The Rust Belt Rap Scene: a Tool for Economic Development?

It can be argued that the heart of American hip hop has been shifting to the Rust Belt for some time now. While Detroit is the anchor, both the Pittsburgh and Cleveland scenes have been taking off of late. Given that rap is a creation particularly driven by an artist’s attachment to place, I think the energy of a Rust Belt city’s rap scene is an underrated source of social capital and civic pride.

Take Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa for example. His song “Black and Yellow” blends the iconic colors of the city’s brand with its love for their teams. The song has not only become a city anthem but the civic pride is heard nationwide as the song recently rocketed up the Billboard Top 100. And he did it with just some alone time and a pen. Let’s see our city’s marketing gurus get such face time out of that.

Said Wiz in ESPN recently about why he wrote it:

“It’s for the city of Pittsburgh…I’m from Pittsburgh, got that hometown pride so it’s good to represent. It’s not just for the Steelers, it’s for the Pirates and the Penguins and everything Pittsburgh. There’s nowhere like Pittsburgh.”

Now the reasons rap is overlooked as a legitimate Rust Belt renaissance tool are numerous and cannot be fully digested here. Lets just say that images of rhyming young black (and increasingly white) men with tattoos and whatever have not been traditionally associated with the health of a city identity.

This is unfortunate. For what is a reality in the most real of American conditions is a generation less ashamed about the decline of their industrial society than they are proud that what has grown from the rust is a resilience-driven honesty captured in the raw beauty of the region’s emerging creations. And rap is becoming an increasingly important part of this output, and the nation is listening.

Anyway, below are some clips of the burgeoning Cleveland movement. Notice the pride and the affinity for images that represent what the hell is what when all is said and done (e.g., vacancy, food, bridges, sports, bus routes, etc, etc.)  Said Danny Brown, a Detroit rapper when asked why he writes about abandonment and scrapping metal: “Somebody’s got to tell the story. I just want people to know what it’s actually like here”.  [Note: If you don’t like swear words please don’t listen].

First up  is Kid Cudi with his Cleveland is the Reason. Cudi was born in the city then later moved to the inner ring eastern suburb of Shaker Hts and eventually Solon. He eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York.  Lyrical snapshot:

You wanna know exactly why I’m this way,Take a trip to the land, swing this way. After the song done aint much I can say, Cleveland is my city, city.

Here is Chip tha Ripper with “Here I Am”. From the Glenville neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side, Chip, according to Wikipedia, “gained a large, cult-like following on the underground scene throughout 2007 and 2008 for his hard, but often humorous lyrics and his loyalty to the city of Cleveland.” Lyrical snapshot:

I’m doin sumthin. You can if you part of the new heights. New endevers, new levels, new days, new nights. Survival of the fittest. I’m a livin witness straight out the jungle. I just lost all my niggas. Man this shit is gettin outta hand. Must be part of Gods plan. Destroy and rebuild. That’s why he put me on land.

Ray Jr is from the City of East Cleveland and is a 2005 graduate of Edinboro University. Of the following he said “It is a positive video for the city of Cleveland. I like to represent the city I am from”.  Lyrical snapshot:

Cleveland is what I am rapping. So tell me what they hate about.

Lastly is Machine Gun Kelly. Originally from all over, he settled in Shaker Hts at age 14 before living in various parts of the city as a family-less young adult. Kelly currently creates out of a local basement.  Said Alphonso “Cev” Ceven, owner of Ohio City Tattoo and Kelly’s artist: “Most kids think you’ve got to leave here to be successful, and I always say, ‘Well, look what MGK did.  He has people coming here. You don’t have to leave in order to be successful. You just have to be true to who you are.” Lyrical snapshot:

Raised in this god damn city. No I wasn’t born in it. But believe I’m gon’ die right here. Cleveland bred. Cleveland fed.

And yes: the imagery and swearing and tats and smoke–it is an assault on some folk’s senses, thus eliminating any ability to see a city’s rap scene as integral to the development of social cohesion and thus societal possibility. But the fact remains there is pride of home here, and it is strong pride that is funneled into a generation often defined as being disenfranchised.

Still, rap isn’t “serious” such folks would say. Meanwhile, in the background is the whirl of corruption and comic sadness that comes from the consequence of “more serious” redevelopment endeavors.  And for too long the joke has been on us.

–Richey Piiparinen

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