Snake Oil Salesmen: Big Oil and Hip-Hop Don't Mix

Saturday, 13 March 2010 13:43 By Tolu Olorunda, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Snake Oil Salesmen: Big Oil and Hip-Hop Don
(Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: zen, Valerie Everett)

Rule No. 1 in hip-hop: don't knock the hustle. And KRS-One stated clearly in the first principle of The Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace, that among the nine elements fundamental to the kulture is street entrepreneurialism. It is hard, I understand, to speak ill of a rapper or MC making business moves to better their living and, in some cases, enrich the communities from which they emerged.

And Jay-Z laid the statutes down a decade and half ago: "Let's get together and make this whole world believers at my arraignment/ Screaming, 'all these blacks got is sports and entertainment'/ Until we even, thieving, as long as I'm breathing/ Can't knock the way a ni**a eating; f**k you even/."

But if you adhere blindly to a "can't knock the hustle" philosophy, there's a good chance you feel the same of the "snitching code," meaning, in deference to a morally decrepit conception of solidarity, you're willing to put at risk the lives of innocent victims.

For the record, I hope hip-hop artists, engineers, graffiti painters, b-boys and b-girls, DJs, educators, thinkers, critics, fans and nonreptilian executives make as much money as possible without leaving the crime scene in blood-stained hands. As a cultural force generating multi-billion dollar revenue for giant conglomerates, it's critical we harness the various avenues available for financial empowerment. I write a great deal about artistic independence because I believe it the only route through which artists can double, if not triple, their income in the new decade - while retaining an unblemished soul. My good colleague Cedric Muhammad is more versed in the financial realm and runs a Hip-Hoppreneur™ column on AllHipHop.com every Tuesday. And we both seem to agree that if the age of economic liberation is upon us, artists would have to move with confidence into the private sector and demand what's theirs.

Thus, when Cash Money CEOs Bryan "Baby" and Ronald "Slim" Williams announced their new oil venture, Bronald Oil, mid-January, many took it as a sign that hip-hop entrepreneurs were stepping on to higher grounds - making "power moves." Unfortunately, more is at stake than a mere business deal, which could rake in some serious money.

The oil industry is a dirty one, confined to a different league - run by different breeds of men. It is marked by corruption, graft, backdoor deals, and every other unethical invention imaginable. It makes the music industry - for all its shadiness - look like a Girl Scout lemonade sale. Safe for a limited few who try to do the right thing, most tycoons are, in fact, over-zealous corporatists whose love of money is only outlasted by their disregard for the communities and lives ruined from pollution of the environment. It would be wrong to paint the entire oil field business bad based on the crimes of a few major corporations, but, by and large, most aren't committed to doing right by communities - even if their mission statements swear otherwise.

Bronald Oil is an "independent oil and gas company focused, on the exploration, production and development of oil and gas reserves from conventional and unconventional formations." It should be noted that independence for oil companies is defined, much like record labels, not by choice or selection, but staff size and retail sales. Though Bronald, based in the US and Central America, is "committed to preserving the environment, promoting worker safety and maximizing the potential output of various oil and gas assets," it also leaves open the option of utilizing "testing grounds" to discover "new and developing technologies"; not to mention pursuing potentially "risky exploration and development opportunities" - all, fret not, in an "economic and environmentally efficient manner."

And this is where those who truly value the reputation of hip-hop as a life source for the empowerment and betterment of everyday people, as refuge for those lost and forgotten, as security for the vulnerable and disposable, ought to sit up and pay closer attention.

It is possible that the Williams Brothers plan to show the world what stuff hip-hop is made off, and how, as a community, top priority is always placed on people over profit; how, regardless of whatever venture we partake in, the neoliberal corporate policies that work men and women like slaves and reward them with very little will never be a part of our culture; how oil companies can be run with respect for life and the environment front and center. Sadly, not only is this utopian, it is almost impossible. Oil companies, by nature, are usually built for one purpose only: profit. And in a hostile world where severe competition is key to survival, many soon get lost in the hysteria of social Darwinism that they forget what "commitments" they made at the starting point to "preserving the environment" and "promoting worker safety."

All the big oil companies champion eco-friendly causes not unlike those Bronald Oil espouses. Five of the top ten have this to say in that respect:

Royal Dutch Shell:

Environment: "Through partnerships with environmental experts and by using new technologies we are finding ways to help reduce the impact of our operations on the environment."

Worker Safety: "Safety remains our first priority at all times. Our goal is zero fatalities and accidents. We want all of our staff and contractors to return home safely every day."

ExxonMobil:

Environment: "ExxonMobil is committed to operating throughout the world in a way that protects the environment and takes into account the economic and social needs of the communities where we operate."

Worker Safety: "ExxonMobil is committed to providing positive, productive and supportive work environments throughout its global operations. The Company has long-established programs to attract, develop and retain a highly talented workforce that is representative of the regions in which it operates. ExxonMobil values the exceptional quality and diversity of its employees."

Chevron:

Environment: "To tap new energy resources, Chevron is now operating in more difficult and isolated areas than ever before. We are committed to seeing that new projects are developed in an environmentally sound manner and that existing operations continue to reduce their environmental impacts."

Worker Safety: "Employee health and safety lie at the foundation of our efforts to build a talented, dynamic workforce. A fully productive employee must be safe and secure first. The health and safety of our employees and contractors hold critical value for our business."

PetroChina:

Environment: "The most important resources in the world are human beings and the natural environment they are dependent on.... We stick to the principles of people-oriented, prevention-driven, total participation and continuous improvement to pursue zero injury, zero pollution and zero accident."

Worker Safety: "We respect and maintain the rights and interests of our employees, expand the platform for their growth, and ensure that they realize their value through the development of the Company and benefit from the Company's achievements and creations."

British Petroleum:

Environment: "We are committed to the safety and development of our people and the communities and societies in which we operate. We aim for no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment."

Worker Safety: "BP's commitment to safety comes at the top, our leaders continue to emphasize the key priority of safe operations for the future of the group."

As evidenced, even the super-rich conglomerates consider - or, more accurately, state - environmental preservation and worker safety as of optimum priority. Too bad their records indicate anything but active adherence to these tenets:

In June 2009, Shell settled a lawsuit brought by family and friends of Ken Saro Wiwa, a Nigerian activist hanged alongside eight others in 1995, following protests of the exploitation and pollution of native land by Shell. $15.5 million was granted the plaintiffs to avoid a trial, which could have implicated Shell as aiding and abetting the execution of innocent environmental activists.

In October 2009, a federal jury awarded New York City $104.7 million in compensatory damages over the contamination of groundwater by ExxonMobil.

In 2007, Ecuador Amazonians filed a $12 billion lawsuit against Chevron for contaminating its waterways. Thirty-thousand natives of the indigenous tribe claim Chevron workers illegally dumped toxic waste into its rivers which are used for washing, cooking and drinking.

The same year, China's top environmental watchdog group fined PetroChina the maximum penalty of one million yuan (125,000 US dollars) for "seriously" polluting a river servicing four million people. An explosion, it was reported, caused the dumping of 100 tons of waste, leading to lack of water supply in the region for several days.

Last November, 95 Colombian farmers sued British Petroleum over breach of contract and negligence. They claim adverse effects of a pipeline construction project have led to destroyed farms and malnourished crops. Colombian lawyers who tried to assist the farmers reported intimidation by paramilitary gangs.

So, you notice a trend - a lapse, perhaps - between mission statement propaganda and business as carried out. It never is enough for a company to claim to respect life and the environment. Deed always outlives word.

So, how will this enterprise redound to the welfare of hip-hop? How will it look for hip-hop artists to involve themselves in a scheme known notoriously for the exploitation of natural resources and destruction of the environment? And how will other hip-hop artists respond if "Baby" and his brother find each other one day front-page on The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times or The Huffington Post for lawsuits filed by brown peasants in some Central American village or black families in some Louisiana town?

How much value would be placed on morality and justice - rather than the plaintiffs who, it might be said, are simply trying to bring a brotha down, trying to ****-block, trying to knock the hustle?

I'm not certain what the official hip-hop response would be or what the dominant claptrap would sound like, but I can predict today on whose side I would be standing, and for what cause I would be fighting. As a hint, it would probably not be with the millionaire brothers; and not to further neoliberalism with black faces.

This article was previously published at allhiphop.com.

Last modified on Sunday, 14 March 2010 14:57