I Carry the City on My Back
The Wu-Tang Clan story reflects the ethos of black abundance, which is based on the principle of sharing resources. However, it also sheds light on the overwhelmingly male world of street drug dealing. Chapter 3, titled “I Carry the City on My Back,” from the forthcoming book manuscript “That’s My Heart: Queering Intimacy in Hip-Hop Culture,” delves into the ambivalences of hip-hop culture and masculinity
Affinities brought Wu-Tang together, such as a shared love of karate movies and rapping, and shared experiences, like hustling on the streets with other men and discovering the Five-Percent Nation, an Islamic group that preaches the divinity of Black men. The crew used karate movies as both leisure and as a blueprint for understanding their relationship to each other. The friends identified with the mythical Wu-Tang Clan of the Shaw Brothers’ movies, which featured a band of elite fighters from Shaolin, China. For them, Staten Island was Shaolin and their crew a band of friends whose unique rap skills made them deadly on their own and invincible as a group. RZA rattled off each rapper’s contribution to the group on the first episode of the documentary: Cappadonna was “a slang master. Probably an inspiration for a lot of the other MCs in Park Hill,” while U-God “was beautiful. … When he smiles the whole world lights up.” RZA’s appraisals were laced with both business acumen and affection.
Indeed, treating Wu only as a successful rap group hides the fact that rapping was part of their bonding as friends. Rapping is social; it is something that groups of young Black men do when hanging out with each other, similar to doo-wop of the 1950s. When the Wu emerged, young men killed time when selling drugs on the corner by rapping. Before his rap career, the Notorious B.I.G. was a street legend for being the best MC among his hustler friends; in fact, a fellow hustler connected him with the producer who made his demo. When he was younger, childhood friends pooled their money to buy B.I.G. studio time to support his talent for rap. Rapping was a pastime, but it was also a way out of poverty given the absence of jobs in the ‘hood. B.I.G.’s friends invested their limited means in him so that he could have an escape that most of them would not have.
The generosity of B.I.G.’s friends reflect what I call the black abundance ethos, where Black people collectively share their resources with each other without expecting reciprocity, contrary to capitalistic individualism. It’s the principle that my friends are not poor while I have something to give, or as Biggie put it, “Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.” In his memoir Heavy, Kiese Laymon used black abundance to capture the ineffable joy and wealth that comes from Black ways of being, including the ways we care for each other to protect against white supremacy. B.I.G.’s childhood friends did not have much materially, but their concern for B.I.G.’s future and belief in his talent was a priceless resource that outweighed their meager funds.
B.I.G.’s story of rapping to kill time while selling drugs points to another force that brought crews together: the overwhelmingly male world of street drug-dealing. B.I.G.’s experience exemplifies the thug life-thug love dynamic in hip-hop, where men endorse close, openly affectionate relationships with each other based on their interdependence for survival and sustenance while hustling together. Archival footage showing a young adult U-God arriving at a corner with two of his male homies to begin the day’s sales exemplified the male-centric nature of drug-dealing. As U-God explained, “Typical workday, I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, we get our little sandwich, pastrami and Swiss. Then you go around the corner, find your stash, and then you rock it.”
Drug-dealing blurred the line between friendship and business and introduced hierarchy within the crew, much as the music industry would later. U-God and Meth, childhood best friends, sold drugs together but were not equals in that venture. As Meth recounted, “I ain’t gonna say we was patnas. We definitely wasn’t patnas. I was out there, selling HIS shit.” While the homosocial world of drug-dealing cemented bonds between male friends, it could also cause friction as the pursuit of money replaced camaraderie as the source of bonds.
Excerpt from book manuscript That’s My Heart: Queering Intimacy in Hip-Hop Culture (University of California Press, forthcoming)
Antonia Randolph is a cultural sociologist whose interests include diversity discourse in education, multicultural capital, non-normative Black masculinity, and the production of misogyny in hip-hop culture. She’s a member of the Scholars’ Network on Masculinity and the Well-Being of African American Men and a participant in the Women of Color Leadership Project of the National Women’s Studies Association. Her first book, The Wrong Kind of Different: Challenging the Meaning of Diversity in American Classrooms (Teachers College 2012), examined the hierarchies elementary school teachers constructed among students of color. She has also published in the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, The Feminist Wire and Scalawag Magazine. Her current book project, That’s My Heart: Queering Intimacy in Hip-Hop Culture, examines portrayals of Black men’s intimate relationships in hip-hop culture.
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