We Just Wanna Be Successful: The Shrinking of the Black American Dream

Consider two songs from two generations. One, Drake’s  “Successful, ” was one of the most popular songs of 2009, making an international rap star out of the unsigned Canadian former child actor. The other, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” was a signature hit for the songwriting producing duo of McFadden and Whitehead. Both employ narratives of aspiration and determination in the face of obstacles. But Drake’s song, produced in collaboration with singer Trey Songz is fraught with ambivalence and alienation, while McFadden and Whitehead’s anthem brims with optimism.

The Grio’s Hillary Crosley aptly called “Successful”, a “melancholy plea for international acclaim and financial achievement.”

A close reading of the lyrics invites all sorts of questions and commentary. The  refrain is “I just wanna be successful,” but is that measured by the traditional success markers of the music industry – “money, clothes and hos” [sic]? “Yeah, I suppose,” his collaborator Trey Songz sings in the hook. Drake’s rap tells a story of a young man who is confident of his talent and destiny but thwarted in his personal relationships. As “the young spitter that everybody in rap fear” [sic], he navigates a competitive minefield.  He is on the verge of breaking his girlfriend; his mother “tried to run away from home.”  He knows fame and fortune are coming, but he is not sure he’ll live long enough to see it. “Inside, I’m treading waters, steady trying to swim to shore.”

Although written in 2006, “Successful” dropped in the middle of a bewildering economic crisis that’s been called the worst since the great Depression. Yet the narrator of the song expresses faith in his ability to overcome economic obstacles. The lyrics suggest the need for a larger sense of purpose and meaning – marriage, family, community.

If the 22-year-old Drake’s “Successful,”  can be seen as a reflection of the zeitgeist of a “post-racial” generation of African American hip-hop enthusiasts, it stands in stark contrast to the anthem that their parents danced to -1979′s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, ” by Gene McFadden and John Whitehead:

In “Message in the Music: Political Commentary in Black Popular Music From Rhythm in Blues to Early Hip-hop,” a 2005 essay for the Journal of African American History, James B. Stewart situates Aint No Stopping Us Now in a discourse of community self-help that their label, Philadelphia International Records, was promoting at the time. McFadden and Whitehead, as well as Philly International’s founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, had both risen to success as songwriters and producers during the 1960s with catchy dance tunes that eventually fused elaborate orchestrations with classic soul singing, challenging Motown for dominance of the black music scene throughout the 1970s. McFadden and Whitehead had penned hits for the O’Jays (“Backstabbers”), the Intruders “I’ll Always Love My Mama”) and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (“Wake Up, Everybody.”)

Stewart notes that “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” was released two years after PIR’s “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” a compilation album featuring the full roster of the label’s stars, from Lou Rawls to the Three Degrees. “You can no longer depend on the man downtown,” Lou Rawls says in his spoken introduction. The song details the problems with crime, poor sanitation and other social ills, the chorus calls on listeners to “clean it up, clean it up,” because “the ghetto is our home.” Wealthier black folks are reminded of their responsibility to those they left behind: “All of you brothers who live on the main line/you lived in the ghetto once upon a time.”

During the years when these songs were released, the common perception was that  civil rights agitation, anti-poverty and affirmative action policies had enlarged the black middle class. Activists had helped expand the numbers of black elected officials at the local level and in Congress. Essence, Ebony, Black Enterprise, and Jet, among others, dutifully reported a growing list of Black “Firsts.” A small but steady stream of Black aspirants were earning Ivy League degrees, climbing corporate ladders, and showing up in places where we had never been before. Lord have mercy, we were movin’ on up, or so the song went.

However, a 1997 analysis of census data by statistics researcher AJ Robinson reveals that the real movement among African Americans from the 1970s wasn’t from poverty into the middle class. Rather, a segment of middle-class blacks was able to move into the upper class. In addition, real wages for all Americans stagnated after 1973 and as the “Clean Up the Ghetto” song documents, New York City and other urban areas were in the grip of recurring fiscal crises caused by the exodus of jobs. The rise of the OPEC cartel, combined with the fallout from the 1973 Arab-Israeli war led to rising fuel costs and oil shortages that further exacerbated the fiscal headaches for cash-strapped individuals, small businesses and governments.

In “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” McFadden and Whitehead accentuated the positive. “There’s been so many things that’s held us down/But now it looks like things are finally coming around,” they begin. The emphasis is put on “putting ourselves together” and “polishing up our act.”  They exhort the listener, “Don’t you let nothing, nothing stand in your way!”   The second verse is a retort to naysayers:

“I know you know someone who has a negative vibe

and if you’re trying to make it they only push you aside

they really don’t have no where to go

ask them where they’re going

they don’t know

But we won’t let nothing hold us back…

In 1989, Big Daddy Kane borrowed the chorus and melody for a rap version of the song that extolled a new era of opportunity for black self-determination:

There, comes a time, where we can’t be in the rear
We gotta step up front, to get our share
Make the change, cause we’re not inferior
For example, there was a black Ms. America

Kane also denounces government assistance (“Step out my face/talking bout a food stamp”) and crime (“[I]f you play off of crime you go out like Aunt Jemimah”). Kane’s hit also comes on the heels of Jesse Jackson’s surprisingly strong run in the 1988 Democratic Presidential primaries. Despite the crack epidemic and the trickle-down economics of then-president Ronald Reagan, whom most black voters opposed, Kane and other artists like him found reasons for optimism.

Of course, by the mid-1990s, the self-help messages of East Coast rap would be supplanted by the West Coast gangster rappers. Cultural analysts such as Cornel West lamented a nihilism in Black America made worse by degrading images in music videos and other aspects of popular culture. Stewart notes that by this time too, much of the music featuring black artists was controlled by corporations intent on packaging and commodifying those  aspects of black life that would sell to white audiences.

“Successful” isn’t trying to preach to the poor, or anyone else, for that matter. The narrator of the song is speaking to, and for, himself.

At the risk of over-generalizing from a sample of one, the popularity Drake’s ode to alienated ambition might reflect the disorienting effect of the failure of many middle-class African Americans to achieve intergenerational economic mobility, despite the visibility of individual black people from Pres. Obama to L’il Wayne who have gone from relative rags to absolute riches.

The 1997 analysis alluded to earlier noted the growth of the black poor in the previous 25 years. Detailed studies of economic mobility (.pdf) over the last 40 years by the Pew Charitable Trust document the stagnation of black male wages over that time. The same studies contain the sobering finding that children living in black middle class families in 1968 were less likely to be middle class in 2007 than white middle-class children of the same generation.

McFadden and Whitehead’s message of progress was delivered to an audience still old enough to remember and identify with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Political scientist Jennifer Hochshild’s 1995 book, Facing up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of a Nation documents a decline in that vision of shared destiny among African Americans that McFadden and Whitehead could not have foreseen. Sorting through decades of survey data and other documents about American attitudes about the American Dream, Hochshild found troubling divides by race and class. One of her findings was that well-off African Americans were “succeeding more and enjoying it less,” while the poorest third of African Americans were as hopeful about the American dream in the mid-1990s as they had been in the mid-1960s. (p.5)

What I mean to suggest by all of this is the possibility that “Successful” is but one reflection of the cultural, economic and political fragmentation among African Americans and in communities of color. (And yes, I am aware that I am lumping the Canadian-born Drake in with African Americans. He is a member of L’il Wayne’s Young Money crew, and I think his success in the US is meaningful in this context.)  Sadly, John Whitehead likely met his end in 2004 as a result of that fragmentation. He was gunned down outside his Philadelphia rowhome in May, 2004, as he worked on his car. The murder remains unsolved. His partner, Gene Mc Fadden, died of cancer in 2006.

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We Just Wanna Be Successful: The Shrinking of the Black American Dream by Kim Pearson, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.