What Is Work Worth? | New American Songbook

Jun 19, 2017

The value of a hard day’s work is one of those mostly uncontroversial shared beliefs in American society: it’s good, period. Even across economic classes, work is seen as a necessary part of life, though opinions on what work is worth might vary. Most of our ideas about work come from people who have been successful at work, which seems reasonable if you don’t think too hard about the vested interest those successful people have in maintaining a status quo that has worked so well for them.

Folk music has long provided a foil to the capitalist vision of work, and throughout the 20th century was instrumental in articulating the desires and demands of the poor and working class. Those same articulations can be found throughout hip hop’s history: Dead Prez, The Coup, Paris, and Public Enemy all express leftist visions of work.

If the term ‘leftist’ turns you off, let’s say that they express visions of work from a worker’s perspective. The L.A. rapper Bambu develops this kind of vision in this verse from his song ‘Minimum Wage,’ connecting labor issues with immigration and school segregation:

In the song ‘A Sunrise Before,’ Bambu narrates the time spent by a worker outside of work—a personal and social space that is, interestingly, often ignored in conversations about work. How does work enrich our free time? What does it mean to have two different kinds of time anyway?

These are important questions, too important to be left to the pages of Forbes or the Wall Street Journal to answer alone. We’ll all have to come together to determine what work is worth, if it’s actually worth anything at all.