Released 47 years to the day after the assassination of Malcolm X, Yasiin Bey offers the video for his counternarrative to Jay-Z and Kanye’s luxury rap, club-banger. Equipped with the glyph and all – the stylized Arabic writing for “Yasiin” flashes on the screen throughout the video – the emcee formerly known as Mos Def goes line for line and concept for concept as he reps/raps for the conditions faced by the “Niggas in Poorest” who couldn’t make the trip to France with the two multimillionaires.
Kanye and Jay-Z’s “Niggas in Paris” is itself a tale of how two “niggas” invaded the decadent world of the ultra-rich, learned to speak their language of power, engaged in similar entrepreneurship, learned to spend money just as extravagantly, and brought “the hood” with them. It’s a subversive ode to a certain type of Black empowerment, and “keeping it real” while doing so. In other words, the “medicine” of social commentary, flavored by the “bacon” of a catchy, speaker-rattling beat and references to expensive brands that send us to our browser’s search engine to figure out what the hell they’re talking about.
Congruently, “Niggas in Poorest” is, at its essence, a diss record: medicine for Kanye and Jay-Z, wrapped in the bacon of Yasiin Bey’s social consciousness and pro-Blackness. Bey reminds them – and the rest of us – that while it may be cool to invade the realm of the ultra-rich and “bring some niggas” with you, the real revolution, the untelevised one Gil Scott-Heron rapped about, comes from the margins and from the marginalized. Kanye tells us that he has his “niggas in Paris and they’re going gorillas”, and Yasiin Bey counters with the warning that the “niggas in poorest” are the ones who “be them rebel guerillas”. The song closes with him firing some shots at Kanye and Jay-Z’s use of allegedly Illuminati-based imagery on their “Watch the Throne” album, repeatedly warning us not to “get caught up in no throne”. Bey strikes the deathblow by invoking the word “Bablyon” to describe his target’s alleged engagement in these mystic arts.
Both “Niggas in Paris” and “Niggas in Poorest” provide counternarratives to the oppressive consequences of our economic caste system. Kanye and Jay-Z want to watch the golden throne and maybe even occupy it, while Yasiin Bey wants to melt it down into gold coins and share the resultant wealth. These two stories can co-exist while they’re just that: STORIES. But what happens when one group of “niggas” actually comes to sit on the throne while another group is trying to tear it apart? Hopefully this becomes an ideological rap beef that turns into some answers for this difficult social dilemma.