Humiliation has been a primary social regulator for as long as humans have been sharing a campfire. As I discussed in the Shoptalk episode of Fear & Loathing in the New Jerusalem, honor and shame rule the barbarous days before the establishment of state institutions, and always lie waiting for the day institutions lose their grip. Hip hop arose from a marginalized urban culture whose relationship to state institutions usually ranged from distant to hostile, and in an environment where institutional legitimacy never fully supplanted the old codes. Ancient human social dynamics were on display in the recent feud between rappers Drake and Meek Mill. The Twitterverse has mistaken the drama for a comedy, but in truth The Humiliation of Meek Mill had the makings of a great tragedy or heroic epic.
Shame is distinguished from guilt in being a purely social emotion. We feel guilt for transgressing against a rule we have internalized, and whose legitimacy we accept. Guilt is what drives us to confess to a lie even when there is no chance we will ever be found out. Shame, a powerful emotion with roots so deep that it is associated with specific physical responses, is the feeling that takes over when we are found out without confessing. Shame can occur whether or not we accept the validity of the standard we’re judged to have missed. A strong feminist might reject the false beauty standard of the Photoshop era and yet still turn red when she overhears a group of people mocking her weight. Most often, though, shame is not merely the result of being mistreated or held in low esteem. Shame is most powerful when we discover that we have been overestimating the opinions of ourselves held by others. Being caught in a lie or hearing assholes joke about our weight both sting, but whole worlds fall apart when we discover a delta between where we think we stand, and where everyone else actually sees us. This is what happened to Meek Mill, and the whole process has been as hard to watch as it’s been impossible to look away from.
A rap battle is a sublimated ritual combat in which participants are able to settle status disputes without bloodshed, like the Mesoamerican flower wars. The language is straight out of Germanic pre-fight taunting ritual, with warriors taking turns recounting their achievements, insulting and threatening the opponent, and playing up their own prowess. Since the stakes are honor and status rather than land or wealth, the other’s reputation and credibility are the primary target. Thus, the observer is an indispensable party to any dispute. The subjective judgment of the relevant public is the final arbiter of any dispute over status (this is why winners of freestyle rap battles are declared by the shouting audience, and never by any standardized point system, which would be anathema to the form). The dispute between Meek Mill and Drake burst into public when Meek essentially called Drake a phony who didn’t write his own lyrics, but the crime that brought about Meek Mill’s downfall was not slander or libel – it turns out that no one cares whether or not Drake writes his own raps – but hubris. And as any student of Classical mythology or watcher of the movie Snatch knows, Nemesis plays Whack-a-Mole with hubristic mortals. Meek realized that a gulf existed between how he perceived himself and how he was perceived by Drake, and tragically tempted fate by insulting the gods. But the truth is that the feud between the two started months ago.
Back in March, it was reported that Drake donated $75,000 to build a recording studio at Meek Mill’s old high school. To many of us, this might have seemed like an altruistic, or at least innocuous, act of goodwill. But in most societies throughout history, it would have been recognized as the overt act of aggression that it was. In traditional societies, hospitality and gift giving were complicated and often dangerous matters. In a culture of honor, a man is deemed honorable who can repay what he owes. This means returning both boons and injuries or insults with equal or greater generosity or vengeance. Or, as Hobbes put it:
In traditional societies from the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest to the Icelanders of the sagas, the bestowal of a gift was understood by all to be challenge for status. Every eye then shifted to the receiver, who was faced with three basic choices. First, he could accept the gift and return with a fitting gift of his own. Next, he could accept the gift and, admitting the gift is too magnificent for him to repay, yields status and instead repays by publicly praising the gift and the giver. Third, he could refuse the gift. The third option was a rare and dramatic step which would almost certainly lead to violence, even war. Besides these, there were countless nuanced considerations in the language of gift exchange.
In a well-known saga, a young poet-warrior named Einar stopped by the home of his friend, an older poet-warrior named Egil, while the elder was away. Seeing that his friend was not at home, Einar left a large, well-made shield as a gift for Egil, and then departed. When Egil returned and discovered what Einar had done, he was so outraged at the younger man’s attempt to force Egil into praising him that he determined to chase him down and kill him. Finding, however, that Einar was too far ahead to be caught, Egil resigned himself to his miserable fate and sat down to write a poem about the generosity of Einar and the magnificence of the shield he had given to Egil.
When a friend gives $75,000 to your old high school, it doesn’t come without a price tag. Perhaps Meek understood this on some level at the time, but if so he gave no indication. This move by Drake resembles the potlatch of the Kwakiutl and other Pacific Northwest natives, in which prominent men would compete with one another through acts of generosity to the community. Pointing back to a time when the Kwakiutl may have fought for status by offering sacrifices in a manner nearer to the Mesoamericans, the Kwakiutl sometimes simply destroyed their property to challenge an enemy:
In case the progressive sublimation from sacrificed man, to gifted man, to finally gifted or destroyed coppers, wasn’t clear enough, the Kwakiutl themselves made no secret about the social-aggressive roots of such activities. Regarding the potlatch, anthropologist Helen Codere writes:
The change was precipitated by the arrival of Europeans, who enforced an end to the more violent practices. Codere quotes several natives who leave no room to doubt that the potlatch was a substitute for what had traditionally been direct aggression:
And Codere concludes:
You get the point. The $75,000 might have been named ‘Meek Bitchmaker.’
Perhaps Meek’s Pearl Harbor attack on a sleeping giant was brought about by his romantic involvement with Nicki Minaj, who lives alongside Drake in the rarefied atmosphere at the top of the mountain Meek is still trying to climb. It may have been that Meek, knowing that Nicki’s booty was several weight classes above his own, was driven to overcompensating for feelings of inferiority. Or perhaps his relationship with Nicki actually distorted his vision of reality. Either way, when Drake did a feature spot for a track on Meek’s new album, each man clearly thought something different was happening. Meek believed that he had achieved enough credibility that Drake would view their collaboration as a mutually beneficial opportunity. He thought Drake would be excited to tell the world about his new jam with Meek Mill. But when Drake failed to even promote the song’s release, Meek realized how little it meant to the king to condescend long enough to drop a track on a peasant’s new album. No one notices the absence of a promotion Tweet, but Meek, diminished and humiliated (and likely looking back at events such as the gift to his high school in a new light), made the fateful decision to get on his horse and chase Drake down the road. Unfortunately, unlike Egil chasing Einar, Meek Mill caught up with Drake, and was publicly ruined by the man on whom he set out to avenge himself.