It’s easy to see Travis Scott as a sell out. Many musicians have refused to perform at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show in support of Colin Kaepernick as he continues his fight against both police brutality and the NFL—the league that should be employing him, but has seemingly colluded to freeze him out of a job as quarterback. Somehow, Big Boi, founding member of the legendary Atlanta based duo Outkast, who had previously refused to perform, changed his mind, and joined Travis.
On the surface, the Super Bowl is a particularly easy boycott to support. The event doesn’t pay its performers, and has become increasingly problematic due to both the prevalence of acquired brain injuries, and the league’s Trump-infused politics (the New England Patriots remain one of the few sports teams to visit the POTUS after their win in 2017). What’s more, Kaepernick has become the face of a Nike campaign that tacitly supports his protests, while also garnering widespread support from the likes of of Meek Mill, hip hop’s reformed champion of civil rights, and Jay-Z rap’s godfather (emphasis on father, who, in particular, has reached a point in his career where he often sets the standard for etiquette in the hip hop world).
Beyond the sphere of hip hop, the “take a knee” protest has been taken up by many from Gillian Anderson and David Duchovney on the set of the X-Files, to moderate approval of then President Obama. All Travis Scott and Big Boi had to do to gain the status of being “with us, not them” was not perform. So, how did we get here?
In the midst of this matrix is the ever-evolving and murky nature of what “selling out” means in contemporary hip hop. It’s been a very long time since hip hop, along with the rest of North American culture made the transition from “selling out is bad” to “what does selling out actually mean?” That’s to say, over the last two decades, hip hop has moved to a place where any form of compensation, barring the most humiliating, is fair game. If you don’t believe it, look at how many rappers have performed at the bar and bat mitzvahs of some of the wealthiest children in the world (Ja Rule and Ashanti performing with oompa-loompas is my personal favourite).
The reasons why speak to the complex reality embedded into the genre. Many rappers are all too familiar with socioeconomic barriers of race, class, and geography. Considering that careers can potentially be short-lived after reaching massive success, it’s easy to see why artists are unwilling to pass up big opportunities. However, it’s also symptomatic of the economics of a music industry in a state of flux: sales from album units generate little revenue, and across genres, many artists rely on side hustles to supplement their income.
From the beginning the capitalist spirit of hip hop has been clear, with the subject matter changing to reflect it.
In hip hop, this entrepreneurial spirit isn’t new. In New York in the 1990s, Bad Boy and Rocafella Records were started by Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, Dame Dash, and Biggs respectively, as an alternative to white-owned labels that served as cultural and commercial gatekeepers. Elsewhere, record companies began appearing down south like Cash Money and No Limit in New Orleans, to Rap-A-Lot in Houston. Individual rappers started seeing themselves as businesses, illuminating how from the beginning the capitalist spirit of hip hop has been clear, with its subject matter changing to reflect it. The paradigmatic example is of course, Mr. Shawn “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” Carter aka Jay-Z.
In 2017, Jay-Z released his comeback album, 4:44, among other great feats such as sonically returning to his Rocafella roots, and further contextualizing Lemonade. Throughout the album, he outlined his justifications for his business ventures and reflections on his accumulation of wealth. In “Legacy” Jay outlines how his wealth will help support his family for generations, which, when considered alongside the net worth of his very successful spouse, is a near certainty. As Jay-Z has grown into hip hop’s elder statesman, he’s increasingly become more political. He’s good friends with the Obamas, campaigned for Hillary, and is an outspoken critic and adversary of Trump. He’s produced a documentary series on Trayvon Martin, and worked hard to support activism in his name. One of his current endeavours is advocating for criminal justice reform with Meek Mill and a group of billionaires such as Robert Kraft, a close personal friend of Trump and owner of the New England Patriots. There’s even rumours that he will run for office himself.
Yet there’s also an underlying tone to his accomplishments of “do as I say, not what I did.” Jay-Z did a lot of dirt to get to where he is today (let’s not forget the tour he did with R. Kelly in 2004, two years after it was initially cancelled due to his court case). He’s made his millions, while Travis Scott has only become a bona fide A-List star in the last year. The Super Bowl would absolutely be the most high profile moment of his career, and help cement his status as one of the biggest rappers in the world. While Jay-Z might not condone it, it seems that for Travis Scott, performing at the Super Bowl is simply a good business decision.
Yet, ultimately, it’s fair for the public, and particularly Travis’s fans, to criticize that decision. Even more troubling is the presence of Outkast’s Big Boi as the featured performer. Unlike Travis, Outkast are known for their thoughtful, spiritual, and socially-conscious music. Despite Andre 3000’s general disappearance from the public eye, Outkast’s artistic legacy, like Jay-Z’s, has lasted well into the 21st century. Big Boi has previously spoken about police brutality, and unless he pulls a protest stunt ala Beyoncé, it’s easy to feel like this is a bit of a betrayal.
On Outkast’s 1998 classic Aquemini, Big Boi records a verse over the telephone from a high school friend who was currently incarcerated. On the eponymous “Nathanial” he raps “They got a n***a on some “Sir, yessir, left right left” / throw me in the hole if my ass outta step they treat you like a motherfuckin slave” And yet, 21 years later, the fight continues against mass incarceration. For one of hip hop’s biggest legends to seemingly turn his back on that cause is a hard pill to swallow.