‘Mic Dispatch’ episode 13: Hip-hop and cryptocurrency; the problem with minimum wage


In this edition of Mic Dispatch, we explore how hip-hop artists are jumping into the novel world of cryptocurrencies. From Nas being an early investor in Coinbase, the successful cryptocurrency trading platform, to rapper Akon’s recent announcement that he’s creating a “crypto city” in Senegal, many in hip-hop are recognizing the potential for digital currencies to change society and the music industry.

Then, we spend time with Bridget Hughes, a 27-year-old who lost her job at McDonald’s, where she was making $9.50 per hour. Hughes says her responsibilities as a mother make it hard for her to find and keep a job — especially one that pays her near minimum wage. While searching for a job, Hughes protested with the national Poor People’s Campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Orrin Campbell, rapper: I think right now Silicon Valley realizes that hip-hop right now is at the center of culture and media, and so these companies reach out to cool rappers to be the face of their crypto coin, and I think it’s cool that these artists are getting those opportunities, but sometimes the project in and of itself isn’t that sound.

Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: With an estimated value of $500 billion, cryptocurrency might be the money of the future — and rappers, from 50 Cent to Nas to Kanye West, are trying to cash in on it. But what is it about this relatively new form of digital money that offers so much potential to rap artists? Correspondent Chantel Simpson talks to some rappers to find out how they think it could change the music industry.

Campbell: I think it’s dope that, like, there’s this renaissance of like hip-hop artists being backed or starting their own cryptocurrencies and realizing that cryptos are the digital Wild West. I hope that there’s a new wave of hip-hop artists using cryptocurrencies to fund their career and to change the world or the music industry in some way.

Chantel Simpson, correspondent (voiceover): Cryptocurrencies are having a moment in hip-hop. These virtual coins, like bitcoin or ether, allow users to make transactions easily without oversight from a bank or financial institution. From Nas being an early investor in Coinbase, the successful cryptocurrency trading platform, to Nipsey Hussle praising cryptocurrencies as the future, like in this video...

[Nipsey Hussle, rapper, in clip: We came to Amsterdam because there’s a city out here where the whole city is cryptocurrency friendly and this is an example of what’s going to happen in the rest of the world.]

Simpson (voiceover): Many in hip-hop are recognizing the potential of digital currencies for society and the music industry.

Shiv Madan, CEO and co-founder of Blockparty: Hip-hop artists engaging in cryptocurrency is — it feels quite natural to me because they’re forward-thinking, you know, they’re always looking for ways to engage with their fans and really do something different and unique.

I think they can be the real drivers of social change and mass adoption in cryptocurrency.

Simpson (voiceover): Other than investing in cryptocurrency ventures, some rappers have created their own coins, allowing their fanbase to invest in their work while also bypassing traditional distribution and funding models, like labels. Other artists, like Orrin, are using cryptos to fund a life of making music full-time.

Campbell: My music style is like a progressive blend of, like, hip-hop and R&B. It’s a little bit dark. It’s experimental soundscapes over futuristic hip-hop beats.

Simpson (voiceover): Since last fall, Orrin has been subsisting on the money he makes from day-trading cryptocurrencies.

Campbell: I just kinda stayed tuned in and invested every day and just, like, moved money from this platform to this platform, bought this coin at this price, sold it at a higher price.

Simpson: And do you think like the volatility of cryptocurrencies is what makes it more lucrative?

Campbell: Definitely, yeah. There are days where like, I wake up and bitcoin is at $6,000 and then by 1 o’clock it’s at $8,500. If you put $200 in, like, you might make $150 in that price jump from $6,000 to $8,000.

Simpson (voiceover): Orrin claims he makes enough for studio time, photo shoots, music videos and, of course, rent in New York. For an unsigned artist like himself, cryptocurrencies can potentially provide a direct line for fans to support him.

Campbell: If you wanted to raise money on a platform like Indiegogo, they might take 5% of however much contributions you make. But with cryptos, like, you could create a portal where people contribute cryptocurrencies and, like, the fee might be between one tenth to, like, a dollar. There’s less people taking a portion of your pie and, like, it’s almost instantaneous.

Simpson: And for someone who’s signed to a bigger label, it can be much harder for them to make the money that they want to.

Campbell: Definitely, because the label’s over their shoulder, you know, handling their business, their money, their financials, and so like obviously they want to be compensated for the work that they’re doing it for the artist, so it’s another person in their pocket, basically.

Simpson (voiceover): Barsun Jones also believes that cryptocurrencies can provide independent artists with much-needed benefits. Jones is the son of the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a member of the legendary group Wu-Tang Clan. Earlier this year, he announced that he’s launching Dirty Coin, which would in part provide access to merchandise related to his father’s legacy.

But Barsun has higher aspirations for the coin.

Barsun Jones, founder of Dirty Coin: I’m going to give you a chance to learn how to run your own business. That’s supposed to be done before you even get signed with a label, but you don’t have time to do that when you’re trying to just get fed. It’s just the labels just like kind of scary because they’re going to keep taking and not tell you that they taking.

Simpson: What happened with your father and labels?

Jones: What happened with any artist and labels. It didn’t work right, because the octopus was just, you know, grabbing everything that the artist had at the time.

Simpson: And you want Dirty Coin to, like, help artists make more money?

Jones: Yeah, definitely. That’s the goal.

Simpson (voiceover): It’s a little unclear how exactly Dirty Coin would help up-and-coming artists. Barsun didn’t go into specifics, and there hasn’t been any new info on when the coin would go up. But it’s this kind of vagueness that makes a lot of people skeptical of crypto businesses or coins backed by hip-hop artists.

Aaron Brown, author and finance writer: I think it’s a big red flag when a celebrity comes up and says, “Buy this thing from me,” and it doesn’t have clear value to you. It’s not clear, are you joining a fan club where you’re going to get special access to tickets and backstage passes and things and the guy’s going to come over to your house and have drinks with you? When people kind of mashed it all together and you’re not sure what you’re getting, you’re getting nothing.

Campbell: I think right now Silicon Valley realizes that hip-hop right now is at the center of culture and media, and so these companies reach out to cool rappers to be the face of their crypto coin. And I think it’s cool that these artists are getting those opportunities, but sometimes the project in and of itself isn’t that sound.

Simpson: How can you spot a scam?

Campbell: You should read their white paper. It’s like a Google Doc from one to maybe even like pages of information on what they want to do with the project, how they’re going to actually get this coin or this idea into the market and get it in people’s hands. You should look at their Twitter, their Instagram and, most importantly, their Reddit. So if you see a lot of people and a lot of activity on the Reddit, you know that, OK, this team is active, they’re aware, they’re engaging with their community.

Madan: There’s a lot of really talented artists who are coming up. They’re not signed and, if they have enough of a fan base, they could raise 50,000. It doesn’t have to be at a $10 million ICO. It can be a smaller amount of money and create their own coin and over the time, that grows in value because more people like them. You’re trying to create an economy around yourself. It’s a good time for the hip-hop musicians to be doing that.

Brown: Cryptocurrencies do for exchange what the internet does for information, but it’s five to 10 years away from a mass adoption for when it’s gonna affect most people’s lives.

I think it’s going to be very big.

I worry a lot about people investing in it today.

Campbell: Cryptos have allowed me to be financially independent and have helped me in funding this journey. So I’m excited for the future, both my music career and cryptos and the intersectionality between the two.

Del Toro: So do you think cryptocurrency has the potential to revolutionize the music industry and American culture? Let us know what you think in the comments.

How can you make ends meet on a minimum wage salary of $7.25 an hour? Some workers’ rights advocates say you can’t. They’ve calculated that you need $15 an hour to cover your basic needs. Yet less than half of all U.S. workers are making what’s considered a living wage — and women and people of color are the ones disproportionately earning less. Our correspondent Aaron Morrison talks to a minimum wage worker who’s fighting to raise salaries in Missouri.

Bridget Hughes, recently unemployed, former McDonald’s employee: You are being extremely good, Dezi, and I appreciate that. Come here, Ray. I’ma have you lay down with daddy so I can get your brother to school.

At the end of the day, when you work in the richest nation in the world, you deserve to come home and pay your bills. You deserve to come home and feed your children.

Aaron Morrison, correspondent (voiceover): While unemployment is at an 18-year low, the poverty rate is roughly 12.7%. That’s roughly 40.6 million people.

Hughes: My childhood was very similar to my adult life: going without food, going without electricity. That’s what I’m trying to break is the generational poverty.

Morrison (voiceover): In the spring, 27-year-old Bridget Hughes lost her job at McDonald’s, where she was making $9.50 per hour. Hughes says her responsibilities as a mother make it hard for her to find and keep a job, especially one that pays her near minimum wage.

Hughes: It says, “What are you looking for?” So I pretty much just put “cashier.” These are the jobs that are easier for me to get to right now. Like, I’ve got a grocery store down the street, I’ve got restaurants down the street. I mean this is a growing industry, so...

I honestly haven’t had trouble with getting the interview. I more so have trouble with securing the job because I’m honest with my employer, I let them know I do have children, I do have children who have medical needs. So there are times where I may get a phone call and I’m going to have to clock out and tend to my children or I may have to call in because they’re sick and I don’t have child care. But then the employer gets worried about my dependability because of the children, which, for me, it’s discrimination because I’m a mom.

My mother was also a low-wage worker. So it wasn’t my choice to leave school. It wasn’t my choice to be forced into working at 16 instead of getting an education. But even aside from that, I did go back and get an education. I even have a college degree under my belt for medical assisting. But I’ve worked in those fields, still lived in poverty, still qualified for food stamps.

Hughes (to her children): Put your shirt on. Come on, we can’t abandon ship today. You gotta get up and go to school. Come on. Please stop fighting me. Put your shirt on.

Hughes (to Morrison): This is the problem we have ’cause it’s so hot in here, so he doesn’t sleep very well.

Hughes (to her children): Come on. You’re taking the shortcut?

Hughes: I’ve got a pile of legal fees, a car that needs to be fixed, an air conditioner that needs to be replaced and recently lost my job. So, the need for another one is very dire.

Hughes (to her child): You hear me, Tray? Your education is this successful tool for your future. So if you don’t get an education, what do you think is gonna happen? You’re not going to be able to get you a career. You’ll have to get you a low-wage job. And if they don’t change things and change policies by the time you’re my age, then we’re really, we’re all going to be doing bad. So don’t you think it’s a lot better to have your education? Yeah?

Morrison (voiceover): Hughes says she struggles to have time to take care of her children, take them to school and go to work. She can’t afford daycare.

Hughes: I don’t want them to face the same problems I face. When I was in high school, I had to drop out, get a job, help my parents, pay bills, help take care of my brothers and sisters. I don’t want my children to go through that same thing.

It’s made me a lot more passionate to fight for a living wage because I know, with these things, I wouldn’t be facing half of the issues. It would solve so much in my life.

Morrison (voiceover): While searching for a job, Hughes also protested with the national Poor People’s Campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and allow workers to unionize. Previous efforts to pass a higher federal minimum wage have failed. And funding for safety nets set up to help working mothers and families have frayed in recent years.

The Poor People’s campaign is hoping to make this a midterm election issue.

Hughes: We live in the richest country in the world, and yet, we don’t take care of our people. We’re passing laws that are against our people, we’re passing laws that are hurting your everyday workers.

Doug Alpert, statewide coordinator, Poor People’s Campaign: Poor People’s Campaign is a rejuvenation of the original Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 50 years ago, fighting racism, economic disparity and injustice and militarism.

[Hughes, at protest, in clip: When black lives are under attack, what do we do?]

[Protesters, in clip: Stand up, fight back!]

[Hughes, at rally, in clip: When immigrants are under attack, what do we do?]

Alpert: This piece of nonviolent resistance is really the beginning. It’s the catalyst for what’s to come. So our anticipation is amongst the next steps will include voter registration, voter mobilization.

It’s all about giving a voice to the poor. The poor workers that we work with are people of dignity, people of courage.

These folks are working two and three jobs and still can’t make ends meet. That’s a sin. And we want to get their stories back into the political narrative and their issues back on the front burner where they belong.

[Protesters, in clip: Fifteen and a union! Fifteen and a union! Fifteen and a union!]

Morrison: You’re hopeful that this is going to succeed?

Hughes: Oh, I’m not hopeful. I know it will succeed. I know we will win. Because we have our strength in numbers. There’s too many of us living in poverty and too many of us that are sick and tired of going through this for us to not succeed.

Del Toro: So do you think the federal minimum wage should be increased to $15 an hour? Why or why not? Leave us your thoughts on the show page, and see you next week.

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