When the Atlanta rap trio Migos released “Bad and Boujee,” the rambunctious lead single off of their second album, it quickly became a viral sensation. Actor Donald Glover called it the “best song, ever” at the 2017 Golden Globe awards, spurring a 243 percent spike in Spotify streams. Memes adopting the song’s opening line—“raindrop, drop top”—proliferated on the Internet. The song eventually peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Migos’ first chart-topping single.
“Bad and Boujee” introduced a new term to the mainstream American vernacular—“boujee,” an unorthodox spelling of “bougie,” itself an abbreviation of the term “bourgeois.” Originating from medieval France and rising to prominence in the late 18th century, the term “bourgeois” referred to the behaviors and attitudes of the upper strata of the Third Estate of the Ancien Regime—the “bourgeoisie”—who held professional occupations in banking, law, and manufacturing. “Bourgeoisie” denoted a legally-defined class within a rigid social hierarchy, the financial intermediary between the absolute monarchy and the rest of society.
In today’s lexicon, “bourgeois” refers to the values and ideology of the middle class, with emphasis on their material interests and conventional values. More pejoratively, it signifies an empty materialism, a lack of values beyond the blind consumption of commercial goods. This connotation is commonly traced to philosopher Karl Marx, who popularized it when he introduced it into his social and political theory. Under capitalism, the ascending bourgeoisie—the merchants, bankers, and businessmen oppressed during the Ancien Regime—had overtaken the means of production. The primary division in society no longer occurred between the ruling powers and the masses, but between the suppliers of labor and the suppliers of capital—in other words, the bourgeoisie and the working class. Since Marx, the term has proliferated, adapting and redefining itself based on cultural context. It no longer just refers to a position within a social hierarchy but a set of behaviors, a way of living.
“Bad and Boujee” illustrates a lifestyle distant from traditional notions of what it means to be bourgeois, one of extreme wealth—Ferraris, diamonds, Lamborghinis—but also violence and casual distrust. In the song, Migos rap about stirring pots of drugs with Uzis, a type of Israeli submachine gun, making money off of the sale of cocaine, and having sex with women. The music video is filled with contradictory imagery. Women drink champagne poured out of gold bottles but eat Cup Noodles and fried chicken. These conflicting visuals raise an important question: how has the meaning of “bourgeois” evolved over time, and what does it mean to be “boujee”?
Boujee: the Intersection of Class and Race
In the 1950s, the American sociologist Franklin Frazier published his book Black Bourgeoisie, a critical analysis of the black middle class. Frazier, a professor at Howard University and the first black president of the American Sociological Association, condemned the black bourgeoisie for what he saw as their blind assimilation to white middle class values. In order to compensate for feelings of inferiority, he argued, middle class black Americans tried to achieve recognition through conspicuous consumption and status seeking. They played cards, attended parties, and purchased expensive cars, more interested in promoting their own material advancement than aiding the black majority.
Understood in this context, “bougie” is a derogatory term for someone who attempts to distance his or herself from their class origin for personal gain. “They’re trying to be fancy but they’re not fancy because they’re really hood,” explained Daniel White Hodge, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Hip Hop Studies, in an interview with the HPR. But it’s also a racialized term, one that signals adherence to white norms, attitudes, and beliefs. A guide to African American vernacular defines “boojee”—another variation of “bougie,” virtually indistinguishable in meaning—as an “elitist, uppity-acting African American” who has a higher education and income level than the average African American, and who “identifies with European American culture and distances him/herself from other African Americans.” Bougie implies the adoption of whiteness as a social identity. “It definitely has a racial connotation,” Hodges says.
Central to the idea of “bougieness” is the belief in middle class respectability, in proper performance along socially-defined norms. Bougie implies “acting white”: not speaking too loudly, wearing hair naturally, or using African American lingo. Vershawn Ashanti Young argues in From Bourgeois to Boujie: Black Middle Class Performances that the exacerbation of class difference within the black community is a byproduct of desegregation. During Jim Crow, segregation prevented middle-class African Americans from being able to act white by barring them from restaurants, schools, and bus sections. After Jim Crow, they gained access to more diverse spaces where they acted white to prove their worth.
In 2007, right before Americans elected the nation’s first black president, the Pew Research Center released survey findings that revealed a widening divide between the values of middle class and poor African Americans traced to perceived differences in worth ethic and education. In response to the question, “Have the values of middle-class and poor blacks become more similar or more different?” 61 percent of African Americans said “more different.” Nearly four-in-ten African Americans believed blacks could no longer be thought of as a single race.
Reflected in this class division was a debate over role models and social responsibility. An overwhelming majority of African Americans viewed figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby (before his sexual assault scandals) favorably, but only 17 percent said the rap artist 50 Cent was a good influence. With their rags to riches narratives, Winfrey and Cosby advanced the idea that achieving success was not a matter of fighting discrimination, but pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Cosby chastised black people for not taking control over their own lives on his famous “Pound Cake” speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. E. Patrick Johnson, now the Chair of the African American Studies Department at Northwestern University, remarked in an essay that Cosby’s nostalgia for the “old days” when the black community was more responsible for its members “registers a contemporary manifestation of nineteenth-century black respectability, in which the black elite were invested in circumscribing the boundaries of blackness in order to appear respectable in the eyes of whites.” In other words, the battle over role models seems to be a repetition of the same debates about class division and notions of black authenticity. The Pew survey showed that compared to previous years, fewer African Americans agreed that discrimination was the primary obstacle impeding black advancement. Over half of respondents claimed that African Americans who don’t advance are responsible for their own situation.
Boujeeness: The Bourgeois in Hip Hop
In “Bad and Boujee,” Migos claim that their women are bougie, but so are they. “I’m young and rich plus I’m bougie,” raps Offset. But while their references to luxury cars align with the conspicuous consumption that Frazier identifies with the black bourgeoisie, the activities they depict in “Bad and Boujee”—shooting guns, cooking dope, having sex with women—contrast starkly with notions of middle class respectability. The recognition that “we ain’t really never had no old money” and “we came from nothin’ to something” early on implies that the song better reflects the experiences of poor black people, albeit ones who are acclimating to newfound wealth, rather than middle class Americans. Migos maintains their identification with the hood and traditional markers of blackness. In the music video, they drink champagne but eat out of buckets of fried chicken—all while sitting in an all-black diner.
Migos converts a traditionally pejorative term to signify a unapologetic embrace of materialism. In an interview with the HPR, Michael Jeffries, an associate professor of American Studies at Wellesley who has written extensively about hip-hop, said that this embrace “is an affirmation of their authenticity as people who maintain street credibility even though their world is now much bigger than the hood.” Importantly, he claims, this embrace suggests that status is not about money but cultural capital—a respectable bourgeois sensibility—that is not especially well-regarded in hip-hop circles. The song can operate as a critique of bourgeois ideals.
“Migos’ shameless affirmation of new money boujee without the cultural strings attached demystifies the concept,” Jeffries said. “Bougie sensibilities are not to be revered or aspired to, and the people who practice them are no more worthy of our respect and admiration than others. The relevant distinction is having money whether it flows through illicit or legitimate economies.”
But other scholars question whether this new conception of bougieness is meaningful, or whether it’s merely the hollow creation of a commercialized order—a commodified image of blackness designed to sell records. Jeffries believes that hip-hop has produced the most salient criticism of capitalism of any American music genre. “Hip-hop performances and narratives continue to expose the racialized violence of late capitalism and absurdity of the cultural norms and assumptions that accompany it,” he opined. But hip-hop is rife with contradiction; as it has moved into the mainstream, its relationship to capitalism has complicated. Large record companies realized they could profit off of hip-hop and began to buy out independent labels. Some believe this move marginalized more conscious hip-hop artists who advocated for social change, ushering in a corporatized “gangsta” image that relies on shallow stereotypes of drugs, violence, and socially constructed versions of blackness. “It’s become a marketable response to have blacks act and talk a certain way” Hodge commented. He contends that the commercial success of hip-hop relies on the continued buy-in of the white community; black and brown communities have never been directly commodifiable. To some critics then, commercial rap is merely another method of self-promotion, a performance of stereotypes for financial gain. Writing for The Atlantic, Jeffries points out that “keeping it real’” in commercial rap often requires “hyper-masculine claims to dangerous ghetto experience, sexual power, and conspicuous consumption.” The irony is that this “real blackness” is not real, but rather constructed based on the desires of white consumers.
For an amateur hip-hop scholar, especially one who is not from the black community, the objective is not to make assertions about the proper usage of “bougie” or the direction of hip-hop. “The desire to moralize identity through an art form rarely gets at anything meaningful besides the moral authority of the author,” said Charlie Harding in an interview with the HPR. He is the founder of pop music podcast “Switched on Pop,” which has analyzed songs like Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Made in America” to reflect on the role music plays in shaping national identity. Rather, the goal is to understand how the evolution of “bougie”—and the multiplicity of its meaning—illuminate a series of racial and class-based tensions that replicate in all facets of society and to use this understanding to shape how we conceive of identity in America. “Bad and Boujee” is not just a catchy song; it’s a contribution to an ongoing discourse, one that reflects and informs our national culture.
Image Credit: The Come Up Show/Flickr