by Annabeth Leong
My childhood was shaped by hustling, which is maybe why I feel some resistance to this topic, and to the entire concept of the word.
I grew up with no clear idea of how money worked or where it came from. For a living, my parents did… nothing that I could see. A lot of times we were poor. I heard them fighting about money. I remember them screaming over sums like two dollars.
On the other hand, they both knew how to come up with cash when they really needed to.
My mother had a wealthy husband before she met my father, and I saw her occasionally selling items of jewelry from before, then buying things like a new crib for my baby sister.
Mostly, though, my dad was the one who would mysteriously show up with money. It was always burning a hole in his pocket. There’s a kind of money that you have to spend fast. So, I’d be yanked out of a life of living on spam and ramen noodles and suddenly spend a week at the Sheraton Makaha resort, eating every meal in the lavish hotel restaurant and getting horseback riding lessons every day.
I think a key thing about the hustling lifestyle is the awareness of that gap, that transition. One day, you’re in clothes from the Salvation Army, and the next you’re buying Armani. I recognize this mentality in a lot of hiphop music videos.
For example, look at the structure here, in TI’s “Go Get It”:
The video shows the rapper in two distinct settings: one at home in the neighborhood, and the other in a lavish mansion. The two visions inform each other. In the neighborhood, he dreams of the mansion. And the life of the mansion is given meaning by the memory of the neighborhood, and the specific contrasts between the two situations.
I’ve never seen this in people who are just wealthy or well-off. They don’t seem to have that constant outlook of having one foot on each side of the river. I think hiphop gets criticized for being materialistic (for example, in songs such as Lorde’s “Royals”) partly because people don’t understand that this fantasizing about material possessions has to do with a certain experience of poverty and need.
My dad seemed to enjoy those weeks at the Sheraton Makaha in a simple, uncomplicated way. He wanted as much of that as he could have. He did everything he could to make them as frequent as possible. He had no impulse to stash things away and live a modest and more stable life. For him, it was all or nothing, another mindset I associate with hustling.
For me, though, it was all incredibly uncomfortable. The sacrifices we made when we were poor stung but also felt false. The luxuries we enjoyed tasted strange to me. Nothing ever seemed to fit on my body. I did not live for the fat life. I didn’t know what I was. It was hard to know the truth of our situation.
So I have weird feelings about the idea that hustling is good or virtuous. To me, there’s something distorted about the constant drive it requires, the feeling that you’ve got to put, as TI says, “hustle over all.” I don’t like bouncing between feast and famine. I don’t have the ability to sustain the energy hustling requires, and I can’t handle the heights and crashes.