“Radical contextualization: contributions to an anthropology of racial/ethnic health disparities” by Chapman and Berggren argues that the world is plagued by a system of global apartheid, wherein privileged classes enjoy disparate social and economic benefits (including good health), while disfavored classes, largely persons of color, suffer reduced health and agency. In addressing these injustices particularly, they argue that anthropology must begin to ‘study up’ and ask common sense questions in reverse — instead of “asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other people are so affluent?”
In thinking about popular culture and multimedia that relate to this topic, I began to consider if Yasiin Bey — formerly know as Mos Def — in his 1999 song Mathematics, might be “studying up.” Although the lyrics are now more than a decade old, they address inequities that in many ways are now only more entrenched. I appreciate both Chapman’s and Mos Def’s work particularly because both are amazingly insightful and adept at expressing their views.
Mos Def, to my ear, seems to be doing some of his own studying up, as he structures his lyrics into a series of math problems, employing a favored language (mathematics) of the dominant class in order to ask both challenging questions about the nature of a system that constrains the agency of so many within it, as well as to try to sketch the outlines of his own explanatory model for social control within America.
We are moving toward a growing gap between privileged and subordinated groups that has earned the label ‘global apartheid’. -Chapman, Berggren.
The system break man child and women into figures. Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggers. -Mos Def.
Chapman and Berggren‘s next lines begin to delve into neoliberalism and the capitalist system. In fewer words and with less ambiguity, Mos Def establishes not just the concept of global apartheid, but states his belief that within a neoliberal capitalist system humans exist not as beings, but as figures in a ledger. If the color-coding above is easy enough to follow (blue for article, red for lyrics), let’s continue in this vein as we contrast some of Mos Def’s observations against that of Chapman and colleague.
We should study place, ethnicity, and especially the way social and economic inequality creates divergent health outcomes for populations.
Nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black, that’s why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack. Young teens and prison greens, facin’ life numbers. Crack mothers, crack babies, and AIDS patients. Young bloods can’t spell, but they could rock you in PlayStation.
In these lines Mos Def not only evokes ideas of social and economic inequalities, but makes an implicit reference (that of Rick Ross) to governmental use of crack cocaine for social control of the black population. He ties the financial and justice system elements of social control together, and then proceeds into the invented crack baby epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, finally ending on AIDS.
As ethnographers, they document the interactions of disenfranchised populations with the ‘institutions that disrupt their lives’ — welfare offices, police forces, housing court, homeless shelters, and public hospitals.
Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles, like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex. Broken glass wall, better keep your alarm set. Streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing, say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream. Sixty-nine billion in the last twenty years spent on national defense but folks still live in fear. Sixteen ounces to a pound, twenty more to a key. A five minute sentence hearing and you no longer free. Young soldiers tryin’ to earn they next stripe. When the average minimum wage is five-fifteen. You best believe you gotta find a new ground to get cream. The white unemployment rate is nearly more than triple for black, so frontliners got they gun in your back. Bubblin’ crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty, and end up in the global jail economy. Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence. Budget cutbacks, but increased police presence. And even if you get out of prison still livin’, join the other five million under state supervision. This is business, no faces just lines and statistics; from your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits. The system break man, child, and women into figures. Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggers.
And with this select portion of lyrics, Mos Def has documented the interactions that disenfranchise, listing many of the same institutions suggested by Chapman and Berggren — housing projects, the prison-industry complex, minimum wage and the ever inflated black unemployment rate, institutionalized racism, police presence, and finally a system that sees people as numbers rather than as persons deserving of compassion or assistance. It’s not just the observation of social inequities that makes this song so special, but rather its focus on mathematics. In a manner of “studying up” he seems to ask why the white unemployment rate is one third that of the black rate, and ascribe increased crime as a direct consequence of this inequality. His words find a crescendo as he speaks of the harshness of math:
Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings but you push too hard, even numbers got limits. Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: the million other straws underneath it — it’s all mathematics. This new math is whippin’ motherfuckers’ ass. You wanna know how to rhyme you better learn how to add.
Mos Def seamlessly blends math into his soliloquy, simultaneously giving voice to the problems of the voiceless, and doing so partly in the language of the dominant group. Chapman and Berggren close their paper urging that anthropologists must use every tool available to speak truth to power. In these lyrics, to me at least, I see powerful truths.