Pharrell sang his hook 15 years ago on the chorus of Jay Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You”: I’m a hustler, baby, I just want you to know, it ain’t where I’ve been, but where I’m about to go.
That song appeared on The Dynasty, the album that introduced Just Blaze and Kanye West as producers; it was just a few years after Jay Z’s rise from crack pusher to millionaire. The word “hustle,” at the turn of the century, solidly evoked drug dealers, pimps and other entrepreneurs operating in the dregs of capitalism, working the jobless, hyper-policed streets of the New Jim Crow a decade before Michelle Alexander coined the term. Hustling was a funhouse mirror version of the American dream. It meant making money any way you could, no excuses. It meant the primacy of capital over the dictats of the law.
Now, a quick search for “hustle” on Etsy yields thousands of results that tell of a connotative shift in this loaded word. There are framed prints, coffee mugs, tank tops, water bottles, pencils and keychains. Some of them say only the word itself, while others incorporate it into phrases like “good things come to those who hustle,” “every day I’m hustling” and “the dream is free but the hustle is sold separately.”
The aesthetic is undeniably feminine: loopy cursive script, in gold and shades of pink. Among the most popular items are petite, desk-sized prints, often pictured sitting at a carefully curated workspace, perhaps next to a MacBook, a small vase of peonies and a green smoothie. Similarly, the popular website Designlovefest offers free wallpaper downloads with slogans like “hustle,” “work it,” and “work like a boss” over cheery, hand-painted backgrounds.
The popularity and whitewashed aesthetic of these products can likely be chalked up to the fact that hip hop and mainstream popular culture are practically synonymous now. Maybe these hustle-centric objects belong in the same category as Gwyneth Paltrow’s much-ridiculed $1,695 Biggie/Pac clutch: just another instance of hamfisted white appropriation of hip hop culture.
But I don’t know if that’s the only explanation. Hustling is about getting by—thriving, even—when traditional means of economic security aren’t there. Poor black communities like the kind Jay Z came from have long been burdened by unemployment rates many times the national average, and an anemic job market made up of minimum wage service jobs. But in the wake of the 2008 recession and its “jobless recovery,” the problem of trying to thrive in a world of scant resources, stagnant wages and structural unemployment spread to people who had never before experienced it. In the new economy, everyone became a hustler.
The posters, mugs, pencils and keychains are consolation prizes for an economy in which people have to cobble together a living of freelance work, side gigs, and, if they’re lucky, jobs with stagnant wages and decreased bargaining power. Beneath their odd-fitting associative ties to a different sociopolitical sector and decade, these pretty objects exist to soothe workers—specifically, female workers—into accepting this new reality as cute, fun, and, most of all, a self-empowering personal choice.
The idea that undergirds the hustle economy is similar to the ideas Sheryl Sandberg espouses in her book Lean In: Women Work, and the Will to Lead. Female workers are encouraged to see their struggles as individual, not structural. If you’re not making enough money, or if you’re stuck in a dead-end job that you’re overqualified for, it’s because you just aren’t hustling hard enough. It most certainly is not because there aren’t enough jobs, or the minimum wage isn’t high enough, or because women aren’t guaranteed equal pay under the law. Even if those things may be true, hustling makes them irrelevant.
“Hustling” as it presents itself in the 2015 economy erases the barriers posed to wealth acquisition by sexism, classism, racism, cissexism and ableism, instead chalking up a lack of financial success to a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. It makes no acknowledgement that some people have to hustle much, much harder than others. But in the hustle economy, that doesn’t matter. You take whatever scraps of work you can find, and work them as hard as you can.
“You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. Such an approach to work and life fits squarely with Jay Z’s now-infamous career track from being “raised in the projects, roaches and rats” and selling crack under a lamppost to music moguldom and attending the presidential inauguration. Or, in the words of fellow crack-to-rap wunderkinds Clipse, “throw it on the scale, feed your goddamn self. Get it how you live, we don’t ask for help.”
It seems unlikely that the Etsy customers buying pink and gold “stay humble, hustle hard” posters are going to reach for the baking soda any time soon. But who knows? It’s a tough economy out there, and good things come to those who hustle.