The once underground music and fashion trends of the inner cities have now become mainstream. Has the street lost its cred?
Rap artists have walked a fine line by defending their music that at times, glorifies drugs and violence. They say they’re simply telling tales of their existence, in essence, ‘keepin’ it real.’ But when they are judged for being thugs, they have argued that they are much like actors practicing artistic expression and have compared it to the aggressive entertainment of Stallone or Schwarzenegger. The feelings then become ambivalent when white youth who haven’t ‘lived the life’ want to emulate it. Street culture, nowadays dubbed ‘urban culture,’ has made its way into the proposals on the desks of boardrooms and stereo systems of the bedrooms of the world. The origins of rap music - a DJ mixing rhythmic passages of albums on a turntable while a rapper raps over the beats, has evolved into the culture of “Hip Hop” - a language, a wardrobe, visual art (graffiti), dance, a look, a feel, a vibe – a culture. Hip hop is a revolution that has introduced a taste of black and Latino culture to every corner of the globe. White suburban youth as well as others have been brought up listening to hip hop on the radio, viewing hip hop videos on MTV and other cable outlets, and reading about hip hop icons. According to music industry statistics, close to 80 percent of all hip hop records are purchased by white, mainly male, youth.
Scholar and author Cornel West, in his book Race Matters (Beacon Press, 1993) states: “This process (of cultural integration) results in white youth – male and female – imitating and emulating black male styles of walking, talking, dressing and gesticulating in relations to others.” Mini skirts, go-go boots and bellbottoms are recurring trends that people have followed throughout the years, but the difference is, urban wear, unlike go-go boots and mini skirts, comes from a racial and cultural base. When you wear urban gear, you’re clearly representing a culture rather than a passing trend. For years, the mainstream has capitalized on styles with black origins. Braids and cornrows, full lips, extended derrières and brown skin, all traditionally characteristics of black women, have been emulated and recreated, but were many times mocked when black women possessed it originally. Should Superman feel offended if children run around with a red cape, not ever really understanding the plight of the extinct people of Krypton? Do girls who want to be the X-Men character Storm take the struggles of the life as an outcast mutant for granted? Does emulating hip hop culture, if you haven’t lived it, compromise the culture or strengthen it by multiplying its existence in other areas? These examples are clearly rooted in fiction but the point is the iconization of a trend and how much of the history of the icon we choose to embrace.
The culture of a community – the music, values, clothing and daily practices – are developed from things like a community’s religion, geographic location, weather, local chatter, and historical circumstances. As much as we may not want to admit it, culture doesn’t belong to any group exclusively. There’s nothing to keep Filipinos from passionately wearing kilts and blowing bagpipes or Ugandans from putting on grass skirts and doing the hula. The real crime is if you rob a group of their culture and either don’t give them credit for it, disallow them to continue living it, or create some double standard that makes heroes of one group and riff raff of the other. On August 27, 2002, Fox News Channel commentator and host of The O'Reilly Factor Bill O’Reilly urged people to boycott Pepsi after they decided to run commercials featuring rapper Ludacris. The boycott was based on Pepsi hiring a spokesman who, according to O’Reilly, was "peddling anti-social behavior." Pepsi subsequently fired Ludacris as its new spokesperson because of his use of obscenities and then went on to feature the equally obscene, but white, Ozzy Osbourne and family, in a Super Bowl commercial. Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons followed suit by encouraging a boycott of Pepsi for their double standard. As a result, Pepsi agreed to donate $3 million to charity.
Just as the use of Ludacris as a spokesperson was used specifically to reach a particular audience, culture and commerce continue to feed off of each other. This intermingling of mainstream and backstreet has begged the question of who is influencing who. Urban impresarios began to manage their own artists, create their own production labels, product lines as well as successful fashion lines. Sean John (P. Diddy), Phat Farm/Baby Phat (Russell Simmons), FUBU, (Daymond John), Rocawear (Jay-Z), Apple Bottom (Nelly), G-Unit (50 Cent), have made their way in the market and have employed models like Naomi Campbell, adding further mainstream credibility to their line. Many high-end couture designers employed ethnic and ‘urban vibed’ models to add a little funk to their line. Dominican model Omahyra Mota brought her thuggish street sensibilities to designers such as Bill Blass, Cynthia Steffe, Fendi, Nina Ricci, Sean John, Baby Phat, Heatherette, Jean Paul Gaultier, Roca Wear and Jay McCarroll. Also, she was flown in especially by Gwen Stefani for L.A.M.B.'s show during New York's 2005 Fashion Week.
Jamaican-Chinese ancestored model Tyson Beckford grew up in Jamaica and Rochester, NY and was involved in gangs, drugs and theft when he was a teenager. He has said he would likely be in jail or dead today if he hadn't been recruited to model in 1991 by an editor from hip hop magazine, The Source. After an introduction to Ralph Lauren, he hired him in 1993 to represent his Polo Sport line exclusively. Ralph Lauren’s signature style was an environment of society, old money and country-club style. Ralph Lauren’s designs have become the epitome of classic fashion. Could it be that the Bronx-born designer’s New York City background gave him the foresight to tap into the urban industry? Tommy Hilfiger had his breakthrough when Snoop Dogg wore a Tommy rugby on Saturday Night Live in March of 1994. Hilfiger was on fire and used the urban cachet to sell his line to the much bigger market of white middle-class kids obsessed with hip hop style. His sales in 1998 were up to $845 million. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein said: “Hilfiger's marketing journey feeds off the alienation at the heart of America's race relations: selling white youth on their fetishization of black style, and black youth on their fetishization of white wealth.” Fashion lines like SIDEWALK’s ‘street couture’ style collection made its way down the catwalk during Air New Zealand Fashion Week and the Juicy Couture line’s signature piece - the track suit - thrives on its urban edge.
The ambiguity lies in the definition of the word ‘urban.’
As we become a world of intermingling cultures, we’ve also become a society of mixed races. As the fire continues to burn under today’s melting pots, the definitive lines of race and culture incessantly blur and meld in that heat. The growth of multiracial youth culture pushes the notion that what is okay for one is just as cool for the other. This burgeoning group of consumers has come to represent anything young, hip, forward-thinking and multicultural. Because of this, definitions of our demographics have to be re-examined. For decades, the label ‘urban’ has been a catch-all euphemism for anything relating to black culture, especially music and style. Author Alex Marshall, a writer of ‘new urbanism,’ might argue that while ‘urban’ used to be a code word for ‘black, poor and crumbling,’ it is now often a word for ‘successful, cosmopolitan and rich.’ As cities become cool again, the word is increasingly used to signify a chic downtown lifestyle sought by people of every race with money. High-end retailers like the cosmetics line Urban Decay, clothing line Urban Outfitters, and home-goods store Urban Lifestyle, have all banked on the ‘downtown chic’ definition to draw their market of trendy culture vultures.
Not only does hip hop culture reflect a more expansive view to include youth in the suburbs, Tokyo, and Paris, but also a more expansive view of blacks. Black people who have not lived the life of drugs, gun running and bullet dogding, have and continue to embrace the rhythms. Rap music is more diverse in that it not only speaks the verses of urban stories but it melodically includes passages of love, messages of hope and unity, sassy female energy, vibrant vocals, gospel, slow grooves, pop collaborations, country, rock, reggae, and uses samples of music from within the last four decades. Rap music and hip hop culture has permeated so far and wide that there are now different generations of hip hoppers: old school and new. These are folks who know how it is and saw what it was. Rather than fight the inevitable watershed of culture, it may be time to embrace it. Over 25 years of hip hop culture have infused the world. Now is the time to put it in the history books in a way that is legitimate and doesn’t overlook black artists as it has been done in the past. While Limp Bizkit, Gwen Stefani, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake continue to pay homage to the pioneers of early-defined urban music, and there exists proper records, video footage, and historical documentation, hip hop still has a pressing need of a population of fans to uphold the legacy of its pioneers. Lest we not forget.
1st November 2006