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As one of the leading voices in conscious hip-hop, Mos Def can be playful, profound, and preachy in equal parts. "Mathematics" has all these elements, but mostly we just have to hand it to him for one thing: the song is just plain smart.
It took us here at Shmoop a pretty long time to figure out all the figures and facts he cites, and we didn't even have to add, subtract, or multiply. But, as Mos Def shows us, that's not all there is to numbers. Sometimes, it's also about interpreting the information we're given.
"Mathematics" walks us through a series of increasingly huge numbers in order to paint a picture of some of the key social injustices Mos Def saw around him in the late 1990s. Some of the numbers are harmless statistics ("40% of Americans own a cell phone") or clever shout-outs ("6 million ways to die" is from a Snoop Dogg song). But many of the figures named are insidious numbers and proportions that describe the effects of poverty, drugs and racism on urban Black communities ("the white unemployment rate is nearly more than triple for Black").
He brings in most of the key urban issues of the 1980s and 1990s: AIDS, unemployment, the crack cocaine epidemic, gangs, public housing, and the massive increase in policing and incarceration that came along with "tough on crime" legislation and the War on Drugs. People in the ghetto, he says, are "Bubblin crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty / And end up in the global jail economy." (We spell out a lot more of what Mos Def says in our Lyrics section, too.)
The issue of prison and jail comes up a lot in "Mathematics." What does Mos Def mean by jail economy? Another phrase he uses for it is "prison-industry complex." Both phrases describe how prisons and incarceration have become a big business in the U.S. Beginning in the 1980s, a trend toward turning public services over to private companies (a process known as "privatization") meant that some prisons were no longer run by the government, but by corporations. Private prisons remain a small minority; in state-run prisons, the business element is more about jobs for correctional officers and contracts for companies who provide things like food, clothing, and security technology to prisons.
The profitability of prisons creates an obvious problem: because of the "grow or die" principle for big corporations, the prison system can't actually reduce the number of people locked up without putting business in a bind. Even in places where crime rates have steadied out or gone down, prison populations have often continued to grow, usually affecting people of color disproportionately. In 1980, there were fewer than 400,000 people locked up in the U.S., but by 2000, there were about two million. In 2007, a disturbing census analysis showed that there were three times as many Blacks in jail or prison than in college dorms.
Even though we think it's really cool to use this many statistics in a rap song, Mos Def isn't just trying to make an abstract point about statistics. He uses the numbers in striking ways to show that they are more than just numbers.
Lines like "eight-year-olds getting caught with 9 mills" or "Four MC's murdered in the last four years / I ain't tryin to be the fifth one" take the sort of depressing stuff off the newsstands and remind us that it's real. For Mos Def, it's important to understand these numbers, but it's dehumanizing when people start to become numbers:
This is business, no faces just lines and statistics
From your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits
The system break man, child and women into figures
Two columns for who is, and who ain't niggaz
Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings
But you push too hard, even numbers got limits
Why did one straw break the camel's back? Here's the secret:
The million other straws underneath it—it's all mathematics
Census reports and statistical studies tell us about which neighborhoods are the poorest, which communities are most at risk for AIDS, or remind us how underperforming certain public schools are or how many people are addicted to crack in certain neighborhoods. People who get swept up in the system often become statistics—for example, prisoners are referred to by their inmate numbers instead of their names, and Social Security insurance all depends on a number.
Mos Def wants to use numbers and facts to stop the cycle of dehumanization that happens when people become just a number. Maybe, in a sense, he is "using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house," as writer Audre Lorde once said (she didn't think that approach worked in general, but we doubt she would oppose using math in the interest of social justice).
Ending on a hopeful, inspirational note—a typical turn for Mr. Conscious Hip-Hop—Mos Def suggests that when people go through enough hardship, they eventually push back and try to change things. It's the whole principle of "the straw that broke the camel's back," but in this case, the camel is a whole community that has been turned into a set of statistics for too long.
"It's all mathematics," he says—and the sarcasm of that last line tells us that what he really means is, it's more than just mathematics. But maybe Mos Def is suggesting that mathematics are a necessary place to start if we want to criticize, interpret, and change the world around us.