Chance the Rapper & the Case for a Rappers Union

by R.L. Stephens II on December 31, 2013

Courtney “Jamal” Dewar staggered to the offices of Cinematic Music Group and climbed to the roof. With a bible clutched in his arms, and his feet high above the Manhattan pavement, the talented rapper known as Capital STEEZ leaped to his death shortly after midnight on December 24, 2012. He was 19 years old.

Capital STEEZ was a visionary. In his short life he founded the emerging rap group Pro Era and coined the name for the burgeoning New York rap scene “Beast Coast“. He discovered fellow MC and frequent collaborator, Joey Bada$$, while the two were still in high school. Soon, Pro Era attracted the attention of Cinematic Music Group, a small New York record label, and their fame began to rise.

Despite the fact that Capital STEEZ had created Pro Era, and brought Joey under his wing, Cinematic Music Group wasn’t particularly interested in promoting him and two months after STEEZ released his debut album, Amerikkkan Korruption, he found himself on the outside looking in at his own creation.

It was Joey who Cinematic had been after the whole time, and though Steez had impressed [Cinematic], he hadn’t convinced [Cinematic] that he would be a good investment… In July, Joey and his mother officially inked a deal with Shipes, and soon after registered Pro Era as an LLC owned by her and Joey. Eli Rosenberg, Capital STEEZ: King Capital

Disillusioned by struggles in his career, and dissatisfied with the rap industry itself, it was no accident that Capital STEEZ found himself on the Cinematic’s roof that evening.
Now, surely Cinematic is not to blame for the totality of Courtney Dewar’s troubles. Yet, after perusing various sources, particularly Eli Roseberg’s account of the young rapper’s life, it’s obvious that Dewar’s exposure to the rap industry had a negative impact on his life.

So how can artists like Capital STEEZ protect themselves and find support? One potential solution is for rappers to unionize.

Chance the Rapper & The Call for Unionization

Last week, the internet was in a frenzy over Beyoncé and her most recent album; one writer went so far as to call the album an example of the “Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work“.

I don’t want to wade too deeply into the quagmire that is the fight over Beyoncé’s politics. Yet, the same week that Beyoncé was making an appearance for Walmart, Chance the Rapper went on national television to speak out against the violence occurring in his hometown of Chicago while also declaring that he wants to create a rappers union capable of challenging record label hegemony within the rap industry. Now that’s radical Black politics.

The rappers’ union. That’s really what I’m working on in 2014… Rappers need dental. Rappers need health… There’s certain benefits that don’t come with being an artist, and it’s mainly rappers. A lot of people get done over the wrong way in music when they’re signing deals. They want you all to sign to the label, and then you make another label and you sign your friends, and then they get a label. It’s kind of this pyramid scheme that just keeps grabbing more and more people, but no one really knows what they’re signing when they’re signing those deals.

A label is ‘cool’, everyone wants to have a label, but if we could just start a union I think it would definitely work for the best. Chance the Rapper, Interview with Arsenio Hall

The Rappers Union in History

The rap industry is deeply exploitative. Seriously, it’s really bad. We’ve all heard the horror stories of artists who have sold millions of albums, yet ended up penniless.  And as we can see from the tragedy of Capital STEEZ’ death, the depths of record industry exploitation can go far deeper than just money. Many rappers are aware of their vulnerable position within the industry, and Chance the Rapper is not the first to propose the idea of a rappers union.

In 1998, Busta Rhymes, in an interview with Rolling Stone, spoke on the necessity of unionization within hip-hop.

We shoulda formed a union a long time ago. If we all got a similar agenda, why not pool together, get a little account where we all pay these union dues? When one nigga gets fucked over at a label, we all take some money from the union dues and go outta the country – relax, vacation, treat each other to piña coladas and live, party, all day, by ourselves. When they come to terms, then we resurface. Busta Rhymes, Interview

Irv Gotti, speaking in 2011, spoke about a plan for a rappers union that would’ve rivaled the professional sports unions.

In the music business, the artists, we have no union. There’s no health care, it’s nothing like that. It should be done… [The money will] go towards an annuity, it’ll go towards a retirement fund, so now when you’re a rapper and you aren’t making so many records no more, maybe you got a million dollars that built up when you were hot… Baseball, football, all the other forms of entertainment have a union, they have representatives, they have pensions, they have all this other stuff… We brought in the dude that did the baseball union and he was going to put it all together, and it was beautiful. Irv Gotti, Interview

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Lupe Fiasco in his 2011 song “Lupe Back” offered a similar call to the one Irv Gotti made, saying,  “Artists let’s mobilize and unionize like the athletes“.

Would A Rappers Union Work?

I don’t know if Chance the Rapper’s union would solve the problems for rap artists because the music industry is complicated. Like any political effort, unionization would come with its own set of advantages and flaws, but wouldn’t it be cool to try? I mean, rappers are giving it a shot in Tunisia.

A lot of internet ink is spilled analyzing the impact of rap music and culture, with a lot of focus on the negativity and oppression that many artists perpetuate. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that even with their considerable cultural influence, rappers remain hyper-exploited commodities within the entertainment industry.

Even as we critique their shortcomings, we should make more of an effort to acknowledge the material reality of their position in relationship to larger systems of power. A proper union would not only partially address this economic exploitation, but it would also provide the leverage for artists to discuss different themes and topics without the limitations of record label interference- perhaps offering a tool to address the misogyny and violence that often characterizes popular music.

I’m excited to see where Chance the Rapper takes this unionization idea. As his star rises in 2014, at a minimum, rap music will have a thoughtful new voice at the forefront of the genre.

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