The saga of New York City in the 1970s is as familiar as the film The Godfather, yet we still can’t shake our collective cultural fixation with this story: City falls from grace after a period of mid-century glamor; city goes bankrupt, suffers an iconic blackout in 1977, and the South Bronx repeatedly burns itself down before birthing hip-hop; city rises from the ashes by redirecting resources to its growing financial sector, bolstering modern-day robber barons like Donald Trump in the process.
These narrative contours have passed out of mere history and into something more closely resembling mythology. But the real story lies in the facts we’ve forgotten along the way.
Released 40 years after the flashpoint of 1977, scholar Kim Phillips-Fein’s new book Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics fills in the gaps with liquid socioeconomic concrete. Despite brief flourishes of compact prose that cite the pop culture created in New York’s troubled ’70s, Phillips-Fein’s tome is propelled almost entirely by material and political considerations. Fear City can’t be bothered to mention that the Yankees won the 1977 World Series; in the book’s 350 pages, the word “hip-hop” appears only once. By delving into New York’s neoliberal turn towards declining social services, disappearing jobs and the desperation of the city’s working poor, Phillips-Fein is able to draw deft comparisons between past and present.
“Today, fiscal crises are back in the headlines,” Phillips-Fein writes in the book’s intro, setting up an unsettling set of historical parallels. “Modern politicians and economists still employ a rhetoric of responsibility and belt-tightening, but they do so with far more confidence than at that earlier moment, thanks to the intervening 40 years of antigovernment politics. As a city struggles to avoid default, the debate becomes framed in the narrowest possible terms: Which programs to cut? How to balance the budget most quickly? How to satisfy the lenders and the banks?”
Though they are largely invisible to Phillips-Fein, this constrained political imagination has had cultural consequences. Where jazz once modeled mid-century capitalism’s embrace of collaboration, rap—with its celebration of individual wealth accumulation at all costs—is the representative musical tributary of neoliberalism. “Financial freedom’s our only hope,” declares a resurgent Jay-Z on “The Story of O.J.,” a cut from his new album 4:44.
Indeed, Shawn Carter’s career as the preeminent spokesperson of the hip-hop ethos is incomprehensible without the material context traced by Phillips-Fein. Across Jay’s 20-year discography are a slew of records valorizing the wit of the hustler, personal resilience and street-wise business sense—values that complement what scholar Cornel West has called a “you’re on your own” vision of society. With Phillips-Fein emphasizing the role that racist urban planning had in decimating jobs and housing in low-income sections of New York City—including Carter’s hometown of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn—there’s an irony that neoliberalism often finds its fiercest advocates in the populations it has most disadvantaged.
“We rise like the phoenix,” proclaims Sean “Diddy” Combs in the new Apple Music documentary Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. The film is a retrospect of Bad Boy Records’ rise from a humble offshoot of Uptown Records to a global empire. In historical retrospect, what strikes me is the extent to which the image projected by Puff, a Harlemite, in the 1990s was that of Black class mobility. Biggie’s Gucci sweaters, Lil’ Kim’s gold earrings, the merciless materialism of Ma$e’s lyrics, the celebratory glitz of “Mo Money Mo Problems”—all indicate the self-conscious upward striving of New York’s new Black bourgeoisie that only recently had the opportunity to buy into an American dream that was increasingly being defined along financial lines. One clip of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop finds Puff transfixed in front of a laptop, listening to a 1968 Nina Simone interview for inspiration. “Freedom is a feeling,” Simone says. The feeling of being rich, Puff might have thought.
The race-class dynamics of American capitalism are complicated. On the one hand, buying into a system specifically designed to disprivilege you has proven to be a losing strategy. Hip-hop’s images of Black empowerment are owned and broadcast almost exclusively by Whites, meaning that there are severe limits on the extent to which a radical reimagining of American society can ever find a home in the mainstream guise of that culture. When Malcolm X proclaimed “Whites can help us, but they can’t join us,” he was railing against the corrupting influence that a White paternalist presence—however “well-intentioned”—would have on the autonomy of a people struggling to control their own fate. If, as Jay said, “financial freedom is our only hope,” then we may already be hopeless.
On the other hand, Black capitalism is the redistributive mechanism that America has refused to implement; a corrective to the racist apportionment of resources that marred even the New Deal, a bundle of social programs that created the (White) middle-class by barring Blacks from owning homes or joining unions. Critics can go on and on decrying the hollow commercialism of hip-hop; of Puff’s sellout ways, or of the fact that Jay-Z had to become close to a billionaire before revealing juicy personal details on 4:44. Many who relay these criticisms enjoy the benefits of generational wealth that Blacks have seldom been able to enjoy without the specter of White sabotage. “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., was only one of several enclaves of Black entrepreneurship that were destroyed in the 20th century by resentful White mobs.
There's a stirring moment mid-way through Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, when Jay-Z speaks about what Bad Boy Records represented to him as he was trying to launch his career. As the melancholic sample from Biggie’s “Everyday Struggle” enters the mix, Jay explains that “Puff took things to an aspirational level that nobody had ever seen. In rap, there was this whole thing around ‘no matter what I do, I’m keeping it real and staying on this block.’ But our feeling was ‘yeah…well, I’ll see you here when I get back.’”
For ambitious American African-Americans still searching for freedom as July 4, 2017 approaches, the question is: What exactly do we have to go "back" to?