label surely enables him to stunt like none other. But then, Wayne sues Birdman and talks about wanting to explore other creative avenues. This is Wayne’s desire to leave the nest, while Birdman’s refusal to release the “final” Carter album reads like a refusal to let Wayne go, a fear of empty nest syndrome, and an anticipated loss in revenue and hip hop relevancy. But since their relationship is tied up with money, the “care and love” portion is become damaged as well. As such, the relationship of late has been marred by violence, both rhetorical and physical, because of the refusal to release the album is interpreted as a blatant rejection or refusal of love and care. This is all to say, Wayne’s life is built around money and the ability to spend it like he wants, and so much so that it warps his notions or realities of more abstract things like love, care, and of course, race and racism.

Exhibit 5. Wayne talks about racism in his songs. He does. I just don’t think he really knows what he’s talking about. And it’s not about him being too high or inebriated to think clearly. He knows what he’s saying. He just doesn’t interpret things which are clearly racist as expressions of the reality of racism. For example, cops harassing black people is not racism; it’s just cops harassing hard working citizens. That’s where he education can do some good for him, and others.

Exhibit 6. The Millennials. His fans. Wayne thinks that his young generation fans don’t care about racism. He said it in his earlier Fox Sports roundtable turned interview turned interrogation. He thinks they align with his views and don’t comprehend racism either. And, in his estimation, a lack of comprehension or an ignorance to a problem means that the problem doesn’t exist (at least for him). Here’s the thing: Racism exists and young people, these Millennials, care about it. The majority of the people who have been protesting for racial justice around the country the world have been young people. Social media, for all its shortcomings, has activated a sense of duty and solidarity among the people for whom social media was made. Reports of violence against people of color spreads on Twitter and Facebook and other platforms like a volcanic eruption. Look at what’s happening at Standing Rock. Look at what happened with Trayvon, Mike, Sandra, Tamir, Philando, the list keeps going… Everyone gets caught up in it. It cannot and should not be ignored. To ignore the many acts of violence against people of color is part of the problem, and has always been part of the problem. Wayne may not be on social media… nope. That’s a lie. He tweets all the time. But he ignores the world around him and believes that his “blessings” (more on that next) shield him from the atrocities of the world. But young people, who don’t have such “blessings” do the have the luxury of turning – to employ the worn out metaphorical disabled rhetoric – a “blind eye” to the surrounding world. Even so, the act of ignoring is a choice. Wayne acts as if he isn’t even given the choice to ignore the world. He acts as if he lives in a magical little world where what he experiences is all that matters. And everyone else lives in the other world that he doesn’t know about. Maybe this is a remnant of his prison time. But even if I bought his little excuse, that doesn’t reign true for all of us in the rest of world. These days, we know things happen. I mean, how can you not know that racism exists? You may not see yourself as a part of that system in some way as victim or perpetrator, but still. Do you live under a rock? Well… there are millions of folks who talk about racism in the past tense – “racism was…” – as if it’s a relic of some days gone by (when America was great?). Most of those people live far away from diverse and progressive big cities, away from the challenge of newness, away from modernity. I suppose Wayne does too – even though he lives in New Orleans, and champions the dark and violent side, which comprises the majority, of America’s most vibrant city. Maybe the Millennials he’s talking about are the ones who fly down for Mardi Gras and Spring Break and stay in exclusive French Quarter hotels. He can’t be talking about the Millennials in the Wards who have to fight to live each and every day against the terror and oppression of living under the corruption and sponsored white supremacy in the State of Louisiana in America. He’s not talking about the thousands of black bodies stuffed into Angola prison just up the road. He’s not talking about the family of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge or the young male rappers he grew up with, but didn’t get saved by the miraculous intervention of a single white cop, or make it to the high life like him. He’s not talking about the boys who don’t have daddies to stunt like because their fathers have been killed or locked up for decades by the mandate of law and order.

Exhibit 7. He says that it’s his “blessings” which probably shield him from the effects of racism. Boy… first of all. I don’t consider it a blessing to not have to deal with racism as much as I celebrate those who have had to deal with it in some form (everybody) and have lived to tell the tale. Or died standing up for themselves. The blessing is is reserved for these, the survivors of racist encounters, and the families of the victims of racism. I don’t celebrate you for living what you perceive to be a sheltered life. Michael Jackson lived an even more sheltered life, and had a helluva lot more white attention, but knew good and well what racism was. Granted, I was skeptical of the optics of watching white man Skip Bayless interrogate black man Wayne on his views about race, as if he’s supposed to speak for everyone, and Wayne started to give some thoughtful answers about how his experience is his own – and that’s fine. But when Shannon Sharpe (who tried to mince his words) tried to help him out, Wayne just kept talking himself into further ignorance referring to his many “blessings.” Wayne, keep your blessings to yourself.

Exhibit 8. Wayne says that his kids – his four kids by four women (who’s the h** in this situation? hint: the common denominator) – are his whole world. On one level that sounds adorable – a black man who loves his kids. Sure. Whatever. Wayne says he got “agitated” when expert interviewer Linsey Davis asked him how he would feel if his daughters were called “bitches” and “hoes”, and that led to his later remarks. But what if someone white called his children any one of the many derogatory racial epithets, or one of them was forced to bear witness to police brutality, or if one of them was (God forbid!) ignored for once by white people? Would that agitate him too? Has he never, ever been disrepected in an encounter with a white person, and thought to himself that the interaction might have gone differently had he not been black? Seriously?

Exhibit 9. Outro. I’m going to need him (and a bunch of others) to refrain from thinking about or referring to women as bitches. In the Nightline interview, he says that he never calls a woman out of her name, “unless I got a real big problem with her”. But then, (while he’s “agitated”) he calls all women he sleeps with, or perhaps all his female fans, bitches: “My life matter, especially to my bitches.” Watch your mouth.

Exhibit 10. Bonus. No, Davis’ question about BLM was not out of line. No, she shouldn’t have to elaborate on what Black Lives Matter means. But, in her defense again, she did – for him. He asked, “what do you mean [Black lives matter]?” and she answered. And he replied with, “It just sounds weird.” I admit it. Maybe he was confused about whether she wanted him to address the notion that “black lives matter” or rather the movement Black Lives Matter. But then, I’m almost sure I’m giving him too much credit. I want to say let’s heed Dave Chappelle’s advice and stop looking to celebrities with the expectation that they be activists. But many of them, themselves, make themselves out to be the representatives of all black experience in this country, time and time again, in their music. Perhaps we should separate the men/women from the music – the artist may not be the artistic narrator, or the art. This is why it’s so wonderful and refreshing to hear someone like T.I. (who I would line up alongside Wayne in many ways, and is why I bring him up) chooses to speak up about the realities of black people in the country, and by using the pronoun “us” makes an attempt to relate, to empathize. Wayne, in comparison, uses “I” and “me.” Let’s not keep asking Wayne, et al., these  questions about reality when they themselves don’t live and have never really lived in it, or seen it as such. Instead, let’s educate them. Let’s school them on what racism looks like and why their spending capacity doesn’t immunize them from being treated just like any other [redacted] in the street. In 2004, Kanye said it best: “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.” Maybe Wayne didn’t hear that song. He was busy rapping about the Bentley he bought when he was 18.