Poor and male
Living the dream.
In my relentless quest to be at least 10 months behind popular music trends, I'm only now digging into Kanye West and Jay-Z's 2010 album Watch the Throne ...
If you've turned on a radio in the last year, you've probably heard one of the tracks, such as Otis (great music video clip, by the way; only 43 million views on YouTube), Niggas in Paris, Murder to Excellence, New Day and No Church in the Wild.
Lyrically, it's an interesting album, with plenty of critics already commenting on its themes of "opulence, fame, materialism, power, and the burdens of success".
However, "dig deep into Throne, past the bacchanal celebration of the finer things in life, and you'll find the album's heart: two men grappling with what it means to be successful and black in a nation that still thinks of them as second class", writes Claire Suddath in Time magazine.
I'd just got out of my car last week after listening to Otis for about the 60th time, when I received a tweet from a reader directing me to the Good Men Project website and a post by Yolo Akili on "The Pain of Being Poor: Masculinity and Manhood in a Recession".
The piece describes the scene in a New York barbershop, unemployed black men talking to each other about where they can find work as Otis plays in the background on the radio, Jay-Z rapping:
I invented swag
Poppin' bottles, puttin' supermodels in a cab
I guess I got my swagger back, truth
New watch alert, Hublot's
Or the big face Roley, I got two of those
Now, I'm not on the breadline; I can afford to buy nice things when I really want them, but listening to the braggadocio of the two biggest names in hip-hop, then watching them take to a $900,000 Maybach with a metal cutter and a blowtorch so they could convert it to a landulet and do circle work with four smoking hot models in the back seat ... well, there was a stirring of envy.
It's not a rational reaction, 'cos I'd never want to do that to a Maybach - I'd sell the bloody thing and buy a house - and those four models? They're probably all 19 and dating NFL players any hoo.
Nonetheless, it would have been a fun day, and I know it's just another example of some crazy shit I'll probably never experience because I'm not super rich and super famous.
"It was as if Jay And Kanye's economic example was a spark of light; a potential; a possibility," writes Akili in his piece, "but when the song ended, the spark faded. And the space was no longer filled with optimism, or pity; or sadness. Just the weight of all."
I've never been poor. I've struggled, sure, lived out of a van for a while, had to eat beans and white bread more than a few dozen nights when I was younger and just starting my working life. However, I always knew there was a roof and meal to be had at my parents' house.
I have been down on my luck, scraping together money to pay the rent, the wrong side of 30, watching friends and colleagues buy investment properties and third cars.
There's a point you reach when being broke goes from being part of life to being part of you and people wonder if you're ever gonna get your shit together.
It's never spoken outright, but you can feel the question marks around you.
When you bring a 1971 Holden into a mechanic, they know what they're dealing with. There's an age you pass when driving a beat-up classic Aussie car stops saying "wannabe" and starts screaming "never-gonna-be".
And that feeling sucks. It's pretty much why I wrote my first novel The Lost Boys and started it with the words "I am no one", 'cos that's they way I felt having no money.
Akili writes: "The shame of not having money sent me down a spiral of internal emotional abuse. I recanted how dumb I was, how wrong I was, how stupid I was that I couldn't find work and didn't have money.
"It was so easy to fall into a pit of shame and that shame immobilised me for weeks. It was so hard to dig myself out of it."
The thing is, you don't have to unemployed to be poor or even broke in this country.
The 2008 survey, "What Jobs Pay", based on ABS data collated by labour analyst Rodney Stinson, estimated the following weekly wages: florist ($493), pharmacy sales assistant ($518), fast-food cook ($520), livestock farmer ($523), cafe worker ($523), cook ($539), waiter ($541), mixed crop and livestock farmer ($543), checkout operator, office cashier ($546), sewing machinist ($554).
As you can see, several of those occupations are what you would call "traditional" male or female jobs, so the experience of being one of the working poor is not just a male thing.
But I have little doubt there's more pressure on men to earn.
"Male socialisation runs so deep through our veins that, for many, the shame of not having money, the shame of not being able to provide, collapses upon every other facet of our lives," writes Akili.
I'm not sure how Akili would feel having a white Australian co-opt his words, but the fact is the shame he writes about is not confined to black Americans, though it's absolutely certain race plays an enormous role in economic advantage in that country as well as here.
Akili says: "We have to acknowledge all that is within us that we can use to re-imagine the hustle; re-imagine the system ... without waiting on the powers that be.
"We have to dig deeper into our imaginations. We have to realise that we have a lot together and little alone."
I agree completely with Akili - and believe stepping away from materialism and, more fundamentally, hierarchical notions of society, are key to further human evolution - but as always, concentrating on male attitudes is only half the battle.
Men and women are two sides of the same coin and gender attitudes exert subtle and complex pressures on each other.
Professor Estelle Freedman of Stanford University, a historian who also founded the feminist studies program at that college in the 1980s acknowledged as much when she said this year: "Addressing only the status of women will not suffice. Unless we determine to undermine both economic inequality and the reliance on force throughout the world, men as well as women will remain economically and sexually vulnerable.
"Feminism will fail if we strive merely to make women the equals of men in their capacity to exploit and be exploited. Rather, we need to explore how our insights about women can help us to create a more egalitarian world."
I wonder whether Jay-Z and Kanye would agree?