Stuck in the middle: A class analysis of J. Cole’s ‘G.O.M.D.’ music video

Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion

The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing?

— Kanye West, ‘Gorgeous’, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

‘Middle Child.’ This is one of J. Cole’s song titles, but it applies to the music video to ‘G.O.M.D.’ in an economic rather than a strictly generational manner. In the music video, accompanying a song that mourns that ‘love’ is something that rappers ‘don’t sing about’ anymore, J. Cole’s character is living in the ancien régime of American slavery. His character leads the house slaves of a white slaver household. He is in the upper middle of the hierarchy, but the fact of being black means he is treated as less than human, or at best as a child, by his masters. To win the support of his fellow slaves, he leads a revolt — aided by the wife of one of the slave masters, who distracts her husband while Cole’s character is steeling guns for the mini-revolution.

J. Cole. Burn the system to the ground.

Soon Cole leads the march on the house, reassuring the masters that they will not be harmed, while releasing the wife and her brother (?) from the fate of the other masters — who are tied to a chair (?) outside a bonfire at which an elaborate spiritual dance takes place. The catharsis is palpable as Cole breaks the fourth wall into rap: ‘Why every rich black [fella] gotta be famous, why every broke black [fella] gotta be brainless? That’s a stereotype.’

Soon other masters arrive on horseback to liberate their captive white comrades in the antirevolution to antislavery. What Cole hopes to achieve here is unclear — besides signalling discontent to a hegemonic slaver class — but he has numbers on his side and even the support of some whites (back to the wife, who stands in solidarity with the slaves who once worked under her).

The whole video is fantastical and almost impossible to believe. But slave revolts did happen and can happen. It is fashionable to be sceptical of ‘woke’ posturing today, and music reviewer Anthony Fantano has seemingly found Cole guilty of this crime. But I do not think Cole is a false awakening in this musical artwork. He is conveying an analysis which could be given a banal take — like the opposition to Childish Gambino’s incisive ‘This Is America’ music video. But the originality of the video lies in its very un-‘woke’ take: that sometimes rebellions are not wholly bottom-up. To truly liberate the people on the bottom of the ladder from their oppressors at the top, you need a middle element to broker deals between the two sides. The middle element can side with the top, and often does — until the bottom forces the middle to switch sides.

This is happening in today’s new slavery, a class hierarchy that is at once multiracial and heavily racialised. The three classes are, to follow Barbara Ehrenreich’s update of Karl Marx:

  • The capitalist class (at the top),
  • The working class (at the bottom), and
  • The professional-managerial class (in the middle).

If the working class are the new slaves of capitalism, then a further distinction may be drawn between the traditional working class and what Frantz Fanon termed the ‘lumpenproletariat’ — expelled from wage-labour exploitation and existing in a shadow economy of working for mafia-style bosses. But the three-fold structure works for the following reason — it maps onto the class structure of old American slavery:

  • The masters (at the top),
  • The field slaves (at the bottom), and
  • The house slaves (in the middle).

J. Cole (born in Frankfurt, Germany, the hometown of the Marx-inspired Frankfurt School of critical theory) plays an upper house slave. His equivalent today would be someone in the upper part of the professional class. Does this make sense?

I’m not sure. I think the managerial element of the professional class corresponds to the masters of old slavery. It is too close to capitalist rule to be genuinely middle. So perhaps the J. Cole character today would be in the professional element of the PMC. Would this be a valid analogy?

The difficulty is old slavery has a long legacy. Capitalism uses woke liberalism to make us think we have it easy, to tell us that racism plagued us for centuries, and now we are freeing ourselves from it — through the market. But what if the market is now placing us in a new slavery?

In Kanye West’s song ‘New Slaves’ the following point is made about slavery: ‘Used to be only [black people]. Now everybody playin’.

But racism of the old kind does still exist. Think about the memories that slaves took to North America, and the divisions masters then imposed between house and field slaves. This served to mystify the reality of the exploitation of all slaves by masters. The slaves were in a state of slumber as a class, possessing partially false consciousness. J. Cole’s character awoke some slaves from that slumber by awakening himself from the idea he was helping anyone by serving those above him, instead of liberating his fellow slaves.

Today’s slaves are also asleep. Chattel slavery was replaced by wage slavery. This is a Marxist argument and one that is sometimes criticised for obscuring the role of race. But this is the argument of slavers themselves. Slavers wish to build a society where fantasies like race consume our imagination and obscure the reality of class conflict. Class is not the only contradiction of capitalism today; but it is the primary contradiction, one which even today’s race wars obscure. Racism is real; ‘race’ is not.

Class is real. ‘Classism’ is not, since it is really a nickname for racism — a refusal to embrace true consciousness about class struggle. We must wake up to the new reality. We must hope to unstick ourselves from this middle purgatory. We must unite to free each other from the Babylonian shackles of the market economy. It may take a while. But we have to try. I wonder where to begin — or how — but if we can see the end in sight, how hard is it really to take the first step? In this time of ending, there is only one true remedy: a new beginning. Here’s to that. Here’s to freedom — for all people on this lonely rock in a large Universe.

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