Is Now The Time To Talk About Black British Excellence & Black Capitalism?

Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images.
Last week, Stormzy’s new single Mel Made Me Do It landed on YouTube, creating titanic waves and splashes across social media. The 11-minute video has been praised for its lyrics and overall message, production quality and its many, many celebrity cameos. 
The video features the likes of Jonathan Ross, Zeze Mills, Usain Bolt, Louis Theroux, Jose Mourihno, Dave, Headie One, JME, Malorie Blackman, Little Simz, Brenda Edwards and many more, as well a monologue voiced by Michaela Coel and written by Wretch 32. 
Stormzy and #MMMDI were trending on Thursday night as many took to Twitter to express their respect and awe of Stormzy’s economic and social capital which is clearly reflected in the video through its mise-en-scéne and star-studded appearances.
One of the many huge cameo appearances is Stormzy’s phenomenal personal stylist Melissa Holdbrook-Akposoe AKA Melissa’s Wardrobe. Melissa is also an interior designer, content creator, and CEO of “It’s A Lifestyle Hun” — a women’s wellness, beauty and lifestyle page. She has styled for some of the UK’s biggest Black British icons, from Maya Jama to Anthony Joshua. The Melissa's Wardrobe brand has resulted in massive success, with her incomparable influence reaching a point where recommended items sell out in seconds—an occurrence which, of course, birthed the MMMDI hashtag. 
In the video, she is seen in a massive black obsidian closet lined with shelves full of fresh white creps, approaching Stormzy with a black croc skin Birkin in her hand before taking out a lint roller for his lime Bottega Veneta jacket.
Subsequently, some people have taken to Twitter expressing their newfound urge to own a Birkin (despite not being able to afford it) and even more have expressed sentiments about feeling “broke” after watching the music video, for example here and here.
The video, which is filmed mostly in what looks to be a massive estate with some decadent interior architecture and design, features the rapper wearing various designer brands such as Valentino, Prada, Louis Vuitton and more. His Rolls Royce and Lamborghini cars also make appearances to complement his celebratory lyrics: “I wear a 5990 in the gym / I got a thing for shiny little things” and “Got a lambo and a rolls that's a different type of cheque”.
More lyrics that showcase his economic capital are: “Someone slide me the bill yeah I’ve got it” and “But the M on my hairline stands for my millions”. The entire song and video are a testament to him and what all those around him have achieved. He takes a moment to acknowledge Black British greatness for himself, the generations before him, and the generations to come.
Although both Stormzy and Mel are outstanding role models in achievement outside of their material wealth, I feel that there are always negative implications for the Black community when influential role models and icons flaunt their wealth or sell a certain lifestyle that is actually unattainable for most of us. 

"We like to think of ourselves as anti-capitalist in theory but not in practice, especially when we're celebrating the exorbitant wealth of one of our own."

In the song, Stormzy, whose net worth is estimated to be 25 million, refers to his critics on Twitter as “broke ass bill-splitters and reminds us he is not anybody’s mate by saying “There'll never be a time where me and you's twinnin'/ Why? Different status, my chicks the baddest/ You know the bags Chanel, the trips to Paris/ And if your boy's a king, the bit's a palace”.
Whilst Stormzy is certainly celebrating himself, and rapping about material worth is standard in rap, I worry about how much of a significance we place on being able to afford nice things and how these material things contribute to our idea of “making it”. I think it’s time we start thinking about it more critically and the ways in which it can be harmful. The video, in a way, feels like it’s saying ‘look where I am, look what I’ve achieved, you have to work hard to be here’ when in reality, this lifestyle is largely unattainable. The way capitalism is structured, we can’t all be at the top. And even though I think we are pretty aware of that, we still conform to it anyway. I think the video really demonstrated how we like to think of ourselves as anti-capitalist in theory but not in practice, especially when we're celebrating the exorbitant wealth of one of our own. 
Sociologist Steve Chapman talks about consumer culture in relation to capitalism and hegemony: “In consumer cultures, the mass media and advertising encourage individuals to value materialism and consumerism…the acquisition of high-status goods and brands has become a major means of expressing identity.” 
I think it’s very important that we have a conversation about capitalism as it pertains to consumer culture. The marketing of designer items, labels, and brands as signifiers of wealth is something that can really make us internalise our socioeconomic position in negative ways. Sadly, Black Brits are overrepresented in low paid employment sectors and often face obstacles within employment and also within educational attainment due to factors such as institutional racism and a lack of resources. A focus on material wealth as a measure of greatness can be damaging I believe, particularly to the youth—especially when Black children are still underperforming in schools. 
The ethnic attainment gap has been something sociologists have tried to understand for years. In 2020, Roberts and Bolton found that Black pupils have the lowest pass rate for GCSE English and maths combined. In 2018/19, across the Black major ethnic group, 59% of pupils attained a standard pass in English and maths GCSE; the lowest rate for any major ethnic group.
One of the biggest sociological explanations for the attainment disparity says that Black students do not identify with the middle-class culture and values of their schools. These schools try to restrict their identity and teachers pathologise Black students for their self-expression, leading to them feeling disenfranchised—like school cannot offer them the things they want. (Archer et al)
Archer et al also conducted a study about consumer culture at school and found that respondents suggested they would be mocked for wearing lesser brands. Archer et al also found that the student interviewed “drew worth from the brands being associated with Black masculinity associated with sports stars that were used to promote brands”. And for the female respondents, another aspect of this identity was “linked into the wearing of jewellery”. Archer et al claim “this led to them being further marginalised within the field of education”. Staff interviewed by Archer et al feared that the consumer lifestyle working-class pupils were being drawn into could lead to pressure of being involved in illegal economic activities. Archer et al found that the students were aware of financial pressures and knew of ‘shady activities' that could help them. They also were also aware that university would mean that their lifestyle would be limited and as such decided it was not for them. 
This study has shown how easy it is for young Black people to feel pressure to conform to consumer culture and explains why some might perhaps turn to ‘fast’ ways of attaining this lifestyle that bypasses educational achievement. In this sense, schools are to blame but also we must think about the effects that emphasis on consumer culture has on our youth as symbols of success.
It is no secret that Stormzy is a massive role model for young people  — with the Stormzy Scholarship for Black UK Students, the #Merky imprint with Penguin Publishing, and a pledge to donate 1 million pounds per year to charities to help tackle racial injustice in the UK. He is often at the forefront of rallying for Black youths in this country, and his come-up has been inspiring for someone who was just a normal kid from Croydon to being up there with some of the biggest Black British icons in history. However, I find his signals oxymoronic — are we going to be great when we are able to afford nice things or are we going to be great when we’ve worked hard to achieve attainable goals and stayed true to ourselves?

I actually think Stormzy is somewhat aware of how material wealth isn’t the be-all and end-all.

I think there's an important conversation here about how luxury is often sold to us as a necessity. As great as she is, Melissa’s Wardrobe is not for low-income people. Many of her recommended products tend to be more high-end or on the more costly side—unattainable and unsustainable for those of us who cannot afford to spend that much on fashion, home or beauty products. Recently, conversations around how much money should be spent on beauty per month have floated around on both Twitter and TikTok, with many gobsmacked at how much women are spending and evaluating its necessity. The beauty industry absolutely profits off of conversations like these. It's always been skilled in preying on our insecurities to sell us products that we think we need—when a lot of them, we don’t. In a time where inflation is skyrocketing, the housing market is a joke and food banks are at an all-time high, I think we should really re-centre our attention on what is truly necessary and important. Whilst it’s okay to want nice things and luxury items, I fear that Black women especially are increasingly putting too much pressure on themselves to achieve certain standards of beauty.
This conversation about Blackness and wealth also comes soon after Jay Z’s comments on capitalism went viral on social media. In a Twitter space, the billionaire compared being called a “capitalist” to saying the n-word. For people who don’t know, Marxism (the theory from which capitalism was acknowledged) has been an ideological framework for hundreds of years and not just “invented” as Jay Z claimed. Capitalism is a socioeconomic structure which positions a small number of people (the bourgeoisie/upper-class) as owners of all land, property, and the means of production (performed by the proletariat/working class). Black capitalism, then, is the effort to replace the white bourgeoisie with Black people. It is in no way an attempt to dismantle the system that oppresses us but actually remains in favour of exploiting a labour workforce and making rich people richer.
Many took to Twitter after Jay-Z’s comments to criticise the mogul’s ignorance and attempt to position himself as a victim (e.g here and here). Jay Z’s comments are extremely damaging and really go to show the lack of awareness that Black capitalists have or how they affect our community.

We can love Melissa’s Wardrobe, Stormzy, his video, and what it represents. But we can also be critical of what it communicates about wealth, status, and achievement.

In contrast, I actually think Stormzy is somewhat aware of how material wealth isn’t the be-all and end-all. Contrary to all his flexing, it seems like Stormzy maintains that everything he has achieved is due to hard work and merit. He rounds off the song by saying “the cars don’t make you this lit, the money don’t make you this good, the plaques don’t make you this cold”. I think he ultimately expresses the sentiment that staying true to yourself is the way to achieve success, but for me personally, this message is overshadowed by the presentation of wealth and branded iconography in the video. 
Ultimately though, multiple things can be true at once. We want money, luxury and nice things. We can love Melissa’s Wardrobe, Stormzy, his video, and what it represents. But we can also be critical of what it communicates about wealth, status, and achievement. We often equate “winning” and “making it” to material gain when really, we can “win” just by surviving in this country against all odds. There are multiple ways to feel empowered. Capitalist success is a system built for and by white people, and as long as our people remain oppressed by it we should always remind ourselves that it must be destroyed. As Audre Lorde famously said, “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house”. 

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