I sat in the crowd for an event in the meatpacking district Soho House, enthusiastically soaking up an interesting discussion being had by the team of The Fader Magazine about Fader Fort, the venerated annual concert hosted at SXSW.
The panel, full of The Fader’s co-founders and members of its editorial and strategic teams, discussed the origin of the magazine, the inner workings of its strategy and Fader’s important role in defining and shaping music and pop/hip-hop culture. In particular, they were lauding the release of a new hardcover photo book that captures the imagery of Fader Fort from inception: a collection of candid photos featuring performances by great musicians, artists caught in unsuspecting moments of lowered defenses and legendary icons of music posing with other legendary icons.
We were given a glimpse of the rich photo content and shown two promo videos of the launch. Yet, while I was sitting in the audience, looking at these beautiful images featuring some of the most celebrated and prominent figures in modern music and hip-hop culture, I was overwhelmed with a profound sense of irony.
Conjure into your imagination the imagery of today’s mega hip-hop artists. Think of the imagery proliferating throughout the mediasphere — what you see when scrolling through your various feeds and visiting the popular music and pop culture blogs. An almost unbroken torrent of young, dark-skinned MC’s and artists, dreadlocks and braids flowing from the crowns of their heads. You’ll see young black men who look like Kendrick Lamar, arguably the most celebrated hip-hop figure of the day. Perhaps you see someone like 2Chainz, an impetus to the current, modern iteration of hip-hop and another world-revered artist, fashion icon and symbol of style. Think about the look of Atlanta-bred Migos, three dreaded, dark-skinned brothers with mouths full of golds and eyes obscured behind circular sunglasses. Think of a Lil Yachty with a twinkling mouth full of bejeweled teeth and a mop of red, beaded braids sprouting from his scalp. Think about Future, Fetty Wap, Travis Scott, Young Thug.
As hip-hop has aged and evolved, so has its visual identity. What’s been described marks the recurring stylistic thread that defines the hip-hop icons of the day: a black, hip-hop visual motif.
In a modern society unburdened by the parameters of the slow-moving magazines of yesteryear, we are able to feed our need for images like no time before. The visual identity of these hip-hop artists — hair, tattoos, fronts, beards — are pushed to the masses through an ever-expanding global network of media outlets, blogs, and social media platforms. The looks and styles of these artists are a cultural donation constantly shipped around the world as an American export.
Yet, what’s unique about this era is that today’s popular hip-hop stars are overwhelmingly slim, dark-skinned males, with long hair and tattooed flesh. And, like the stars before them, they are channeling their looks and the associated cool and edge into assets of influence and cultural power that sell product. That “look,” as you know, is well trusted on a marketing level: brands commit millions to its exploitation, as has always been the case in music and hip-hop. ASAP Rocky has become a fashion icon and has channeled his look, style and swag into a creative collaboration with Guess and modeling gigs with Christian Dior and Calvin Klein. Lil Yachty is currently busy resurrecting the swag of Nautica, the perennial American brand, with a creative collaboration and modeling campaign. This isn’t a new concept for hip-hop. This is the way it’s been since Run DMC championed Adidas and brokered hip hop’s first endorsement deal. What is unique is the mainstream embrace and appreciation for hip-hop’s new visual motif. It’s a marked departure from the clean, low fades and shaven, pretty-boy faces of hip-hop yesteryear.
Which, for me, is where the irony resides.
That same look worth millions to brands, the same look that serves as fuel for a media industry led by content, imagery, photos, Instagram, Snapchat ... that very same look still inspires such derision, fear, judgement and mistreatment for millions of other African American men in the United States (are we really united, tho?).The proliferation of media containing imagery of successful, well-known, creative, or wealthy dark-skinned black males, dreads or braids dangling from their heads, teeth adorned with gold ... those images concurrently inspire terror despite men of this look hanging from two-thousand square foot billboards in Times Square. Think about it: if any of the aforementioned artists walked into a reputable establishment, award show or significant event, they would be ambushed with adoration, besieged for photos and autographs, etc. If you remove the chains and jewelry, items that denote wealth, those same black men would inspire fear, sheer terror in some cases. Dark-skinned, dreadlocked, tattooed, perhaps with a bonus of gold teeth, inspires followings around the stores and calls to security. Men who brandish this million-dollar look are still more frequently pulled over by police, murdered at an alarming rate by law enforcement, sometimes while in the process of surrendering, and are more frequently harassed. They are sentenced at higher rates than anyone in the population. Society still clutches its purse when Black men who look like today’s superstar artists step into the elevator. Society assumes the worst, categorizing men who look like this as thugs, drug dealers and gangsters worthy of being dealt with more harshly than anyone else. I speak not from assumptions; I’ve read the studies that confirm how black men are perceived; the darker and larger they are, the worse the perception.
How can an American figure be so concurrently feared and revered? How can a style and a look simultaneously represent a significant slice of American culture, gracing the covers of Billboard and Forbes, lighting up screens — televisions, cell phones or billboards — yet be so terrifying to a population at the same time? Hip-hop music is the number one consumed genre in this country. Hip-hop culture is one of the most significant American exports to the world. And yet, at home, the very look and style of that culture, of that art, of that music, is the look of fear, judgement, unnecessary death.The irony of this situation psychologically warps the minds of black men who exist inside of this stunning duality. You step inside of any Soho House with patrons who are in the know, skin dark like unroasted coffee beans, long locks bouncing around your shoulders — those patrons may want to know who you are. Are you an artist? Are you a creative director? Music producer? Let’s make conversation! Tell me your story! But you leave Soho and walk around the corner to the Gucci store and security is following you as you handle and inspect bags and wallets. An artist that looks exactly like you is hanging from the billboard above the doors, but when you walk into the high-end watch store below, the sales staff look as if the boogeyman has come in to see the new line of Audemars. What a total mindfuck. And that can happen in the span of 30 minutes. Imagine, over time, the havoc that wreaks on your sense of identity, on how you view your position in the world.
The adulation for today’s hip-hop stars is palpable and sincere, especially for those who are truly of the culture. But for now and the foreseeable future, the very imagery alive on the internet and the blogs will continue to inspire fear and derision in the half of America, perhaps around the world.China recently instituted a ban on hip-hop culture, tattoos and related imagery from television and media. Apparently, the communist giant had enough of its own population mimicking the styles of black American hip-hop artists. A look that is championed by the people has been maligned by the government; the country wants no part of the invasion of black identity and culture.
No matter where we stand in the media, no matter how many hip-hop artists are sitting on Ellen’s couch or being co-interviewed with Warren Buffet, black males will continue to strike fear into the hearts of many Americans. Because lurking just beneath the surface of hip-hop artists’ cool is the danger of them.
Hip-hop stars are bad boys. Bad boys are dangerous. The tattoos, the jewelry, the dark skin, the dreadlocks, the braids — the most unapologetic symbols of blackness right after the afro — these things represent danger. And Americans love danger. Think about the rock stars of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. America has had a long love affair with the bad boys of rock and roll — long (teased) hair and leather jackets, raw lyrics, and drug use represented a shift in American culture, a shift depicted as dangerous and decried by many. Think about Elvis: homie and his gyrating hips were a nightmare for a whole swath of Americans of the Leave it to Beaver clan. Hip-hop artists are the new bad boys of rock and roll — we are witnessing the dawn of black rock and roll, and black rock stars. And although you’ll see few gyrating hips and no teased hair, they’ve got the leather jackets and skinny jeans to prove it. However, on top of the already risqué enterprise that is hip-hop, American culture is gifted the delicious bonus of the inherent danger of blackness to create something that we’ve never seen, the end result being a cultural symbol that simultaneously inspires autographs or gunshots.
Or, perhaps this is just the direction that we need to be going. What if instead of feeling outrage at the irony, I felt gratitude? Perhaps the brands that capitalize off of the look of today’s black hip-hop stars are helping to normalize the presence and look of black men. Perhaps the blogs and social sites and magazines spreading the images of these men are part of a unseen tidal wave helping to change opinion and inoculate against hate through repeated doses of exposure. Perhaps the very irony that is so clear to me is playing a starring role in demolishing bias and fear and hate. One can hope.