When Trying To Look Conscious Goes Wrong: Why Is Rick Ross Poverty Pimping in Nigeria?

September 25, 2012  |  

When I saw the alternative version to Rick Ross’ Hold Me Back video, which was shot in Nigeria, my mouth dropped. Literally, my jaw was hanging open. I think I swallowed a fly.

The blog, Africa is a Country, was one of the first blogs I’d seen post the video, which they say was shot in Obalende, a poor section of Lagos, Nigeria. The original video for the song was shot in the slums of New Orleans but was quickly banned by BET from its airwaves. However, there’s no telling how BET or any other station will receive this new installment, which features a shirtless (of course) Ross rapping his obscenity-laced lyrics, including his most reflective chorus to date: “Dese N***as/Hoes tryin’ hold me back,” on top of black and white images of free roaming goats, half-dressed Nigerian children playing in a heap of garbage and Ross and crew, fully encrusted in diamonds and platinum, riding around in luxury boats and cars through the slums.

The Internet response to the video has been mixed; from folks issuing genuine concern about the message of this video to flat out admiration from others, who feel Ross has exposed the real Lagos, where between 60 to 80 percent live well below the poverty line.  However, I am befuddled about the message we, the viewers, are supposed to get from this video. Like, who exactly are these n***as and h**s attempting to hold Ross back? The woman washing clothes in the river? Maybe it’s the men in mosques making salaat? Or maybe it’s the goats trying to hold him baaaaaa….It’s hard to tell exactly what the point of the video, which opens with news footage of a Nigerian general speaking about the 1960 Biafra War and closes with the Nigerian soccer team, is trying to make other than being inflammatory. Maybe that’s the point.

Spin Magazine recently called Rick Ross, whose moniker was swiped from real life crack dealer Freeway Ricky Ross, the “master of someone else’s reality.” Born William Leonard Roberts II, Ross can best be described as a manufactured studio gangster rapper. Unlike the fearsome drug kingpin-in-charge persona that he has taken in his music, Ross’s roots are a little more on the straight and narrow than what he has presented. From his small Christian high school to public school, where he starred on the football team, Ross would graduate and go on to do a couple of semesters of criminal justice at the historically black college, Albany State University, in Albany, Ga. Afterward, the 36-year-old rapper would attend DOC training academy, and upon successfully completing that program, he would be assigned to the South Florida Reception Center in Dade County.

Ross was on his second studio album of personal narratives derived from his so-called underworld, dealing at the helm of his drug empire, when a photograph surfaced online showing the Florida native, rocking a correction officer’s uniform, shaking hands and receiving an award with then-head of the South Florida Reception Center. Ross quickly and adamantly denied it was him in the picture, citing Photoshop-savvy “online hackers” as the culprits. However, the website Smoking Gun, would uncover an old payroll record revealing that Ross had earned about $25,000 a year as a correction officer between December 1995 and June 1997.  In fact, Ross had pretty much a clear police record for most of his life, until after his rap career started. Then the narrative changed from “Haters gonna hate” to “Well, my best friend (who really was in prison)’s pop told me to go get a job, so I did.”

This should have killed Ross’s career, much like it did the perpetrators before him (i.e. Vanilla Ice and Boss) – or at the very least inspired a shift in character (i.e. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube).   But as Andreas Hale, editor of The Well Versed aptly wrote in his first paragraph about Ross’ identity crisis, “This isn’t as much about Rick Ross as it is about the culture that praises his method of entertaining the masses. Without there being a trace of dope boy authenticity in his music, Rick Ross has pulled off the greatest feat in the history of hip hop. He singlehandedly changed hip-hop’s motto from “Keep It Real” to “It’s Just Entertainment.”

 And the beat plays on.

Questions of authenticity aside, what’s most troubling about Ross’s persona, and subsequently the music he champions, is that this reality is an option for him. He had a choice, much like many of us who graduate high school, do the college thing and end up gainfully employed. This was not a lowly teen who came from a life of serious struggle. There are no tragic back stories, which suggest that drug peddling, and eventually drug music, were the only escape he had from glaring poverty. And there is no remorse and self-reflection within his lyrics. In Ross’s world of drugs, violence, designer labels and fast women, he stays winning. Thus walking through the slums of Nigeria, or New Orleans for that matter, screaming about cooking crack and how these imaginary foes are trying to hold you back, just seems like another way in which Ross is exploiting the conditions of people, who really have very little choice in the matter – or at least the same choice of perception that he does.

Sean Jacobs, writer with Africa is a Country, has a different view of the video:

“The negative reaction against Ross is understandable, though misplaced (and boring). It’s like the cottage industry calling for “positive” news about “Africa” in Western media. But equally problematic are those praising Ross for “exposing” poor conditions in Lagos when Ross is merely using Nigeria as a backdrop to make him look hard: “We’re so hard we throw dollar bills off boats to poor kids in Nigeria.” And the references to the Biafra war and old soccer games are baffling. If he was trying to show how Nigerians are struggling with poverty or resisting their conditions, why not use more recent/relevant images like Occupy Nigeria?”

Usually this kind of poverty in videos is reserved for late night infomercials featuring Sally Struthers and her Christian children organization comrades. These celebrities would rely on our myopic views of third-world countries to illicit sympathy and make us feel good about purchasing some product, which they tell us will help some poverty-stricken persons in need. In the video, we have a well-fed guy, with enough wealth around his neck that could probably feed the parts of impoverished Nigeria, rapping, mean-mugging and flexing next to barefoot kids, who have next to nothing. What this video proves is that the old tried and true effort of leveraging images of poverty, disease and famine still has its financial appeal. And Ross, who has no problem pimping out the plight of the truly disenfranchised (much in the same way he did Trayvon Martin and Malcolm X), among other rappers, who rely on the stories of the downtrodden, will continue to be the sole beneficiary to this “authenticity” that his fantasy life will afford him.

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