A few days before Labor Day, I was curious about conversations that might be developing around music and work. I found a few sites that ranked songs about working. I recognized several of them by Bruce Springsteen and I certainly knew Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.” I thought Donna Summer’s song “She Works Hard for the Money” was a good one to include. I think it’s also interesting that on the album cover, Summer appears as a waitress and that the back cover features Onetta, the attendant from Chasen’s restaurant who inspired the song.
The song that came to mind for me that wasn’t featured on any lists that I saw during my quick search was Eric B. and Rakim’s 1987 classic “Paid in Full.” In 2008, the song ranked #24 on VH1’s 100 greatest Hip Hop songs. Critics don’t see “Paid in Full” as a work song; instead, Rakim’s smooth, stoic delivery and investment in the written text alongside Eric B.’s soulful sampling rightfully command discussions. The content of the joint, though, moves me. Rakim captures the thoughts of the kid who escaped the fate of the pool players at the golden shovel. You know Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem: We real cool.We/ Left school. We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight. We/Sing sin. We/Thin gin. We/Jazz June. We/Die soon. But what if at least one of ’em doesn’t “die soon”? What if the cool boy aged to become a cool old man? What is the aging cool? What might it look like? Rakim, I think, gives us a glimpse.
In “Paid in Full,” a boy who “used to be a stick-up kid,” has a new idea about what he can do. So he’s “Thinkin’ of a master plan,” that don’t involve pool hall crimes but he’s got a problem “‘cuz ain’t nuthin’ but sweat inside [his] hand;” he needs money. Instead of turning back to a life of crime, he decides that he might “search for a 9 to 5” ‘cuz he’s figured out that “righteous” ambition might help him maintain the fragile fortune he’s achieved.
Rakim’s lyrics point to the possibilities and pride to be found in honest work. Work offers him hope; a chance at living. It reminds me of the choice that southern black women made immediately following the civil war to work as laundresses. Though this was the most physically demanding of domestic tasks, it enabled them to spend time in their own homes with their own families. Instead of placing emphasis on the arduousness of the labor, they placed it on the space where they could realize greater freedom. We really can choose what we make of work and what aspects of it we emphasize.
The work that Rakim ultimately describes doing is intellectual, creative work. Growth in the popularity of rap music offered black kids coming of age in the ’80s a creative outlet and an alternative to whatever 9 to 5 work young black men without a formal education could find. At the same time, Rakim does highlight the fact that even if rapping did not fulfill its promise and the 9 to 5 gig was itself the alternative, it was a better one than an illegitimate gig. There is life in work even if it doesn’t feel like it when you’re there. Having a legitimate job at least means that you have a chance to grow old–and that’s a chance that some of those cool kids in Brooks’s poem never got.