The bass, hypnotic melodies and lyrical punches that surround hip-hop have allowed it to become one of the most listened to genres of modern American music. This mass consumption has also lead to hip-hop becoming a method of exploiting black artists for white consumer desires. The music industry has pushed a singular black experience, and the fashion industry has created a method to be visually inclusive while selling to a mostly white male audience. The history of hip-hop explains the path that leads to its current state and relationship to the fashion industry. Hip-hop arose from an underground music scene in the Bronx in the 1970s, primarily focused on MCing over beats to showcase the DJs talents, at house parties and neighborhood block parties. The trend spread throughout the country as different predominantly black neighborhoods created and overlaid their lives and grievances on tracks. Initially, hip-hop was limited to the black community and those able to engage with it, but in 1979 Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” changed the relationship between hip-hop and American culture.
With the enormous success of “Rapper’s Delight” and the creation of Soundscan, a Nielsen rating chart for music, record companies and music group conglomerates realized the widespread success and demand that was hip-hop. Soundscan revealed that the majority of hip-hop listeners were white men ages 18-24, the most desirable demographic for record labels. The high profile attention that hip-hop received created two fronts in American society: those who thought of hip-hop as an authentic telling of the black American struggle, and those who viewed hip-hop as destroying the moral foundations of America. Both these viewpoints held one underlying point; hip-hop became a method to discuss black America without ever engaging with black America.
The bias present in the first statement relies on the view that the black experience is limited to poverty, gang wars, and drug dealing. The lyrics, written as confessions of the artists’ pasts, convinced non-white Americans that hip-hop was the story of all black Americans. Believing that the violence and crime seen in music videos and heard in song lyrics were a cultural phenomenon, and not the result of years of systematic, racial oppression. The most successful rappers, such as Jay Z, Snoop Dog, and Tupac, held criminal backgrounds and are examples of escaping poverty. As hip-hop moved away from stories on struggles and reflection and more about money and women, the separation of rappers as millionaires and white businessmen as millionaires became apparent in the public eye. The bias in the second statement is tied to the assumptions that hip-hop is black culture, black Americans are destroying the country, and it must be contained. Hip-hop’s focus on violence, drugs, and sexist treatment of women was flipped to promote agendas of anti-blackness, suppression and increased policing of the black minority.
Despite these viewpoints and its denouncements, hip-hop is an international cultural phenomenon that has drawn in millions of people. The success of American rapper Ja Rule’s “Always On Time” in 2001, showcased the success of hip-hop and how it could affect culture. Ja Rule wore Burberry, a high fashion clothing label, in his music video and sparked a craze for the brand in youth across America hoping to emulate the luxury displayed. As record labels pushed artists to hold the image of the “harden thug,” fashion brands pushed away from breaking their white upper-class branding and core demographic. Rachel Johnson, a former stylist to Pharrell, Usher, and current stylist to Lebron James, recounts that Burberry ignored her requests to style Ja Rule in their clothes for future events despite his unofficial connection to the brand. Ten years later, brands jump at the chance to have rappers in their campaigns. A$AP Rocky, an American rapper and member of rap group A$AP Mob, became the first person of color as the face of Dior Homme, a groundbreaking transition away from their mostly white model history.
These industry changes are less to do with the evolving scene of diversity and racial equality within the country but due to the realization that white males will buy brands associated with rappers. This dominance by white men has lead companies to redefine how they market their products. The term hypebeast can be defined as the intersection of hip-hop, fashion, and wealth, that has given fashion a platform within hip-hop while maintaining their historically white demographic. Gucci, Balmain, Louis Vuitton, and many other elite, high-end brands have worked their way into the center of hip-hop through artists promotions without having to address racism or classism. Quavo, a member of rap group Migos, quoted to Complex magazine that “Gucci is a hood designer, Gucci has always been in the hood.” Expressing the sentiment that these luxury brands define status in poor neighborhoods, if you dress rich you are rich. Consumption of luxury items drive the image of success in the United States, for those with nothing witnessing the rise of hip-hop artist means they too can become something.
But this rise to riches continues the legacy that for poor, black youth the only path to success is either music or sports. Fashion brands have jumped into the game next to the music corporations in pushing a linear image of black America through rappers. Criticism of the fashion industry has centered around a lack of diversity in designers, magazine editors, and models. Black rappers and other black recording artist grace ad campaigns as if white America’s fascination with black culture is going to end soon, and they must sell all they can while it is still popular. There is an awareness in advertising and marketing that black culture sells, that the stereotypes and assumptions of the black American community are profitable to the white population. The use of rappers acts as a diversity loophole, catering to the mostly white, male demographic of the genre while doing the bare minimum of representation.
This lack of representation also leads to misrepresentation as many rappers are not apart of harden “thug” lifestyle they portray, such as Takeoff, another member of Migos, who is from a suburban Atlanta neighborhood. Fashion reinforces the negatives record companies has pushed artists to take up to sell. A$AP Rocky, now a fashion innovator, has moved away from his own identity. In multiple interviews, he has stated criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement as a ‘bandwagon’ movement and controversial views of police brutality despite both topics directly affecting him as a black man. Rocky opinions, as he his entitled to have, points to image success and the disconnected effects it can have on rappers. The elevated status brand partnerships and consumption of their products give to black artists can be alienating rather than inspirational.
The most important aspect of this mindset is that for non-black fans of A$AP Rocky, they are convinced to follow his viewpoints. That as followers they must agree, and some wholeheartedly do. These viewpoints enable non-black fans to exist within historically black spaces without checking their own history and privilege to its creation. Even more so, fashion brands maintain the system of dependence on the white majority to determine the success of black artists. The fashion industry has created a new avenue to exert a soft form of oppression onto the black performer through the white consumerism. Fashion, as a concept, is highly individualized and created through personal trauma and success. The resistance to genuinely diversifying the industry and the method of using black artists for sales alienates a section of society that has been vital to defining pop culture and to the popularity of trends.
For the industry and the future, this is not the end of the line. Growth and change are available and waiting to be used. The fashion industry must change how it views black rappers and black artists, they must not be held as bodies for profit, but as artists, with creative forces, they can showcase. More than anything, the fashion industry must not look at diversity as a “demand of millennials” or “liberals” but a response to representing the globalism of fashion and its consumers. Between these two, there is the ability to challenge and reinvent what has been done before for the future. Fashion is a force of nature and should be used to reshape our natures.
Article by: Paige Bryan