Mos Def and Social “Mathematics” from the Remnants of the Ghetto: Giving the Numbers a Voice

Actor and hip hop artist, Dante Terrell Smith, better known as “Mos Def,” grew up in Brooklyn and exhibited musical and acting talents at an early age.  Mos focused on musical theater in high school, attended New York University, and went on to establish himself as both as an actor and a significant voice in the world of hip hop, recording several solo and collaborative albums.  Mos’s lyrics are filled with layers of socio-political and religious commentary and critique, allowing for multiple interpretations and dialogic interdisciplinary engagements.  Below I offer one possible way to enter into dialogue with a song called “Mathematics” from his 1999 debut solo album, Black on Both Sides.Mos Def

The body of the song opens with a six line stanza rhythmically interweaving the numbers one through ten in between concrete, historical particulars (Pete Rose—i.e. “Charlie Hustle”) to more abstract, universal, and religious allusions (e.g., “Seven firmaments of heaven to hell, 8 Million Stories to tell”).  Then in the next stanza, Mos moves away from the abstract and becomes more personal.  In these nine lines, he highlights how the poetics of a socially conscious hip hop—in particular the voice that it gives to the voiceless— lifts the “powerless up” from the social sinkholes of stigmatized spaces (ghettos, prisons, and “streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing”) and, in his case, has allowed him to overcome some of the socio-political obstacles faced by African Americans so that he might speak on behalf of suffering others.  Yet, as the last three lines indicate living in a condition both created and abandoned by the state—not to mention a socially ostracized, stigmatized “space” (projects, no-go zones etc.)—breeds violence, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness among those forced to occupy those infernal spaces.

The body of my text posesses extra strength
Power-liftin powerless up, out of this, towerin’ inferno
My ink so hot it burn through the journal
I’m blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle
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

The next section begins to develop and elaborate the kind of “mathematics” Mos has in mind.  Having to live in such inhumane circumstances of course takes its toll on a person’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being, and often paradoxically, accelerates and intensifies the construction of the subjectivities that the hegemonic class had hoped to eradicate. As Mos explains, those who internalize the stigma and negativity imposed on them by the dominant narrative—the “chain cats”—end up dead, crushed in spirit and ground to dust for the economic gain of the (largely white) elite class.

But you chain cats get they CHA-POW, who dead now
Killin’ fields need blood to graze the cash cow
It’s a number game, but shit don’t add up somehow

When your world—the social space into which you have been thrown by forces outside of your control—is created, founded, and built upon injustice and exploitation, even something as supposedly clear-cut, steady, dispassionate, and uncontroversial as mathematics becomes a site of socio-political polysemous meanings.  So how does the “shit” not add up? Here are a few examples.

Like I got, sixteen to thirty-two bars to rock it
but only 15% of profits, ever see my pockets
like sixty-nine billion in the last twenty years
spent on national defense but folks still live in fear
like nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black
That’s why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack
Sixteen ounces to a pound, twenty more to a ki
A five minute sentence hearing and you no longer free

First, Mos critiques the music industry whose sights are set not on artistry and beauty but on profits.  Then he highlights the government’s out of control spending on national defense while simultaneously creating an atmosphere of public panic of the socially constructed “terrorist” as the new “other” to fear. Lastly, he offers his interpretation of the Ricky Ross case.  In a series of controversial articles in 1996, Gary Webb argued that the new all-out war on drugs had a disproportionate impact on blacks, particularly young black males on the lower end of the socio-economic and educational spectrum.  In the Ross case, as Webb explains, you have on one side, “Ricky Donnell Ross, a high school dropout, and his suave cocaine supplier, Danilo Blandon, who has a master’s degree in marketing and was one of the top civilian leaders in California of an anti-communist guerrilla army formed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” Both men were arrested for major drug trafficking offenses; however, according to Web’s story, even though Blandon testified in court that “the first kilo of cocaine he sold in California was to raise money for the CIA’s army, which was trying on a shoestring to unseat Nicaragua’s new socialist Sandinista government,” and admitted that his modus operandi was to employ guys like Ross, “a South-Central teen-ager who had the gang connections and street smarts necessary to move the army’s cocaine, a veritable blizzard engulfed the ghettos,” after all the deals were made in the “justice” system, guess which one ends up in the hole after his “five minute hearing”?—Ricky Ross.[1] The section ends with a jab at the new big brother State with its surveillance techniques now legalized and expanded beyond panoptic prisons.

The next seven lines continue to describe life in the urban hellholes, the ghettos and hyper-ghettos where people become hardened and turn to crime and other parallel economic (and often illegal) structures carved out in response to socio-political and economic ostracism and spatial confinement.  Note again the hopelessness and the sense of human potential wasted.

Rock your hardhat black cause you in the Terrordome
full of hard niggaz, large niggaz, dice tumblers
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
This new math is whippin motherfuckers’ ass
You wanna know how to rhyme you better learn how to add
It’s mathematics

Next we have a structural mirroring of the opening stanza playing off the one through ten number theme and closing with an eleven line description of the “numbers” problem where dead-end low wage (non-salaried and hence no benefits–health insurance, retirement fund, etc.) jobs and poverty-stricken living produce and give rise to drug use, trafficking, and other criminal activities.

Yo, it’s one universal law but two sides to every story
Three strikes and you be in for life, manditory
Four MC’s murdered in the last four years
I ain’t tryin to be the fifth one, the millenium is here
Yo it’s 6 Million Ways to Die, from the seven deadly thrills
Eight-year olds gettin found with 9 mill’s
It’s 10 P.M., where your seeds at? What’s the deal
He on the hill puffin krill [crack cocaine] to keep they belly filled
Light in the ass with heavy steel, sights on the pretty shit in life
Young soldiers tryin’ to earn they next stripe
When the average minimum wage is $5.15
You best believe you gotta find a new ground to get C.R.E.A.M.[2]

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

From the hopelessness of the ghetto, you move to the hopelessness of the prison and the cycle continues; however, along the way, should you survive the prison camp, the panoptic gaze makes sure that the negative narrative inscribed in your body and indelibly marking your soul stays with you—no bars needed as confinement, stigmatization, segregated spaces, and negated freedom operate on the outside through a network just as rigidly structured and socially impermeable as the hierarchical social strata of the carceral system. Lastly, Mos doesn’t mince words about the role race plays in this deadly numbers game.  Whether chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the ghetto, or hyper-incarceration, “blackness” continues as the mutable target socially constructed in the past as (subhuman) “thing” and now as the “dangerous other” whom, since we can no longer legally lynch, must be destroyed by more socially acceptable means.

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 niggaz
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


[1] The full article, as well as others on the topic, can be accessed here:  The quotations above are taken from this link.

[2] I had no idea what C.R.E.A.M. meant, but after a bit of searching here I found out that it is an acronym which stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” and was made famous “by the Wu-Tang clan […] to describe money. Ever since the Wu-Tang commenced their rap reign in the early 90’s, CREAM has become the universal hip-hop word for money.”

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