December 11th, 2008

I-talian Money?

“Arab Money” may not have musical legs to stand on (remains to be seen — I think it’s still climbing up urban radio playlists), but it sure is the talk of the virtual water cooler. Most of my posts and comments on the song & its fallout have been distillations of email conversations with awesome thinkers (thx, esp to Kevin, Rachel, Marisol, Elliott, Jace).

Yesterday, Ted “Kufiya Spotting” Swedenburg started another “Arab Money” email convo, this time mostly among Middle East-studying anthropologists / poli-scientists. One of whom responded —

hard to get really worked up about this — for one, it’s just really bad hip hop. I mean, really weak. I guess the question is whether was this a deliberate attempt to draw attention by a washed-up has-been, or just something the guy was having fun with and never considered the repercussions? From what little I’ve seen from Busta Rhymes on this, it looks like the latter (and the goofiness of the video would support that reading)… but if it’s the former, a calculated outrage, should we get outraged?

to which I replied —

I think [redacted] is right to suspect Busta of the “latter” rather than calculated outrage. His response has certainly seemed to affirm such an interpretation. And, yeah, it’s a pretty weak slice of hip-hop too (though has received a good amount of uptake on urban radio). At the same time, it’s not exactly an either/or question — what Busta has put together here is quite a piece of aestheticized ignorance, the same kind of ignorance that supports Manichean wars on terror and harassment of Arabs here in the US.

this was followed by a good question/comparison, posed by Jessica Winegar

In what ways is this song similar to/different from valorizations of the Italian mafia in hip-hop?

to which, I responded with this —

Good question about comparing “Arab Money” to valorizations of the Italian mafia in hip-hop. I can think of a number of important differences, however — some aesthetic, some structural:

1) Italian-Americans long ago “became white” in this country, so the kind of “representational violence” done by a song full of cartoonish stereotypes has less power to demonize/dehumanize them than it does Arabs or Muslims at this rather fraught moment in history. (Of course, one could argue that the cartoonish stereotypes of “Arab Money” easily enough descend into absurdity, though I can’t say how common a mode of reception that actually is.)

2) Hip-hop’s valorizations of the mafia, mostly borrowed from Hollywood depictions, may similarly revel in stereotypes, but in the main they are positive, strong caricatures rather than the smorgasbord of references that Busta packs into “Arab Money,” many of which have to do with his own power to consume Middle Eastern commodities (“I got Middle East women and Middle East bread”). And sure, Busta’s point, as repeated in defensive interviews, is that — and we may or may not take offence — “Arabs” are good about working hard and saving and keeping money “in the family,” which may all be construed as positive values, but I think we can all see how this folds into some rather familiar Semitic stereotypes, while ignoring the very real poverty afflicting Arab societies.

3) The US has been waging war against Arab societies and harassing/surveilling Arab citizens. It’s been a while since we went to war with Italy and blanketly demonized Italian-Americans as mafiosos. (As an Italian-American myself, not to mention a lifelong hip-hop fan/practitioner/scholar, I’m something of a connoisseur of these Godfather/Goodfella images.)

any other opinions out there? (academic pedigree / Italian ancestry not required)


  • 1. Caro  |  December 11th, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    I wouldn’t be so fast on the complete and thorough “whitening” of Italians (and to a lesser extent, Irish). While the mafia-related images have progressively taken on a positive tinge, they also carry a lingering tinge of arrivism, and the class insecurity that implies. There is the specter of thugishness that hangs onto people like Mario Cuomo (or Nino Scalia, for that matter) that means that even when they are in positions of power, they are never fully of the ruling class. The privilege of Italians who can be marked as Eye-talians is one that can always be taken away (otherwise, why do words like goombah and guido — not so far from guinea — still circulate so easily?).

    Granted, that will only get so bad because we’re unlikely to wage any kind of war with Italy. But remember how close at least some part of the Arab-descended population here was to becoming “white” — if it hadn’t been for 1st Gulf War, then 9-11.

    Just to complicate things…

  • 2. Nina  |  December 12th, 2008 at 9:59 am

    I agree with Caro. The “whitenening” isn’t complete and though anti-Italian sentiment may not have as strong repercussions as anti-Arab sentiment, the subtle manifestations of it do harm people.
    The mafia representations may seem positive to you, but I’d say the average american doesn’t see it the same way. Rather than strong and smart, they read it as “menacing and crafty”.

    My take.

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  December 12th, 2008 at 10:18 am

    That’s interesting, guys. I have to admit, having grown up in Cambridge/Boston in a family where Italianness was the dominant cultural orientation and having spent a lot of my youth hanging with other 2nd/3rd gen Italian-American kids, I’ve always seen things like the Godfather and Goodfellas and the Sopranos as rather affirmative texts, despite that, yeah, those guys are gangsters. (Of course, while some see such figures as “menacing and crafty,” a great many Americans admire the gangster figure, if ambivalently.) Especially as hip-hop artists — offering another influential set of texts — joined in the chorus of affirmation/emulation, my peers and I would look to (and in some ways model ourselves after) these images as special resources for fashioning our selves in bold, proud, and distinctive ways (especially as we wrestled with wiggerdom). It was a form of (strategic?) essentialism, and I think that’s the very thing that public figures such as Cuomo still draw on from time to time — where, I think, it serves more as a source of power than marginalization.

    It’s unclear to me that we really need to take as seriously the continued circulation of terms like goombah, guido, guinea, w.o.p., what-have-you. Of course, it depends on where you live, and given a certain amount of Italian-American hegemony, or at least saturation, here in the northeast, these terms — at least in my lifetime — have always had the ring of rather outdated jokes. (Similarly, being called a “honky” never really stung — whiteboy on the other hand…) I really don’t think Italians are discriminated against in a way that even remotely resembles what Arabs in this country face. Rather, we now live in a culture where “fugeddaboutit” is another charming bit of ethnic-face to put on, as mainstream as “you go, girl” or “you got some ‘splaining to do” — and though the company of those latter two phrases might call attention to the “incomplete whitening” (I like that notion) of I-talians in the US, there’s also something so utterly mundane about it that it seems far from threatening. I can’t think of an equivalent for Arab-Americans. I don’t think “salaam alaikum,” for example, functions in the same way.

    But, hey, I’m biased, no doubt — and privileged, as a mutt with an Anglicized name, to be able to pass for plain vanilla. Whattayagonnado?

  • 4. Gavin  |  December 12th, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Boy this song has legs — at least in The Discourse! Am I in the minority in thinking this song isn’t very disrespectful? Ill-informed perhaps (don’t think Arafat is much of a gambler these days), and the fake Arab hook is embarassing (though an Arab friend thought it was funny — this was before it was on the radio though)… but this seems similar to the mafioso caricatures in the way that it’s a superficial hodgepodge of media-driven cliches — that most of what Busta knows about Arab culture comes from TV and movies and maybe playing a few shows in Dubai. It’s a clumsy and inconsistent homage that we would have forgotten about if it had remained under the radar as I thought it would… Instead, it picked up steam, so Busta’s intervention must be speaking to something in the culture, something more interesting to me than listing and critiquing all the usual Orientalist tropes he throws together here. I believe that Busta’s respect is genuine: this is a song with no violence, no bitches or hoes [he calls them women!], no profanity, no n-words — all the things I typically hear about in a critique of rap, except a bit of wealth worship. He even re-recorded the Arab part. Here is a, admittedly hamfisted, shout out to a group of people that is still synonymous with “terrorism” in the U.S., and Busta focuses on their family values — THIS is important, not his lack of sophisticated education on geopolitics (I don’t turn to popular entertainment for this — that’s what reading’s for). To me this song and its popularity represents a change in tenor, especially notable after a presidential campaign full of race-baiting, hate-mongering and the T-word — that segments of American society want to imagine a common ground with those Others, a place of mutual respect and mutual enjoyment. It’s the winding down of the Iraq War, it’s the tentative steps Americans must take to begin to wash the blood off our hands. It’s ill-informed because most of the U.S. is, but I find its sentiment refreshing.

  • 5. THT  |  December 12th, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    hey Caro, can you explain this a little further?

    not sure what you mean by…

    “But remember how close at least some part of the Arab-descended population here was to becoming “white” — if it hadn’t been for 1st Gulf War, then 9-11.”

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  December 13th, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Great points, Gavin. I definitely hear you. Who knows, there may yet be some sort of positive/productive/progressive gloss to “Arab Money.” And I guess that’s what I do yearn for in my pop culture. Call me naive, but I really do wish that rappers would pack a little more “sophisticated education on geopolitics” into their rhymes from time to time. No reason that’s not possible, but Busta prolly ain’t the dude.

  • 7. Nabeel Zuberi  |  December 14th, 2008 at 5:07 am

    Context may not be everything, but the USA has seriously hated Arabs and done so for a long time before this particularly ‘fraught moment’ in history. I take the point made by Caro and Nina that we have to consider the ‘not quite white’ too: Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans etc. (e.g. check Jon Stratton’s recent work on the Beastie Boys, The Ramones and in England, Amy Winehouse). But after the United States decided to support Israel wholeheartedly, the anti-Arab racism in the USA has been particularly virulent. It’s far nastier than the Aladdin and rich sheikh stereotypes. The fact that Busta is another racist F*%$ shows that African Americans have also assimilated the ambient US racism against Arabs (and Muslims). This despite as one recent writer has said, Islam being the ‘unofficial religion’ of hip hop. Pretty depressing/ironic too that it takes Colin Powell who presented the US administration lie about weapons of mass destruction in front of the UN to point out to America that there’s nothing wrong with being an Arab or Muslim (American). Every year I come to the US and see at least one t-shirt with ‘camel jockeys’ on it. As for Busta, he hasn’t really grown up since the Leaders of the New School days. Even his greatest beat, Put Your Hands Where Your Eyes Can See, has a video that I would argue is a rather dodgy representation of ‘tribal’ or indigenous people. Give me Old Dirty Bastard any day of the week for that yah yah yah instead. Hasn’t Elizabeth Mendez-Berry written about Busta as one of the high profile rappers with a history of physical violence against women? I love hip hop but it also mediates (often quite directly) the racism and sexism and homophobia of the broader culture. I gave up on Busta a long time ago. I’d rather listen to Immortal Technique or Mr Lif or someone who gives a shit about something beyond their personal whims and desires to consume more of the world and big themselves up. If I was an Arab American, I’d be boiling with rage at this racist music, although the autotuned sonic orientalism is par for the course now. I know you put me on to Illuminarcy, who’s Canadian, but there must be a few Arab-USAnian rappers who must be out there, turning rage into rhymes and making beats for shock and awe. What happened to Mutamassik’s breakcore beats? They would cut ‘Arab money’ down to size. ‘Arab money’ is a drop in the ocean of hate. Wayne, you’ve got the skills to do a mashup of it with The Cure’s Killing an Arab.

  • 8. wayneandwax  |  December 14th, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Thank you, Nabeel, for reminding us (especially U.S.) why there are plenty of good reasons to hear “Arab Money” as outrageous — and for the mashup challenge. Got that Cure acapella?

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  December 14th, 2008 at 11:36 am

    & thx to THT (again) for chronicling the latest chapter of this saga —

    to quote —

    back to the auto-tuned fauxarabic hook, but now with even more orientalist fetishization!

    a3rab pronunciation on the hook, but still a smattering of ‘ay-rabs’ throughout the verses.

    best/worst line has to be n.o.r.e.’s “shorty want me to eat her, but it’s ramadan” zinger.

    call me an infidel, but this is all pretty incredible

  • 10. Caro  |  December 14th, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Wayne, I’m not denying that Italian-Americans (and Afr-Americans and Latinos) fully took on the mafioso image as positive. I was taking it a bit more from the other end — how one has to be interpellated to fully enter white privilege. And it seems to me that Italians — like Jews & Irish — are not allowed fully and irrevocably into the space of the white ruling class.

    THT, I need to go back and look up the references, but the older Arab migrations (mostly Christian Syrians/Lebanese, or at least those not visually marked as Muslim) were tagged as “white” in censuses that didn’t have a separate racial category. Pre-1965, they don’t get racialized in the same way as Latinos, Asians, and South Asians.

  • 11. Kiddid  |  December 14th, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    I’m still waiting on a post that touches on the “Guido-House” genre we were discussing over at the E-Room a month back or so…

    Being yet another American mutt with a heavy mix of Italian in me I’d hafta say I never really perceived stereotypes or terminology like “guinea, guido, goombah, w.o.p.” of Italians as being all that offensive. Just seems dated to me. Granted, I don’t “look” Italian, so maybe I’ve just never really been subjected to it. I dunno. Then again, never heard my pops complain about it either…

  • 12. Nabeel Zuberi  |  December 15th, 2008 at 3:46 am

    Caro, even Indians were classed as ‘white’ then ‘Hindoo’ some time ago in the early 20th century in the USA. Racial categorizations are ‘shifty’ and shifting.

    Wayne, it’d be great to have that Robert Smith acapella.

    Apologies for the hectoring tone of my previous post though. Stating the bleedin’ obvious. I get easily wound up. I get so angry about this war (or should I say these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) I want to throw shoes at someone… You’d think that Edward Said’s Orientalism might have had some more pervasive effect across the board in America. But there seems to be a backlash.


  • 13. wayneandwax  |  December 15th, 2008 at 9:25 am

    further/funny (thx, jessica) —

    Arab Moneyed: Ah, Spliff Star and Busta Rhymes, I have been expecting you. Can I offer you a flute of champagne, an orange, an odalisque.

  • 14. op  |  December 17th, 2008 at 12:13 am

    Made me think of continuities with ‘arab’ culture in Black music in the 20th century…

    Dizzy Gillespie – Night In Tunisia

    Duke Ellington- Caravan

    Sidney Bechet- sheik of araby

    In two of these cases caribbean/cuban music somehow became a cipher for arab culture…the significance of which Wayne is far better equipped to explain!

  • 15. jace  |  December 17th, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    I agree w/ Gavin’s reading here.

    aside #1: i’m quietly collecting Arab cover versions of ‘Killing An Arab’.

    aside #2: many many many mainstream rap songs are far more offensive along the axis of gender, yet never create the discourse wave of ‘Arab Money’. wha gwan?

    aside #3: Mutamassik:

  • 16. wayneandwax  |  December 17th, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    TNT keeps it comin —

  • 17. Birdseed  |  December 17th, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    One thing I don’t get with this (which someone is welcome to help me with) is the Ah-rab Ay-rab thing – isn’t it normally produced with a short “a” sound in English, like in “parachute” or whatever? Wouldn’t that mean that the “ay-rab” pronunciation would actually be closer to how the arabs themselves want to see it pronounced? And in any case, why would it be insulting? Is it because it sounds dukes of hazzard southern = “redneck” = racist, and in that case isn’t it a bit prejudiced to think so?

  • 18. wayneandwax  |  December 17th, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Funny you should ask, Birdseed, as the previous comment links to a video in which a Palestinian-American rapper argues that A(y)-rab vs. A3rab is basically a tomAto/tomato question. I disagree, but of course, who am I to say?

    In my experience, tho, the hard A is an urban (often African-American) pronunciation which can be both quite non-offensive (or at least, not intending to offend) or can be more pointed in marking Arabs as different and as unworthy of respect (at least with regard to how they call themselves). The short ‘a’ in ‘parachute’ (the first syllable anyway) is the more common pronunciation in the US as heard on the news. But the other kind of short ‘a’ — as signified by the A3rab spelling (and perhaps closer to the second ‘a’ in ‘parachute’) — is the one that corresponds more closely to an Arab/ic pronunciation.

  • 19. Birdseed  |  December 17th, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Are there more examples of words where a drawn-out first syllable is considered offensive? The one that springs to mind is Po-lice, but are there any ethnic ones?

  • 20. wayneandwax  |  December 18th, 2008 at 10:33 am

    I’m really not clear on the etymology (pronunciology?) of A-rab, though I’d hesitate to think of it structurally as you’re suggesting. (“Po-lice” isn’t offensive, exactly, though it does signal a degree of distance and, sometimes, disrespect.) I think of A-rab more along the lines of “Jap,” an outdated way of marking difference — or akin to the way that Bush I allegedly purposely mispronounced Saddam Hussein’s name.

  • 21. kevin  |  December 18th, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    jace sez:
    aside #2: many many many mainstream rap songs are far more offensive along the axis of gender, yet never create the discourse wave of ‘Arab Money’. wha gwan?

    hip-hop/ rap is simply better equipped and more experienced dealing with racism. there are very clear, if simplistic, points of reference. consider that nearly every “arab money” discussion with rappers includes a comparison between (dare i type it?) “the n-word” and “the ay-word.”

    dudes talking to dudes about dudely dude stuff!

  • 22. NA  |  December 21st, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Busta is Muslim.

  • 23. wayneandwax  |  January 10th, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Marisol offers the latest mutations, including young Arab guys (predictably) embracing the song to puff out their chests, and a joking Jewish version —

  • 24. wayneandwax  |  January 26th, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Thanks to Ted Swedenburg for pointing me to yet the latest riff on “Arab Money.”

  • 25. wayneandwax  |  January 29th, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    another “Arab Money” update c/o TNT

    today i was gifted with this interview busta gave to mtv featuring the money shot headline, “busta rhymes explains why ‘arab money’ isn’t racist” and some absolute softball questions from shaheem reid. says busta,

    “This is a great record to inspire people to incorporate wealth in their vocabulary, because rich has become the new broke.’ ‘Arab Money’ — it felt right. Let’s take something from a culture that has exemplified the rich qualities of spirituality and economic and financial stability for thousands of years. They’ve instilled that in their kids for thousands of years.”

    right busta, talk about that ‘financial stability’ to the people of gaza, south lebanon, yemen, egypt, syria, and pretty much anywhere in the arab world that isn’t reeling in the grotesque gulf state petro-rubles.

    but really shaheem reid, you couldn’t ask him about the fucking hook being gibberish? or the fact that he changed that hook to a sura from the qur’an and then went back to the gibberish? or the ay-rab pronunciation? or his supposed ‘apology’ to the arab community and pledge to dead the track?



  • 26. w&w  |  July 24th, 2009 at 8:36 am

    the saga continues. add this to the mix: busta live in casablanca —

  • 27. » Arab F&hellip  |  October 1st, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    […] big question, for my I-talian Money, is whether it could ever best this monstrosity when it comes to hyperreal arabesque […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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