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The Soul of Black Consumerism

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Jayne Dirt over at the Clutch Mag Online has raised a question worth pondering during these waning days of Black History Month: “Is Hip-Hop to blame for the rampant consumerism among Black Folk?”

Dirt contemplates the apparent disconnect between the glorification of consumption in the musical discourse of artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West and the economic reality of most of their fans:

“These hip-hop songs boasting of all the material items they have accumulated, and the fabulous gold-plated, diamond-encrusted lives they live is [sic] a bit passé. Unfortunately, Americans (and specifically black folks) are the ultimate consumers and eat up every word of this mess up, dying to buy new Louis Vuitton bags (or sneakers), when they receive government assistance, or live a paycheck above the poverty line.”

Given the extraordinary power that music has to influence human thought, feeling, and behavior, this is a fair question to ask. I’ll leave it to others more informed about Hip-Hop to debate Dirt’s assertions. What I’ve been thinking about lately are the psycho-spiritual motivations behind consumerism in Black America.

I believe that the feverish pursuit of material things that we witness among Black folk is a racialized expression of the consumerism afflicting Americans generally. For Black Americans, our economic behavior is a reflection of the collision of internalized materialism and internalized racism. Acquiring material things matters because we associate these things (consciously or not) with the power traditionally possessed by White Americans.

Acquiring them has not only practical value, but psychological value as a counter to our feelings of racial inferiority. We need to acquire more and more in order to quiet that nagging sense that no matter how much we have, we are never quite fully human beings. This is why you will witness even Black folk of means self-destruct either through disastrous financial decisions, or self-medicating their self-doubt (i.e. Whitney Houston).

Given our history this is hardly surprising. That a people who were long considered property should come to believe their salvation lay in amassing it is but one indication of the psychic toll of slavery. As such, the antics of a Jay-Z or Kanye West can be understood as reflecting a psyche still held in captivity to materialist conceptualizations of Black identity. It is art imitating life, or perhaps more accurately, art imitating death, the death of human nobility due to the insanity of White supremacy.

If this analysis is valid, it speaks to the urgency of recognizing the ideology of materialism and its bastard offspring, consumerism, as being just as deadly to Black Americans as racism. The need is urgent for consultation on how to resist the internalized materialist-racial inferiority that has claimed too many of our people.

This must involve more than criticizing the cultural apostles of materialism whether in the entertainment industry or otherwise, necessary as that critique is. A radical re-centering of the soul in our lives is required, understanding that our identity is fundamentally spiritual, and beginning to think, feel, and act based on that reality. As ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, has explained:

“For man two wings are necessary. One wing is physical power and material civilization; the other is spiritual power and divine civilization. With one wing only, flight is impossible. Two wings are essential. Therefore, no matter how much material civilization advances, it cannot attain to perfection except through the uplift of spiritual civilization. All the Prophets have come to promote divine bestowals, to found the spiritual civilization and teach the principles of morality. Therefore, we must strive with all our powers so that spiritual influences may gain the victory. For material forces have attacked mankind. The world of humanity is submerged in a sea of materialism.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia. This image was originally posted to Flickr by PlatoArt at

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About Phillipe Copeland

  • AJ

    Let me preface this by saying I’m not black, but the author’s analysis is refreshing and in my opinion, very accurate. Rampant, almost pathological consumerism is multi-cultural, but as an observer outside the black community, one cannot fail to notice the popular and overwhelming acceptance of the “rich material rap/rock star” in black entertainment. There are plenty of artists singing about real shit, but that doesn’t get play on the radio. Only songs about bling, money, champagne, cars ect. That song with Kayne and Jay-Z destroying the Maybach is a perfect example. What exactly is the message of that song and who does it really apply to? In this time of world-wide social upheaval due to huge economic disparities between classes, these videos and their popularity and the mimicry they create, don’t seem to jive with reality. But then, what is popular is the collective decisions of millions of individuals. There are other things to listen to and other messages to hear. We just need to let people know there is another way. Hopefully, messages of hope, introspection and change will once again be popular in song.

  • 82Kings

    Although your analysis represents an accurate depiction of our current plight, I would argue that our fascination with materialism and consumerism are byproducts of racism which in essence means its racism period.

    These two byproducts of White Supremacy/racism are economically and socially necessary to maintain our path as functioning inferiors.

    Imagined if we aggregated that $985 billion in spending power and distributed that money amongst our own businesses. We would be a powerhouse. This global system of White Supremacy will not allow that and to prevent this from occuring, the conditioning of Black people to consume must be perpetuated. We have been indoctrinated with an inferiority complex, and we must continue to compensate for a perceived inadequacy which orginates from White Supremacy/racism. They know we’ll put that $985 billion right back into their pockets. I do agree with you that we should not focus solely on the actions of entertainers because essentially, they are merely the conduits used to spread this vile doctrine of materialism. We must question our own actions as well,but we must also critically examine the system of White Supremacy/Racism as the root cause of this behavior.