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How Does Yasiin Bey’s Mathematics Add Up Now?

(Photo: Eddy BERTHIER / Flickr)

Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) released his album “Black on Both Sides” in 1999. A single off of the album, “Mathematics,” became a cult hit and touched on many socio-political topics such as racism, economic inequality and the prison-industrial complex. Fifteen years later, let’s see how his mathematics add up, for better or for worse.

THEN: “Three for the forthcoming future shock”

NOW: Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock, published in 1970, could not have imagined how much technology would change society in such a short amount of time. In 1999, when Bey mentioned the forthcoming future shock, people were paying $100 for a 32MB USB drive and the first Matrix movie was just released. Now we have 512GB USB drives for a whopping $600. Current future shock involves the heated NSA controversy since the Edward Snowden revelations. Jacob Appelbaum’s recent lecture at the 30C3 conference summarized the leaked NSA files that revealed large corporations are working with the NSA, dangerous back doors are left open for the NSA that leave everyone’s information vulnerable and the NSA even has a futuristic-sounding radar wave device that can send out waves to your computer to see what you are typing. This would give Orwell future shock!

THEN: “Nine planets faithfully keep in orbit, with the probable tenth, the universe expands length”

NOW: Yasiin Bey was right, but we lost Pluto! Although it is still a controversial debate in the astronomy field, astronomer Michael Brown said he was looking for the tenth planet, which he found. He named it Eris. When the International Astronomical Union got hold of the news, they demoted both planets to dwarf planets, making underdog fans, elementary school kids and Minnie Mouse cry, leaving the solar system with only eight official planets.

THEN: “Hip-hop passed all your tall social hurdles”

NOW: Hip-hop has confronted almost all social hurdles. Hurdles such as racism, police brutality, community violence and the prison-industrial complex. Since 1999, when homophobic references were in abundance and misogynistic songs were common, many other social hurdles have been confronted. Since 1999, Master P and Chamillionaire don’t cuss anymore. Common pledged he wouldn’t use homophobic references anymore and Macklemore dropped the song “Same Love,” which is a gay rights song that was a radio hit. In the post 9/11 age, rappers like Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Immortal Technique, Stic and M1 (Dead Prez), Boots Riley, Sole and Sage Francis have tackled issues such as capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.

THEN: “Like the nationwide project-prison-industry complex”

NOW: In 1999, the total prison population was 1,366,721. In 2010, the total was 1,612,395. That’s an 18 percent rise since Yasiin Bey released “Mathematics,” not to mention that federal private prison populations have grown by 784 percent since 1999, with the largest increase – 146 percent – in Arizona.

THEN: “Working-class poor: better keep your alarm set / Streets too loud to ever hear freedom ring”

NOW: In 1999, the unemployment rate was 4.4 percent; now, it is estimated at 6.6 percent. Aside from unemployment, the minimum wage in 1999 was $5.15; currently, the average minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which leaves an even higher percentage of people in the working poor category. A recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research determined that if the minimum wage rose in accordance with productivity gains since 1968, the minimum wage should now be $21.72 an hour!

THEN: “Say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream”

NOW: Sleep has steadily been declining. Thirty is the new 20; four hours of sleep is the new eight. Energy gum, energy lip balm, energy bars; I’ll have a double shot of energy coffee with energy sugar steamed with a Red Bull. On another note, “it’s dangerous to dream” nowadays can refer to the Dreamer Movement. The Dreamers are undocumented youths working to attain human rights, such as being able to attend a university in the United States if they aren’t a US citizen. The Dreamers also are fighting immigration detention centers owned by the private sector that submit undocumented people to horrible prison conditions and unjust separation from their family.

THEN: “But only 15% of profits ever see my pockets like”

NOW: The majority of signed artists typically get 10 percent of their sales. In recent years, these numbers have gone down, but every deal fluctuates. Another variable is the advance deal many labels give artists: these typically turn into loans that can’t be paid back with record sales. That’s why so many artists are going indie. Not to mention, many mainstream record labels are propped up by weapons manufacturers and are highly invested in private prisons.

THEN: “69 billion in the last 20 years / Spent on national defense but folks still live in fear”

NOW: Yasiin Bey wrote this song right before national defense dramatically increased after 9/11. In 2012, the United States spent $1 trillion on national defense.

THEN: “Nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black”

NOW: Same

THEN: “16 ounces to a pound, 20 more to a ki”

NOW: A kilogram is 35.27 ounces, but who’s counting?

THEN: “A 5-minute sentence hearing and you’re no longer free”

NOW: The “justice” system is notorious for fast-tracking trials and pushing people into prisons. A recent example is the Kids For Cash scandal in Pennsylvania. Thousands of kids were sentenced by two corrupt judges (Mark Ciavarella, Michael Conahan) who received $2.6 million of kickbacks from builders and owners of private prison facilities. Many of these kids were denied a public defender and sentenced within five minutes for acts such as suspicion of a stolen bicycle or setting up a web site to mock their vice principal.

THEN: “40% of Americans own a cell phone / So they can hear everything that you say when you ain’t home”

NOW: Since 1999, this percentage had screamed up 51 percent age points. Now 91 percent of US adults own a cellphone, let alone all the young kids texting in class right now. And yes, Michael Jackson is still right. “You are not alone.”

THEN: “Young teens and prison greens facing life numbers”

NOW: According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youths who are detained, 46% of the youths who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youths admitted to state prisons.” However, the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a report that displayed in 2013, there was a 35-year low in youth incarceration. Nevertheless, youth continue to be incarcerated for nonviolent offenses and the prison-to-school pipeline still has both faucets flowing full blast, unless you are a privileged white kid who suffers from “Affluenza.” (A wealthy teen recently evaded a 20-year prison sentence after killing four people in a drunken-driving accident in which his blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit. The teen was given 10 years probation after a psychologist diagnosed him with “Affluenza,” which was defined as a “cushy upbringing prevented him from connecting bad behavior with its consequences.”)

THEN: “3 strikes and you be in for life, mandatory”

NOW: Three-strikes laws are still abundant in the United States, with more than half of the states still utilizing the law. On another note, since 2013, pharmaceutical companies have stopped letting prisons use their cocktails to administer lethal injections. This has resulted in untested drug compounds being used for lethal injection. In Ohio recently, this untested cocktail was used, and, according to witnesses, the prisoner could be heard gurgling and gasping for air for 15 minutes before he died.

THEN: “Young bloods can’t spell but they can rock you in Playstation”

NOW: It is estimated that literacy rates haven’t changed much since 1999. Thirty-two million US adults can’t read, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. But 100 percent of young bloods can rock you in Playstation, Xbox, “Call of Duty” or “Angry Birds.”

THEN: “4 MCs murdered in the last 4 years”

NOW: Since 1999, because of murder, hip-hop has lost many: Proof, Jam Master Jay, Mac Dre, Stack Bundles, Doc Doom, Soulja Slim and Pavlos Fyssas.

THEN: “8-year olds getting found with 9 mils”

NOW: I don’t think Bey is referring to school shootings. But since 1999, school shootings have dramatically increased. Since 1999, there have been an estimated 106 school shootings in the United States.

THEN: “The white unemployment rate? It’s nearly more than triple for black”

NOW: According to a recent Pew Poll, black unemployment is consistently twice the rate of white unemployment.

THEN: “Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence / Budget cutbacks but increased police presence”

NOW: The NYPD is the largest police force in the country, with more than 34,000 officers. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice, since around 1999, full-time state and local law enforcement employees in the United States have risen by a million. Not only has police presence increased since 1999, but so has police militarization. Most large city police forces have tanks, shock cuffs and flash bangs and are now testing or utilizing drones.

THEN: “And even if you get out of prison still living / Join the other 5 million under state supervision”

NOW: In 1999, it was estimated that one in 33 US adult residents were under state supervision. Recent statistics reveal that one in 34 people – 6.98 million people – are under state supervision. That is almost a 2 million rise since 1999.

THEN: “This is business: no faces, just lines and statistics / From your phone, your zip code to S-S-I digits”

NOW: Since 1999, the security and surveillance state has grown rapidly. Along with the NSA, private intelligence security firms such as Stratfor have been called the “Shadow CIA.” The hacktivist group Anonymous leaked around 5.5 million e-mails from Stratfor on Wikileaks, which revealed that large corporations like Coca-Cola and Monsanto hired Stratfor to keep an eye on activists and protesters against these corporations. In a recent article by Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher, leaked NSA documents reveal that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is on a manhunt list and the group Anonymous has been deemed a “malicious foreign actor.” The significance of this is that people who visit Wikileaks’ web site or Anonymous chat rooms or related sites risk being put under heavy electronic surveillance – which has a chilling effect on free speech.

Maybe Bey said it best. “Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: The million other straws underneath it: it’s all mathematics.”

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