Selling Pain for Profit: The Spectre That’s Haunting Hip-Hop and America

by Jon-Vincent Martinez

Jon-Vincent Martinez is a Biology major from Midwest City, OK who wrote this essay in Tim Bradford’s Fall 2019 “From Spirituals to Hip-Hop” class.

  1. Song 31 -Noname
  2. Members Only -Noname
  3. Foreword -Tyler, The Creator
  4. For Sale? (Interlude) -Kendrick Lamar
  5. Untitled 08 -Kendrick Lamar
  6. Keep the Devil Off -Big K.R.I.T
  7. Bury Me in Gold -Big K.R.I.T
  8. We the People…. -A Tribe Called Quest

I was driving home after a late day in my chemistry lab back in January, when the new song called “Song 31” by my favorite rapper Noname came on. It began like the universe did; in an instant, there was an explosion of existence. Over the chain-reaction induced layers of powerful percussion, bass, and producer Phoelix’s vocals, Noname’s bars were as energetic and dense as the quark-soup the universe was born of. Among the song’s initial few seconds a specific line reverberated in my head: “I sell pain for profit, and I see prophet watching.” The powerful line “I sell pain for profit” is sprinkled throughout the rest of the song; each time it pops back up it’s delivered with a deliberately bittersweet sing-song-like tonality as if Noname is someone who’s trying to be optimistic after witnessing a tragedy. She has. The chorus provides more insight into what selling pain for profit means when Phoelix sings :

Truth be told, I wear my heart on my sleeve.

Watch you sit it on the shelf

now my body got cold

I swore we’d never leave

Had to do it for myself, to find my praise

go get your weapons. (Song 31)

(citation here)

The chilling implications of the chorus got me to ponder what it all meant in the full context in which we, as modern Americans live, and my answer is one of exploitation, commodity, and identity.

“The Ghost of the Living”

There’s this new, very cutting-edge and underground political theorist out there by the name of Karl Marx. He believed that in capitalism the upper class owns the means of production, such as factories and resources (think recording studios and musical equipment) and the working class would sell their labor power to the upper class in exchange for wages. To an American like myself, that idea seemed, initially, like an intrinsic quality of society, but Marx viewed the commodified labor as exploitative and alienating for the working class. That feeling of alienation is the separation from the fruits of one’s labor, which Marx believed to be the source of human fulfillment (Alienation). If looked at closely, the chorus of “Song 31” echoes the same sentiments as Marx. In the line “Truth be told, I wear my heart on my sleeve” the heart could symbolize the innate human desire to succeed, survive, and be accepted by peers, and when Phoelix sings: “watch you sit it on the shelf” he’s noticing the upper-class capitalists take his “heart,” or “human-essence,” as a Marxist would call it, and they exploit and commodify it for profit, and his heart goes cold as the alienation sets in.

“Rhymin’ with Casualty

Thinking about alienation reminded me of the words of Tricia Rose’s words on rap’s New York origins in the book Black Noise. She says: “… Hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect” (Rose 21). Marx described how capitalism came with financial crises and business busts such as these which would leave people destitute; Rose also cites it as the impetus of the imagination that created Hip-Hop those years ago (Marx). Rose also states: “Hip hop artists use style as a form of identity formation that plays on class distinctions and hierarchies by using commodities to claim cultural terrain…” (Rose 36). It is here that Rose assets that Hip-Hop artists used consumption of commodities to flip the established hierarchies established in neoliberalism on its head, to flaunt how they’ve succeeded in a system whose crises and busts are inherently rigged against them. This point may have been valid in 1994 when the book was written, but as Hip-Hop became more popular, more capitalists of the upper-class looked at Hip-Hop culture and saw profit watching.

In 2017 Rap overtook Rock as the most popular genre of music in terms of consumption in mainstream America (2017 U.S. Music Year-End Report). As citizens of neoliberal, capitalist America, we’re no strangers to terms such as consumption and consumable, but we’re also used to being labelled as consumers because a free-market economy is at the core of American ideals. The American dream is founded on the principle that if you put in enough work you can become prosperous and profit off that work. America also prides itself on its self-proclaimed “freedom of choice” that comes from the competition of the profit-driven free market. What has this meant for Hip-Hop? The cultural profiteers of the music industry have an even larger target in their scope, a target which they were already, (and had no intention to stop), appropriating.

“Hip Hop Hypocrisy, Sold in a White Economy”

Appropriation can be used as a tool to assimilate; it’s been done countless times throughout history. As Deborah Root put it in her book Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, & the Commodification of Difference, “To consume the commodities that have come to stand for other cultures is to neutralize the ambivalence cultural difference is able to generate and to extract excitement precisely from this ambivalence”(Root 69). Hip-Hop started as a distant and foreign music form to those uninitiated to the lifestyle but grew into the massive cultural phenomenon that we’re amid today. While many have cited Hip-Hop as a new era of black music where the artists are finally being accepted and their art appreciated, Root states, “In order to work, the objects, events, and experiences that are commodified and marketed as cultural difference are dependent on concepts of cultural and aesthetic authenticity” (Root 69). This suggests that the so-called acceptance of Black culture that we’ve seen lately could just be another tool for assimilation, and that it could be a hollow attempt for capital, only. I was thinking about her book as the next song in my playlist began. The song was titled: “Members Only”, and in it Noname raps : “ Hip hop hypocrisy, sold in a white economy/ Enchanted semantics of ghetto bibliography/ Keep the images of blacks all the same/ Keep the dollars in their pockets so the lyrics never change” (“Members Only”). Her perception of the lyrics in pop-rap is that they’re just the doings of the predatory labels in the industry who want to keep Hip-Hop a stagnant and materialist genre so they can continue to profit off the artists.

I remember a scene from the 2018 film, Sorry to Bother You, which starred Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius, who ends up selling out at his job for a paycheck. When he’s at his boss’s party that was full of white people, they coerce him into rapping even though he can’t. When he starts to fail on the mic and his boss starts to look disappointed, Cassius rhythmically yells: “N*gga sh*t” into the mic and the crowd begins to cheer for him and chant along. This is the kind of behavior Noname points out in the Song “Members Only” and Root describes in “Cannibal Culture”, the notion that the commodified culture must have a certain amount of ambivalence to excite the consumers of said culture. Not different enough to be aversive, just different enough to invoke the feeling of rebellion.

“We got Money, We Got Diamonds”

Stanfield and Noname did an interview together and both expressed similar attitudes towards the meaning of art, patronage, and the Black experience in America. In it Stanfield stated: “No, I don’t really consume much of anything—music, or movies, or anything” (Noname Speaks). Noname responded with: “Yeah, right?… it’s just because it’s not good. It’s so sad. Music and movies right now… It’s like, once you see one thing is selling, you just keep doing that thing” (Noname Speaks). Both Stanfield and Noname feel like they see the same thing rehashed and sold back to them as something different, the materialism and homogenous pop-rap topics, as well as the sequel and remake culture of Hollywood, and they’re both tired of it, as many are. Big name artists such as Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent have lit into the new-school SoundCloud rappers of today for using similar flows and their lackluster annunciation (Snoop Dogg). In “Members only” Noname criticizes the disparity between the lyrics of rap music and the lived experience of Black Americans, in lyrics such as: “We got money, we got diamonds. And we got money, we got housin’, where schools cut fundin’, life so funny” (“Members Only”). She’s tired of hearing about brands and jewelry when there are many people from impoverished communities that these artists come from who still struggle, and in the song she portrays modern rap music that she hears as monotonous, repetitive, and hollow, similarly to the way political theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer saw magazines, music, and consumer culture in general back in 1947.

“How many Chains Can I get, Til I’m Considered a Slave?”

The concept of The Culture Industry is a blisteringly harsh critique on capitalist society and the art it produces. The term was coined in the book “Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments” by Adorno and Horkheimer, and it states that all mass-produced culture is garbage used to profit off and to pacify the masses in a capitalist society (Adorno). To quote directly: “Culture today is infecting everything with sameness, Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and are all unanimous together” (Adorno). Adorno notes that cultural pieces like art, music, movies, and magazines have all been infected with a sameness of appearance, sound, and message due to the machine-like synthesis of culture and sole goal of profit in the culture industry. This links up with the one major critique of Hip-Hop that has persisted since its inception was the ingrained materialism, which has been deconstructed by people such as Tricia Rose, but the criticism continues to be a popular one. In his song “Foreword,” Tyler, The Creator questions such materialism in lines such as “How many chains can I get til I’m considered a slave?” and “How many slaves can there be until Nat Turner arrives?” (Foreword). Nat Turner lead a slave rebellion in 1831 and Tyler mentioning him indicates that he’s feeling like a slave to the industry or the entire system, and that he’s hoping that someone will step up to show everyone that they were made for more than cheap entertainment. In all the songs I’d heard over my drive, I heard the longing for freedom and the discontent with the music industry and record companies specifically.

“My Name is Lucy, Kendrick”

A record deal used to be the optimal outcome in the hearts of all aspiring musicians. However, lately record deals are becoming seen as a deal with the devil, a devil who will promise you the world in exchange for your soul, your creations. The song “For Sale? (Interlude)” by Kendrick Lamar came on and showcases just how modern rappers see the record industry. In the second verse, Kendrick raps from the perspective of “Lucy/Lucifer” and it goes:

Lucy gon’ fill your pockets

Lucy gon’ move your mama out of Compton

Inside the gigantic mansion like I promised

Lucy just want your trust and loyalty, avoiding me?

It’s not so easy, I’m at these functions accordingly. (For Sale?)

Lucy is pursuing Kendrick and trying to entice him with wealth, like eve in the garden of Eden, but this Lucifer is a different kind of snake, a record company who sees profit watching.

It is here that I postulate that this feeling of making a deal with the devil that is often expressed in rap music is a feeling that we’ve all felt at one time or another due to the oppressive and exploitative nature of capitalism. Whether it be that shitty underpaying job we had to keep because we needed the money, or the elitist slog that academia can be. Evil necessities, as my girlfriend reminds me when I feel like quitting, but the truth is that these feelings of alienation and exploitation aren’t necessities no matter how absolute they feel. Art is a reflection of reality, and the reality is that many Black and Latinx Americans are impoverished and racing against others who have a head start, and those Black and Latinx people who do succeed are hit with a deadly combination of imposter syndrome and survivor’s guilt.

“Blue Faces”

It’s been quite a journey on my way home, and through my thoughts and observations of the music. The next song that comes on is “Untitled 08” by Kendrick Lamar. The hook is interesting and goes as follows:

Why so sad?

Walking around with them blue faces

She said I’m down on my luck

And it’s something I gotta have

Blue faces

I hit the bank today and told them color me bad

Blue faces

Get that new money, and it’s breaking me down honey. (Untitled 08).

The chorus is a play on words about how all that money Kendrick gets from rapping still can’t buy him happiness, with blue faces having the double meaning of sadness as well as the new 100-dollar bills (which feature a blue line and a more blueish tint than the older bills). Maybe it’s because he knows that he got that money from a deal with the devil, or maybe it’s because he’s still experiencing that survivor’s guilt or feelings of alienation, maybe even all the above. Either way, during the chorus he sings: “get that new money… it’s breaking me down honey,” a testament to the hollow superficiality to the riches promised in the American dream.

“Keep the Devil Off/ Bury Me in Gold”

A savvy capitalist would claim that the commodification of Hip-Hop is beneficial because it lifts those of less-privileged backgrounds, and there may be some truth to that idea. However, there are always ulterior motives that negate the slim positives of entering the record industry. Labels purposely make contracts that exploit the often, young artists whose backgrounds of poverty almost guarantee that they’re eager to start making money. There’s an infamous record contract called the “multiple rights” , or more appropriately the 360 deal where a label is entitled to earnings from all the artist’s activities (McDonald). These activities include merchandise, tours, music sales, music streams, publishing, and even cameos in tv and movies! If our art is an expression of our souls, then signing to these labels truly is selling your soul to the devil. Many artists swear by staying independent. For example, Big K.R.I.T left Def Jam because of their lack of investment in his career and his epiphany that he “bring[s] more to the table” than what he’s getting returns for (Johnson). In the chorus of the song “Keep the Devil Off” from his first album since leaving Def Jam, Big K.R.I.T sings:

What good are those riches

if you’re six feet under,

lord be my witness

gotta keep the devil off. (Keep the devil off)

K.R.I.T understands that being signed to a major label is a popular symbol of success, and thus riches. He realizes, however that we can’t take our material wealth with us when we die, so “keep the devil off” and retain our souls.

If you remain unconvinced, let’s play devil’s advocate. Say there’s a record label who genuinely holds the artists’ wishes in high regard. That should be great for the artists, right? When it comes to selling something, one of the motives is always profit, no matter how “benevolent” a company may present itself. Without profit there’s no business. Labels are supposed to invest in their artists, promote them, and handle distribution of their music, that should be worth the amount of profit they make from off the top, right? Well…modern technology diminishes the benefits of a record label significantly. There are some relatively cheap computer music programs (some are even free) out there such as Logic Pro, FL Studio, and Ableton Live, which make entry-level musicianship more accessible. With social media, it’s very easy for an independent artist to promote themselves. One example is Chance the Rapper, who has won 3 Grammys at the time of writing this while also putting all his music on streaming sites for free and by using social media to spread his music. Thanks to these factors, it’s easier than ever to make and promote your music in a grassroots way like artists such as Chance and Noname. Signing a contract with the devil may bring instant gratification, but to quote Big K.R.I.T : “ Like, what good is gold if you never here? What good is gold that you never wear?” (“Bury Me in Gold”). You may get more money fast, but what good is it when you don’t own the complete rights to your music, and a label dictates your legacy, your art, the expression of your soul.

“I Sell Pain for Profit, Not Propaganda” (Song 31 Reprise)

My thoughts were interrupted by a beep and I looked down to see that my car’s on E, so I pulled over and stopped at a gas station. I paused my music and parked my car and my thoughts by the pump and headed inside to get a drink and pay for some gas. Walking in, I was immediately bombarded by brands, advertisements, and “Nice for What” by Drake playing on the cashier’s radio. As I was browsing the drink section, I saw a large portion of the cooler dedicated to Sprite and that, in combination with the Drake song in the background, I was reminded of that goofy sprite commercial he did a while back. I started thinking about that bounce-infused single that I was hearing, and the Lauryn Hill sample, and the girl-power positive lyrics and was initially thinking that it was a genuine celebration of empowered women. But before my mind could even settle the thought, I recalled Drake’s problematic history with women and how his female audience was starting to fade due to said history. I instantly realized that this song just seemed like a publicity move to bring the audience back, going even so far as to sample one of Hip-Hop’s most powerful feminist figures, Lauryn Hill, for additional “authenticity.”

Walking back to my car, I further reflected on the line “I sell pain for profit, not propaganda” (Song 31). What separates Noname profiting off her music from the label profiting off a signed artist? The answer lies yet again in exploitation and creative control. When Noname sells her music, merchandise, and show tickets, she does so to live comfortably enough to remain creative, but most importantly for her fans. She points this out in “Song 31” with lyrics such as: “All my everything is for you. All my terrible sense of humor and critical interviews. All my pearly gated redemption and casual afternoons” (Song 31). These distinctions she keeps making when describing her purpose reminded me of an excellent passage in Report on the Construction of Situations by Guy Debord, that reads:

A revolutionary action within culture must aim to enlarge life, not merely to express or explain it. It must attack misery on every front. Revolution is not limited to determining the level of industrial production, or even to determining who is to be the master of such production. It must abolish not only the exploitation of humanity, but also the passions, compensations and habits which that exploitation has engendered. (Debord 11)

(Debord 11)–should I cite here or in the block pg?

Over her career she’s rapped about several hot topics such as: police brutality, abortion, drug addiction, capitalism, love, and loss. She covers these specific societal ills in her lyrics to “attack [the] misery” of Black Americans “from all fronts.” However, what separates her music from someone recuperating tragedies for capital gain is that she morally objects becoming a commodity and greedily hoarding money, she makes sure that her passions will not be exploited by the devilish record companies by staying independent. This is they key to a truly revolutionary action according to Debord. In her Interview with Lakeith Stanfield she provides further evidence: “ I feel like it’s not natural for a human being to be so greatly idolized and to have these obscene amounts of money. I don’t ever want to sign a label! I don’t ever want to get closer to fame or to that kind of money!”(Noname Speaks). Sticking to her moral guns, Noname uses her art to express herself and the contemporary issues of American society without recuperating the ideas into vapid entertainment to distract us from the woes of everyday life.

“We the People….”

It was a long drive that day, but my playlist was taking me on a quest to the east coast as I was one song away from home. “We the People….” by A Tribe Called Quest had been on my mind since it came out in 2016 due to its excellent coverage of many of the ills that plague America, but at that moment, I was focused on the line that Q-tip raps: “ Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality, And for a salary I’d probably do that shit sporadically” (A Tribe Called Quest). Q-Tip criticizes shallow entertainment, but he expresses something that not many people do when criticizing capitalism and consumerist culture, he doesn’t blame the individuals who participate in it. He realizes that escapism can lead to apathy, but he also acknowledges the fact that everyone needs money to survive in a capitalist society and that everyone has their price. He continues to criticize these guilty pleasures in the line: “The OG Gucci boots are smitten with iguanas”( A Tribe Called Quest). He’s comparing those guilty pleasures that keep us unfocused on real issues to Gucci boots and explains that even though Gucci boots are supposed to be made with high quality leather they were often made with cheaper iguana skin. The guilty pleasures of life, whether they be designer boots, songs about partying, or even reality tv, are marketed to us as real and even if they’re just lies created to sell us commodities.

The Spectre: Capital Punishment

After I made it home, I decided to take all these ideas I’ve pondered and channel them into something creative. I call it “Capital Punishment”, and it goes as follows:

They smile at us with false sincerity,
ulterior motives buried under charity.
They claim to cherish you and me,
Then force us to live in disparity.
Stockholm syndrome affects 100% of Americans.
They steal from us to make bigger inheritance,
And sell us bullshit as imperatives.
Lady liberty’s our consumerist heroin(e).
Take my passions and replace them with addiction
Make me work to death and call it conviction
Break up with my happy and start seeing prescriptions,
Rake up your money as I deal with the symptoms.
The poltergeist of profit calls and beckons,
The ghosts of the living, lost without our human essence
If there’s one thing we can learn from our artists’ lessons
Go get your weapons.[1] (Capital Punishment)

Profit always finds a way to possess our art and messages over time, which can corrupt and recuperate the meaning of our works, so the only way to fix the issue is to revolt against and change the system itself.

Works Cited

“2017 U.S. Music Year-End Report.” What People Watch, Listen To and Buy,

Adorno, Theodor W., et al. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford Univ. Press, 2009.

“Alienation.” Glossary of Terms: Alienation, Encyclopedia of Marxism,

A Tribe Called Quest. “We the People….” We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, Epic Records, 2016. Spotify,

Big K.R.I.T. “Bury Me in Gold” 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, BMG/Multi Alumni, 2017. Spotify,

—. “Keep the Devil Off” 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, BMG/Multi Alumni, 2017.Spotify,

Debord, Guy, et al. Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action. Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action., 1957.

Johnson, Cherise. “Big K.R.I.T. Reveals Def Jam Departure Was Result of Him Understanding His Worth.” HipHopDX, HipHopDX, 13 Oct. 2016, result-of-him-understanding-his-worth#.

Kendrick Lamar. “For Sale? (Interlude)” To Pimp a Butterfly, Aftermath entertainment/ Interscope Records/Top Dawg Entertainment, 2015. Spotify,

—. “Untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.” untitled unmastered. Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records, 2016. Spotify,

Martinez, Jon-Vincent. “Capital Punishment”

Marx, Karl, et al. The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Books, 1967.

McDonald, Heather. “About 360 Deals in the Music and the Associated Controversy.” The Balance Careers, The Balance, 4 Nov. 2018, 2460343.

“Noname Speaks with Lakeith Stanfield about Staying Independent.” Document Journal, 12 Apr. 2019, stanfield-about-staying-independent/.

Noname. “Members Only”. YouTube,

—. “Song 31” 2018. Spotify,

Riley, Boots, director. Sorry to Bother You. Performance by Lakeith Stanfield, Annapurna Pictures, 2018.

Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference. Westview Press, 1998.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. University Press of New England, 1994.

Snoop Dogg impersonates today’s rappers’ sound-alike flow. Youtube, uploaded by JimmyNiKricket, 1 October 2014,

Tyler, The Creator. “Foreword” Flower Boy. Columbia, 2017. Spotify,

Artist Credits: Fin @Goth15era on Twitter, Other artists from Diverse Leftist Initiative found @PersonofContent on twitter.

[1] Listen to the song here: