Tuesday, June 4, 2013


**Another essay we had to do for our hip hop theatre class. Naturally I chose my hubby to write about.

THEA 115
Professor Rickerby Hinds

                                                                 It’s All Mathematics
            Talented lyricists in hip-hop, through techniques like connotations, double entendres, juxtapositions of phrases etc., frequently touch on pressing and controversial matters in their lyrics. Rarely do their lyrics mean what is simply on the surface and are often open-ended which is intended to spur their audience to think and react. A prime example of a hip-hop artist who encompasses these qualities is the thirty-nine year old MC, Dante Terrell Smith commonly known by his stage name, Mos Def, who recently changed his name to Yasiin Bey. 

           Yasiin Bey was born in Brooklyn, New York and initiated his hip-hop career through the group Urban Thermo Dynamics with his brother DCQ and his sister Ces. He then began to feature in songs with well-known MC’s like De La Soul, until he finally signed with Rawkus Records and released an album with Talib Kweli in 1998 as the duo Black Star. The album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star created hit singles and really put Yasiin Bey on the map as a talented, new artist in the realm of hip-hop. 
         From then on Yasiin Bey began to release solo albums, his most recent being The Ecstatic in 2009. Yasiin Bey also became recognized for his acting and was very active in social issues like Hurricane Katrina where he openly displayed his discontentment with the government’s response or lack thereof, to the tragedy. He displayed his feelings through a song called “Katrina Clap” renamed “Dollar Day” (due to record label issues), sampling the beat of UTP’s song “Nolia Clap.” In the song he says lines such as, “Tell the boss he shouldn’t be the boss anymore” and “Mr. President’s a natural ass, he out treating niggas worse than they treat the trash” blatantly displaying his dissatisfaction with President Bush. From the beginning of his career Yasiin Bey alluded to social and political issues like in the song “Definition” with Talib Kweli where he says hold your head when the beat drop” which can be interpreted as connoting the violence associated with hip-hop. Earlier in the song there are references to Tupac and Biggie and the danger of being an MC, so “hold your head when the beat drop” can be seen as an ode to the dangers of living in the slums and being an African American MC, and also a description of the potency of their music. One song in particular titled “Mathematics,” produced by DJ Premier, that Yasiin Bey released in his solo album Black on Both Sides, alludes to various social issues and asks his audience to essentially do the math and open there eyes about the corrupted reality of the government, capitalism and society. This song features snippets from himself, and other conscious rappers like Fat Joe, Ghostface Killah, and  Erykah Badu who says “do your math” from her song “On and On” urging young, African American children to do well in school. In this essay I will be doing an in-depth analysis on Yasiin Bey’s song “Mathematics” and how he insinuates in his lyrics, issues of institutional racism, marginalization, and the corruptness of government and society as a whole.
            Yasiin Bey’s allusions to institutional racism, which can be defined as any form of inequality by an institution, based on race, are located all throughout his lyrics in “Mathematics” including his mentioning of the prison-industrial complex. The Prison-industrial complex or PIC focuses on the dependence on the growth of prisons and inmates by businesses and companies that supply goods to prisons, thereby making jail and incarceration a business. He says in verse one “Hip-hop passed all your tall social hurdles like the nationwide project: prison-industry complex” and in verse two “there’s one universal law, but two sides to every story, three strikes and you be in for life, mandatory,” describing the issues concerning institutional racism and the prison-industrial complex. The rate of African Americans in prison by 1999, greatly outnumbered any other nationality although “African Americans [constituted] only 14% of all drug users nationally” in 2000 (Marable, 5). Yasiin is referring to the unfairness of the government and the negative stereotypes of African Americans and their association with crime, to fuel and justify the need to incarcerate them. His lyrics saying “three strikes and you be in for life, mandatory” refer to California’s “three-strikes and you’re out” (Marable, 5) law which erased the parole option for repeating offenders, most of whom were nonviolent. These imbalanced laws make it impossible for the majority of African American men to stay out of jail especially when living in poor conditions that offer them sparse resources and jobs. While living conditions are so difficult in urban areas, crime almost becomes a necessity for families to survive. Therefore those who have no other choices but resort to crime are incarcerated, meaning prisons and inmates will always be growing. Media also constantly perpetuates negative stereotypes of African Americans making racism difficult to erase and as long as racism still exists, so will the reason to incarcerate. Prison has essentially become big business, which is why Yasiin calls it “the global jail economy,” and as White men run most big businesses, like media for example, institutional racism is practically impossible to escape.
            Continuing on, Yasiin Bey alludes to the issue of marginalization which be seen as the limiting of goods and services to a certain group of people. Therefore people from a lower or working class may not have access to privileges and material goods that the middle and upper class may have access to. Yasiin Bey says, “This is business, no faces just lines and statistics, from your phone, your zip cope to S-S-I digits. The system break man, child and women in to figures, two columns for who is and who ain’t niggas insinuating that the government basically has only two categories in deciding who does and does not get privileges and those two categories are simply those who are African American and those who are not. He is implying that the mistreatment towards African Americans is so severe that you can basically see only two categories existing. African Americans are marginalized in the sense that they are forced into living in tenements due to the unavailability of jobs to fund privileges like school. The government does not address this issue but rather perpetuates the image that African Americans are violent marginalizing them even further. Yasiin is saying that the government does not make resources available to the lower class, yet continues to perpetuate negative images of these people as if they voluntarily or are inherently criminal. He says at the end of “Mathematics,” “Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: The million other straws underneath it. It’s all mathematics.” In this line, he is referring to the countless amounts of big business owners and those in government who perpetuate racism, thereby creating and sustaining marginalization in a way that seems it is not purposeful. This is done so that the White men stay in power and remain wealthy, while simultaneously keeping African Americans from ever fully achieving freedom. Therefore, by Yasiin saying that the system puts people into two categories: African Americans and everyone else, he is insinuating that a form of slavery still exists, through this deliberate and unfair targeting of African Americans.
            Yasiin Bey uses his song “Mathematics” ultimately to critique and expose the racial inequalities supported and sustained by the state. Personally, this song resonated with me as I took a course in labor studies and got a first-hand experience on the mistreatment of Latina and Latino workers in the warehouse. I was able to visit a warehouse in Fontana, CA and speak with as well as participate in a strike organized by the warehouse workers to fight unfair treatment. Their wages were low and health services were not provided, even for those who had worked for decades. Many workers were injured, doing the strenuous work or have had lung damage from constant exposure to dangerous fumes. Also, Rather than providing sick workers with days off they would be simple be replaced by the thousands of others who were willing and in desperate need of a job. I also learned in great detail about the prison-industrial complex during this course and about marginalization, institutional racism etc. and the song “Mathematics,” which I had already loved before, became that much more significant to me. I was able to understand in more depth the issues he was alluding to and I was able to relate the lyrics to the workers’ situations as well as the material we discussed in the class. Overall, I believe this song contains information much beyond what is on the surface and discusses relevant matters that should not be ignored. Yasiin Bey expresses through his lyrics the bleakness of society and attempts to provoke his audience into achieving an understanding and to simply react.

A-, Good work.

                                                                    Works Cited
Badu, Erykah, James Brown, Fat Joe, and Ghostface Killah. "Mathematics." Mos Def. DJ        
            Premier, 1999. CD.
Marable, Manning. "Facing the Demon Head On: Institutional Racism and the Prison Industrial
            Complex." Article. Southern Changes, 2000. Book.