Not long before Cookie Lyon made her return to screens on the season premiere of Empire last week, there was speculation that her storyline could be nearing its end.
According to rumors, actress Taraji P. Henson decided to leave the show and season four would be her last. But shortly before the premiere, Henson herself responded to those rumors. "I don't know what this rumor is that I'm done after episode four,” she said in an interview. “I have bills to pay. I love Chanel too much to walk away from a hit show. Are y'all stupid? Who is spreading that? Who walks away from that money?” It was a frank, relatable and slightly humorous response to the speculation.
But when taken in context of how entertainment, celebrity and money are discussed in this country, it spoke to a difference in dynamic between Black celebrities like Taraji and others.
When I was younger, it became clear early on that money was important. Pass by a McDonald’s and say you want a Happy Meal? You could practically predict my mother’s response: “You got McDonald’s money?” Over time, McDonald’s money became “Playstation money,” “go to the mall money” and “[insert anything that was a desire and not a need] money.” And before long, I stopped asking for things altogether and started wondering and asking about how to acquire money of my own and how I could turn my talents and abilities into money to get what I wanted. One of those first projects was turning the fact that I was on the way to college into money by joining my school’s Upward Bound program, which cut me a check every month for taking college-prep courses. I still do it today, writing an article or two when I need some “nice, new coat money.” But as I grew up, I realized that this wasn’t just something my mom had made up.
“I didn’t get that from my parents but with all of my aunts and uncles and everyone else, I definitely had that,” writer, speaker and BET's Don’t Touch My Hair host Raval Davis said. “I feel like we as a Black people all know the answer to that question."
If you look up “You got McDonald’s money?” on Google, you turn up evidence that this is a phenomenon in the African-American community. While Urban Dictionary explains that it makes the child try to come up with a response, one Tumblr calls it a proverb of Black parents and others have made videos about it. In group chats that I’ve consulted about the phrase, multiple people have confirmed: this is a mantra in the Black community — and of communities of color in general.
“My mom and my grandmom used to say that all the time,” DoSomething.org head of public relations and talent relations Dezmon Gilmore told BET. “That’s kind of why I started working at 15. It was like as soon as i was legal to work, I was working because we would always be told you can’t have xyz and these things because you don’t have the money for it.” But celebrities of color are in a place where they have McDonald’s money — an abundance of it.
In her No. 1 hit “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B, that regular degular girl from the Bronx raps, “These expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes,” referring to Christian Louboutin heels. “Hit the store, I can get ‘em both, I don’t wanna choose.” The insinuation is clear: she has Christian Louboutin money. When she performed at the MTV VMAs this year, she wore a custom body suit by Angel Brinks and a pair of crystal-covered, slouchy-heeled $10,000 boots from Saint Laurent. “Yes I bought them!!” she wrote on the caption. She had that money.
“There’s this quote about how oppressed people may not acquire wealth but want to acquire things that symbolize wealth, which is like Black people in a nutshell,” Davis says of blatant shows of money like Cardi B’s comments. And the statement rings true: ideas about being “hood rich” or of dressing or living above one’s means by acquiring flashy assets that are not sustainable for one’s lifestyle are pervasive. But it’s more than just that.
When you think about the way that most celebrities talk about clothes that they are wearing, it’s a privilege and an honor to have a piece lent to them. It is a sign of achievement. Tom Ford notoriously dresses one woman for most top tier red carpets. They all remark on how much of an honor it is or how lucky they are to have worked with him. The same goes for any number of designers. Stars are lucky and entirely grateful to be dressed by the teams at Gucci, Valentino, Saint Laurent and more. In 2014, when Hayden Panettiere turned up at the Golden Globes wearing a Tom Ford gown it was a bit of a scandal. The designer had chosen Naomi Watts to dress for the night and Panettiere’s look, which cost an estimated $10,000, was bought off the rack and not approved by the designer. That was a problem. But Cardi B buying her heels was an achievement.
“Part of the reason that Black celebrities are buying their own pieces is because they don’t always have the access,” Gilmore added. “Like, some designers aren’t looking to lend to everyone, only specific people.” Case in point, Gilmore pointed to the social media altercation where Nicki MInaj called Giuseppe Zanotti out for naming heels after her but not working with her.
Like I found, for many people of color, talents and abilities are your way out of unfortunate circumstances. The tale of being a rapper or being an athlete being the only options for economic mobility drive home a point about monetizing our own skill sets. And that old “McDonald’s money” maxim explains how money is essentially the key to most of our desires. “Even for those of us who even grew up in upper middle class homes, it’s still about money; there’s still a lot of pressure to secure the bag,” Davis said. “It’s like, OK, we’re going to send you to college but you need to graduate from college so you can get a good job and pay these loans back. It’s not like go to college to explore and learn and, if you want, you can take a semester off to go to Europe and backpack. No we don’t have those options. It’s like we’re sending you to school and you better make it worth it.”
The only people who know whether Henson and Cardi ever heard the McDonald’s money phrase are those who were there when they grew up. But their actions — and the actions of others like Sloane Stephens, who recently pointed to the check she received for winning the US Open as reason enough to continue playing tennis — say that they understand the principle. For them, money is a motivation. Over the pursuit of perfecting an artform or just simply a genuine love, their talents and abilities are intrinsically linked to making money. And though the lifestyle is more like Cookie Lyon being able to buy every style and every color of heel from a Gucci show if she wants to, the accomplishment and achievement is being able to do so all on her own.
(Photos from left: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Airbnb, Randy Brooke/WireImage)
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