I like William Leonard Roberts, the real man behind the public persona of the rapper Rick Ross. I like him for what I imagine him to be—an individual of working-class roots, thrust into a realm of wealth and excess, desperately attempting to remain competitive with men of poverty in regards to bravado, and men of wealth in regards to indications of abundance. I project a great deal of myself onto Roberts I suppose. I too feel caught between worlds of greater than and less than, and feel as if I am a fraud in both. There is a double consciousness at work, not of race but of class. And unlike the eventual smooth transition that occurs with race (as Dave Chappelle joked, every black person possesses the ability to speak “street vernacular” and “job interview”), transitioning between various socioeconomic groups is uncomfortable. Awkward. It does not help that to be working class is to be in transition. One is either slipping into poverty or climbing one’s way into the middle class. One’s children will most likely not share one’s economic status as adults.
It is interesting that Roberts was able to propel himself into the realm of the wealthy by assuming the invented persona of a once poverty-stricken man now loaded with ill-gotten gains. Ross is nothing more than a mask for Roberts to don. Roberts is not a criminal who escaped from an impoverished ghetto, but a former blue-collar correctional officer. He is not an elegant mafia mastermind who delights in high-end luxuries, but an average man still elated by a trip to the strip club and a well-seasoned bucket of wings.
I would say that William Leonard Roberts is a fraud, but you cannot fool one already aware of the game. Like a submissive that has paid for abuse, America both fears and adores the stereotype of black men that Ross presents. It abhors it, and yet demands it for titillation, luring men outside the lines within the narrow box it has provided.
Ross is the monster in the fun house—an empty threat, a thrill. So, when I heard his lyrics in “U.O.E.N.O.,” I simply shook my head. Was I supposed to feel threatened? Disrespected? How could I be disrespected by a joke? I should clarify that Ross’ lyrics are not the joke, but the Ross persona itself.
In hindsight, I realize the issue. There are those for whom Ross is not a mask, but a reality—women for whom Ross is not an empty threat, but a real one; young men for whom Ross is not a punch line, but a compatriot. For the sake of those women and men, Ross’ lyrics must be publicly denounced and Ross himself must be punished.
Yet, I cannot help but think of Roberts. How bewildered and heartsick he must be that his mask was rejected! At first tested by “the streets,” his persona successfully weathered the firestorm of the public announcement of his former employment. It is now being tested by “the suburbs”—middle and upper-class white women with socioeconomic clout. I do believe Ross will weather this storm as well, but not without a reduction of the perimeter of his permitted area—something I honestly feel should occur. Point blank, Roberts, once again attempting to shoehorn drug use and criminal activity into his lyrics for “street cred,” clearly crossed the line.
I wish we could do away with the stereotypes Roberts embraces entirely, but America seems intent on maintaining their existence. Perhaps the best we can do for the moment is to emphasize that these are merely roles; we have the choice to exploit them for profit—or not.