Brother Ali and P.O.S. and the American Dream

The past couple of posts have touched on the American Dream, and after talking about Lecrae’s “Welcome to America,” I want to take the opportunity to share a couple of more songs with you that may be beneficial when discussing the topic with students in the classroom.

The first song is Brother Ali’s “Only Life I Know.” In the video above, Ali breaks down the song, stating, “It deals with the idea of poverty, specifically what it feels like to be trapped in poverty.” He goes on to mention “centers of poverty” such as trailer parks, projects, reservations, and other spaces. What really caught my attention, though, was when he comments on people falling into poverty. He says, “More and more people today are falling into poverty. People who used to be middle class, people who used to be called working class, now are living below the poverty line.” Here, Ali voices some of the ideas I have been pointing out over the past couple of posts, specifically that the American Dream does not necessarily mean unlimited money and fame. Instead, we should rethink the focus to the necessities of life. All of these are available here; however, the capitalistic society, which Ali mentions in the video above, creates a competitive atmosphere that does not always work as a a meritocracy, even though it should. Rather, it bases upward movement on other factors. This does not always occur, but it happens more often than some would like to admit.
With all of this in mind, I want to point out a couple of items from the song that I think are pertinent to this conversation. The first verse paints the picture of trailer parks, projects, and “raggedy apartment complex[es]” where single mothers wait on the steps for checks, boys stand around looking for respect, young girls look for love and settle for sex, people use tattoos as armor and protection, and ultimately people resort to drugs in order to survive. After painting these images, Ali moves to the “opportunities” available to those stuck in poverty. “How many routes can [oppressed] folks really choose?” Ali asks. According to Ali, three options exist: follow the rules but get stuck with a “shitty apartment” or a “sub-prime mortgage in a failing house market,” revert to selling drugs for fast money, or end up on welfare where no matter what a person does it will never be good enough to satisfy the system. Essentially, “You’ll never get caught up, you caught up in a cycle.” Ali says a lot more in this song, but for me, the list he provides at the end serves as a starting point for discussions regarding the accessibility, or lack thereof, of the American Dream to individuals.
 
The other song I have been thinking about lately is P.O.S.’s “The Basics (Alright).” Talking about the song in a video from 2009, P.O.S. states that “The Basics (Alright)” deals with shedding the excess, stripping down the material, consumerist “bullshit,” and focusing on the necessities. In many ways, this is partly what Kamp gets at with his discussions of television shows in the Vanity Fair article. There, Kamp references countless shows from the 1950s through the 2000s to show the changing shape of the American Dream. When talking about this piece in class, I made it a point to show how the incorporation of these shows is important to the argument because Kamp highlights how media influences our perceptions of the American Dream. The hook in the P.O.S. song sums up the false images that the media produces for consumers.

We don’t want nothing from no one.
We don’t need nothing you’re selling.
We don’t see anything moving.
We don’t have the time.
We just need something to eat.
We just need someplace to sleep.
We need the basics baby and we are gonna be
alright.

The song only contains two quick verses that paint a more abstract picture than Brother Ali. P.O.S. raps that as a culture we are “sleepwalking” thinking it’s a hobby because “it’s just do damn easy.” We could question the false “realities” that we receive from media that tells us that everyone has the opportunity to fully succeed and accomplish the American Dream; however, that is not the case. Kamp’s article, Lecrae’s “Welcome to America,” and the two songs presented here are only a small sampling of the multitudinous texts that work to counter the argument that everyone has access to the mythological American Dream of fame and fortune. As I have said earlier, I would concede that Kamp’s recalibration is something to consider. The Dream should focus on “the basics.”

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below!

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