Imagine a world where money wasn’t the basis for human value. But don’t use a Jermaine Dupri and Jay-Z imagination, envisioning a “Ferrari or Jaguar switchin’ four lanes / With the top down screamin’ out money ain’t a thang!” If you’re having trouble visualizing a society devoid of wealth measured in dollar amounts, hip hop group Run the Jewels’ most recent music video for “Ooh LA LA” featuring Greg Nice & DJ Premier is a great illustration.
The duo that makes up Run the Jewels is rapper and activist Killer Mike and rapper El-P, and the featured single is part of the group’s newly released album, RTJ4. The video for its “Ooh LA LA” was directed and shot by Bryan and Vanessa Belectic, just before state governments issued widespread stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it couldn’t have been a more timely release.
The video opens with a message: “One day the long fought battle between the forces of humanity and the forces of greed and division will end, and on that day, finally free, we will throw a [party]” (expletive removed). The first image we see is someone’s Timberland boot stepping over a burning dollar bill. As the song comes into tune, an overhead view of the city reveals a sea of people in the streets of a major metropolis covering every block of downtown.
After images of the recent protests demanding justice for George Floyd, police reform, and racial equity, the large gathering looked like it might be related to that. But a close-up of the crowd shows the opposite—a party. Then Greg Nice is revealed, maneuvering through the crowd rapping the song’s hook (which is a sample from his verse on the song “DWYCK”).
All this was on my mind for Juneteenth, when I participated in “Opal’s March” in Fort Worth, Texas. The march (which was largely a car parade due to coronavirus social distancing guidelines) commemorated 93-year-old Opal Lee’s march to Washington, D.C. from Fort Worth as a demonstration to make Juneteenth a national holiday. As Opal walked from the Fort Worth Convention Center to the Will Rogers Memorial Center, the joy that accompanies freedom permeated the streets of Fort Worth.
That sense of happiness is what’s placed front and center of RTJ’s music video. But the music video amplifies that freedom in a way that is not married to money, status, or age—let alone, skin color.
As El-P and Killer Mike rap and move through the crowd, everyone throws their purses, wallets, credit cards, and wads of cash in piles and dances on the bills like trash. And when Killer Mike starts to rap, he sets the piles of money on fire with the butt of his cigar.
People from all walks of life appear in the background, dancing in sync and throwing their cash in the flames. From old white men, to young Latina women, to black men in prison clothes—everyone expresses joy and freedom.
The symbolism suggests what Paul wrote to Timothy, that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). And in America, love of money runs deep systemically and in the hearts of individuals. “All kinds of evil” includes the American slave industry which was worth $3.5 billion by 1860, at the expense of 4 million image-bearers. Evils also include the American prison system, which is worth $5.9 billion, at the expense of nearly 800,000 black and brown image-bearers. It also includes the dehumanization and separation of families at the southern border—most of whom sought a safe-haven in the United States from the violence in their hometowns—who are stuck in limbo because of the cost required to help them.
As an economics teacher, I know that a world with no concept of money would make life perhaps more difficult. Things would be produced slower, there would be significantly more risk in switching careers, and economies would be based on bartering, which is a more rudimentary system of trading goods and services for other goods and services.
And as a sociology teacher, I also conceptualize a classless society that doesn’t define someone’s worth by how much money they have or can produce. What would that world look like? How would people then group themselves?
But as a Christian, I can imagine Run the Jewels’ “Ooh LA LA” kind of society. It is a world that doesn’t define people based on what they can do or how much money they have or don’t have. It looks like communities rooted in kindness where it is better to give than to receive, helping the weak, and lifting up the poor (Acts 20:35). It’s a world that affirms, in the middle of a pandemic, economic shutdown, and yet another string of unjust black tragedies, “You are not what you produce. You are valuable because you are a human being,” as public theologian Ekemini Uwan says.
Though Run the Jewels’ vision of a world that is not dominated by division and greed might be imperfect, it is a vision of hope. And in these times, we could all use as much hope as possible. Christians know that our hope will be fulfilled when Jesus returns to redeem all things on a new earth, but we are also not so naive to cease striving for a better and more equitable world for today and tomorrow. And that’s the vision “Ooh LA LA” delivers, one I’m more than willing to take.