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"It's Free to Swipe Yo' EBT": How an R&B Singer's Viral Video Spreads Black Conservatism in an Age of Austerity

A new, mocking video asks, who's the butt of the joke?
 
 
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Ronald Reagan has a black descendant. Her stage name is Chapter but her government name is LaToya Hicks. The lithe R&B singer and America’s 40th president aren’t bound by blood, however, but a disgust for “welfare queens.”

In her catchy single “It’s Free, Swipe Yo EBT,” Chapter suggestively sucks a beer, pushes a baby stroller with squirming kids, strokes her pregnant body and mocks the cliché “welfare queen.” She wanted to make a name for herself and it worked. On YouTube her song has over 300,000 hits. It’s a cruel act of ambition by a young singer willing to step on the poor on her climb to fame. But the video raises questions about the role of Black conservatism in an age of austerity.

In the light of comic Katt William’s nationalist rant in Phoenix, presidential candidate Herman Cain’s race-baiting of Obama and Rep. Allen West’s sexist jingoism, Chapter's “It’s Free, Swipe Yo’ EBT” video is a part of the rising tide of Black conservatism. Whereas the guys shout about being “strong black men” versus Obama’s effete braininess, Chapter does women’s work. Knowingly or not, she lends her voice and chocolate complexion to a legitimate tradition of sexist racist imagery.

The “welfare queen” who uses sex to cheat the system for a ghetto-fabulous life is a fusion of two older caricatures – the coon and the jezebel. Before the American Revolution, European immigrants learned to be white by seeing blackness in enslaved Africans. It was the darkness of an empty humanity, seething with animal passions.

The head-scratching, watermelon-eating coon was first seen in the minstrel shows of the 1830’s. White musicians sang in blackface and by the 1880s coon songs were a national craze. The coon was lazy, stupid and lived with animal-like simplicity. Across the gender line was the lascivious, hot and panting jezebel. The image warped the rape of black women into a topic for laughter and gossip. And these characters, recreated each generation, became today’s welfare queen.

In his book Why Americans Hate Welfare, professor Martin Gilens traced the changing face of poverty. Often invisible, the poor came into focus during the 1930’s Great Depression as millions lost jobs. Poverty looked white and rural. They were the “deserving poor,” hard working people down on their luck. But World War Two came and factories belched smoke as America became the arsenal of democracy. Poverty receded into the Golden Age of Capitalism but unseen were thousands of black families who lugged suitcases on North bound trains and filled city slums. After the street rocking 1950’s Civil Rights Movement and 1960’s ghetto riots, whites saw poverty as a black problem. Blacks were the “undeserving poor,” social parasites unwilling to work. During his failed 1976 campaign, Ronald Reagan waved the image of the “welfare queens” like a red flag to angry white voters.

The “welfare queen” with her hair in rollers driving a Cadillac fused together two racist images, the jezebel and the coon. It was created in order to place the blame for poverty on the poor themselves.

Poverty and laziness is like bread and butter for Conservatives; it just goes together. If you believe society as is must be conserved then the plight of the poor or minorities must be caused not by a defect in society but in their character. They are stupid, violent and lazy. And what better person to blame the victim than a member of the victimized group itself?

And that is where Black conservatives come in. They give a stamp of approval to reactionary ideology. When Rep. Allen West says on the O’ Reilly Factor, “I’m the modern-day Harriet Tubman to lead people on the underground railroad away from that plantation” and by plantation he means “liberal social welfare,” he gets Tea Party love and a media pass. He recites extremist ideology that white conservatives can’t. It's the same with Chapter in “It’s Free, Swipe Your EBT,” as she sings:

“State of California I need to warn ya’

Free welfare, free dental, free food

Mama says she can’t send me to school

Why am I hungry when we get free food

Free housing, free day-care, free clothes

This is where the tax-payer money goes

Ohhhh a booger in my nose,

we all share tonies and socks

Didn’t Mama’s check come in the mailbox

All you have to do is fuck and nine months later you getting’ the big bucks.”

It’s catchier than anything that West or Cain can say—which makes it dangerous. Entertainment is the most effective form of propaganda. It slips in through melodies and beats and humor. It also has the aura of innocence.

In an interview, Chapter said of “It’s Free, Swipe Yo EBT” that it was cathartic. “I like to bring humor to my songs because I like to laugh about things that use to make me cry,” she told 1037thebeat. Artists often retreat into the ideology of personal experience when asked about the consequences of their work.

But experience must be expressed and what matters is how we express it. What is the ideology we use and why? If it’s satire, fine. But who is the butt of the joke? Who is laughed at and why? Black women on welfare are played—but not Wall Street bankers? Maybe it’s time to ask Chapter the question Malcolm X asked in his speeches: “Who taught you to hate yourself?”

Nicholas Powers is an Assistant Professor of Literature at SUNY Old Westbury, his poetry book "Theater of War" was published by Upset Press in 2004. He has written for The Village Voice and The Indypendent.