If you've ever spent time watching hip hop or rap videos, there are several recurring themes that always pop up. These include beautiful scantily clad women, fancy sports cars and other cues of social status, and one other behavior that is at the root of today's post. Time and time again, male rappers are shown in their videos throwing away loads of cash, out of their cars, on the dance floor, in bars, out of balconies, etc. As one of endless other examples, see Fat Joe's recent video titled Make it Rain featuring Lil Wayne here (I bet you never thought that a professor could be so much in the know!). By the way, Lil Wayne is with the record label... Cash Money Records! What does this behavior signify and why is it so ubiquitous in rap/hip hop videos? I propose that the answer lies in the mechanism of costly signaling, a biological-based form of communication rooted in the Darwinian process of sexual selection (the evolution of traits or behaviors meant to augment one's success in the mating arena).
To use a tired example, let us look at the peacock's tail. It is heavy and cumbersome, and as such it serves to augment the likelihood of predation. Hence, it could not have evolved via natural selection, as it reduces the likelihood of survival. However, once we recognize that the peacock's tail is meant as an aphrodisiac to admiring hens then one can begin to understand its evolution. Specifically, the colors, size, and symmetrical patterns of the peacock's tail are sexual signals akin to having a flashing neon sign proclaiming: "Pick me. Pick me. I am made of prime genetic stock!" Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli ornithologist, who studies Arabian babblers, proposed the Handicap Principle to explain the evolution of such costly traits as the peacock's tail. Specifically, he argued that in order for the signal (the tail) to be an honest indicator of the peacock's genetic quality, it must be very costly otherwise countless "cheaters" (i.e., suboptimal males) could fake the signal. See my book, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, for additional details regarding the Handicap Principle in the context of our behaviors as consumers (chapter 3), as well as chapter 5 for a Darwinian content analysis of music videos.
Returning to the rappers, you can begin to see why they are always shown throwing away (literally) massive loads of money. In order for a signal to be an honest one, it has to be costly. In the case of the peacock's tail, cost is measured in terms of the physiological burden of carrying such a tail and the increased likelihood of predation. In the context of the male rappers, the cost is literally a monetary/financial cost! In both instances, there is an extravagant waste that is implicit to the signal and this is precisely what makes it an honest signal. The bottom line is that the male rapper is saying: "If I weren't so sublimely rich, I could not afford to throw away such loads of cash. However, my careless attitude toward money signals that I am immeasurably rich!"
Darwin meets hip hop. Long live Darwin!