When the Goal of Pop Stardom Isn't Fame, But Basic Security
Last Thursday afternoon in Nigeria, a hotly-tipped local hip-hop artist named Olaniyan Damilola was shot at the gates of Lagos State University. His body lay dead well into evening, just off-campus, before police arrived and took it to the morgue. At LASU, Damilola was a finance student. But, as is not uncommon among Nigerian collegians, he was also rumored to be a member of a large gang-like fraternity called Eiye. Eyewitnesses strongly believe Damilola's murder was an act of retaliation by a rival confraternity.
Though the circumstances of Damilola's death are complicated by regional history, his ambitions were shared among many around the world. Damilola sought upward mobility through pop stardom. In a nation where the government has armed college students to fight against other, left-leaning college students (thus stirring the generations-long gang wars that Damilola is said to have fallen victim to); and in a fraternity system where young men rape young women to prove their loyalty to their brethren; and on campuses where gangs on motorbikes gun down suspected rivals after banking exams, Damilola looked toward the haven of celebrity to protect him. With a debut album due in April, Damilola, who performed under the name Damino Damoche, was a little over a month from finding this relative safety.
For many people, the dream of celebrity is something more urgent than the starry-eyed appeal to immortality. Fame, and the status that accompanies it, is a way to guarantee you are counted -- not in a hundred years, but today; and not by your fans, but within your society. In some cultures, like Damilola's, this can be a matter of life and death; while in others, such as ours, it's more often a lottery ticket out of poverty. For those blocked from sharing in their nation's more liquid forms of wealth, celebrity is both a path to a pension and an armor-plated vest. It's a way to leap the fence into the 1 percent; it's a strategy for survival.
You have to look no further than the United States to see what I mean. How many contestants have we met on American Idol who represented the great hope of a family mired in multigenerational poverty? How many thousands of kids born in the projects have looked to a rapper flexing a CEO's pose and seen a symbol of prosperity they felt uniquely open to them? Now ask yourself, since the early 1980s, when wealth disparity in the US began to grow out of control, what piece of paper has pulled more people out of urban peril and into financial stability: a bachelor's degree or a recording contract? A degree, surely. But there's much in our economic and education systems that urge an impoverished child in 2013 to place the long bet on the recording contract.
Are they right? For the poor, has pop stardom become a more viable path toward inclusion into society than a degree? As the United States' wealth disparity continues to widen toward gaps typically associated with the developing world, as the 99 percent begins to accept its fate as citizens annexed from the too-big-to-fail slice of our GDP, where do the marginalized turn to begin to imagine a better life for themselves and their families?
Obviously, no economist has projected that the workforce of the future will be made up primarily of rappers. No think tank has published a paper predicting an age of prosperity founded in merch sales. Yet, these absurdities mock the poor and beleagured in direct proportion to how difficult it is for them to picture a moment larger than this instant. To think ahead; to plan.
Damilola's death throws in relief a situation I've seen emerging around me since the economy collapsed in 2008. Many of my peers now laugh at the notion of security. They simply don't believe in it. They don't trust a financial system of risk-and-reward that's structured primarily on trust. It's like the tales we've all heard of grandparents and great-grandparents hiding bags of money in their floorboards during the Depression -- only without the cash.
Years after graduation, many of these adults have been unable to make a dent in the five- (and in some cases six-) figures they owe in school loans. They look around them and notice that the friends who have enjoyed the most loyalty from their employers have worked mostly in coffee shops and bars, not offices. So, rather than make the professional decisions that once represented foresight and wisdom, a couple of these peers are placing big bets on their musical talents.
They're whiling away the most productive years of their lives in dead-end jobs to help fund loss-leading tours. I never hear them talk about growing a retirement fund; yet I often hear them talk of building their audience. And when I read about corporations who choose to sit on billions in assets rather than provide better benefits to their employees, I can't blame my peers for opting out of the system. To them, a dedicated audience is the new 401(k), and demands no greater risk or time investment. But the risk is still great. Like Damilola, they have little to lose, but that little is everything.
In the 21st century, we've turned a corner in our relationship to celebrity. Power and glamour no longer account so much for the anonymous person's appetite for fame. The old Warholian revelation doesn't shine with the luster it used to. The situation today is more dire, less cool, and altogether too exhausting.
What is really at stake when a marginalized citizen enters a singing competition or records a mixtape? What is the endgame for a singer-songwriter with two degrees who opts to spend their 30s couch-surfing up and down the West Coast? What was Damilola seeking as he recorded the sessions for an album that was fated to come out posthumously?
Wealth? Adoration? Immortality? Sure. But more than this, for millions of people, fame has come to represent a means to human dignity.