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)