It was a relatively chilly November day in Okinawa, my buddy Corey and I had just finished watching a crew load an F-15 and it was time for lunch. We had some extra time before we truly needed to be back so we decided to go off base to grab something to eat. We took my car and headed out. We started driving and there was a Nas song playing and we were talking and then a 50 Cent song came on. Me being a student of hip hop, I had heard this song several times already at this point, but Corey was hearing it for the first time. After it played, he played it again and then again when we were on our way back from lunch. He said “whoever this 50 Cent guy is, he got a hit on him”. We were listening to Wanksta on the 8 Mile Soundtrack. I agreed with him, even though I didn’t really like the song, it was undeniably catchy.
With hip hop, I have always listened more to the words than the music. If I’m being honest, rap has always been filled with random ideas crammed together line by line. In that song Wanksta, in one line he says “hurry up and cop and go, we selling nick’s and dimes” the very next line he says “Shorty she so fine, I gotta make her mine”. That verse begins with denying a person is as tough as they say, transitions to selling drugs, fantasizing about a girl, talking about how good he is as a rapper, then he mentions he did some time and ends the verse by saying the cops ran in his house, and he asks rhetorically do you know who told on me? This kind of lyrical inconsistency annoys me, even though it’s common. However, it’s only common because it pays well.
This brings me back to Kanye West’s odd love hate relationship with fashion and entertainment. Kanye has been making music jam packed with the N-word for a good 20 years now, built a multibillion dollar brand of trash looking products with the aid of global brands like Adidas and The Gap in the process, but lost everything within 2 weeks of saying something that was considered antisemitic. When I say “odd love hate” I mean that it’s odd that hate speech by a Black guy about Black people, is loved and brings with it corporate sponsorships and this multibillion dollar brand. It’s odd to me that corporate reserved condemnation for this moment and never addressed the subject when he was saying the N-word left and right. If the bar is standing against hate speech, I would assume it to be a corporate duty to address regardless of the artist or the targeted audience.
I won’t pretend like I don’t understand WHY this is the case. It’s a recurring theme that sheds light on the sentiments held for Black people the world over. Commodifying the pain and suffering of Black people is cool, and can be profitable so brands from everywhere get in on it. All of the current elements found in hip hop now, existed in the 80’s and 90’s, the so-called Golden Era, but there was less money in it. Corporate brands shied away from hip hop artists because of the content. Run DMC showed the advertising power of hip hop, which made them the face of Adidas for young Black kids in the 80’s. LL Cool J helped put FUBU on the map by wearing their clothes in a GAP commercial of all places. I think the massive success of FUBU and Phat Farm, both Black owned brands, pushed the corporate sponsorship frenzy. The content of the raps no longer mattered on a corporate level as long as it sold product.
Nelly, one of the most commercially viable hip hop artists of the early 2000’s rose to fame with Country Grammar, one of the strangest radio hits of its day. It has the cadence of a children’s sing along, but he’s talking about shooting street sweepers in the hook. The thing about mass success, everyone sees it, and this creates a copycat league. Nelly above all others proved it doesn’t matter what you say as long as people bop to it. Granted, I don’t mind rappers who talk about brands in their music, ultimately getting paid for the support they show to these brands. The issue arises when these brands are selective with their outrage. When the rapper does or says something considered inappropriate about certain people they’re upset, they look the other way altogether when they say inappropriate things about Black people or women. Corporate canceling a hip hop artist on the grounds of offensive speech is a slippery slope considering most of the speech in hip hop is offensive to someone.
Pick and Choose
Certain phrases are accepted because of the positive connotations, I guess. The late 90’s and early 2000’s saw many rappers bragging about having Jewish lawyers, and not one peep was made about that. The copycat trend led to more rappers hiring legal counsel, partially based on them being Jewish. I haven’t required the assistance of lawyers that often in my life so I can’t speak to the veracity of the rap songs, but there wasn’t an ounce of outrage when these rappers implied that Jews were better at tending to contractual matters or fighting the criminal justice system. The intent behind the words pushes the same stereotypes that Kanye implied in his weird rants, which ultimately cost him a couple billion. The sole difference between the verses and the rants…the verses say, “hire a Jewish lawyer, they’re legal wizards” and the rant says, “watch your Jewish lawyer, they’re legal wizards”. If I were a Jewish lawyer, I’d be pissed, that rant could cost me money so of course it’s not cool for the Jewish lawyer…but why is that suddenly a problem with Coca Cola or someone?
Corporate America is sending the wrong message in my opinion. They’re saying it’s quite alright for Black people to use the N-word gratuitously, tell fabricated tales about slaughtering people in their neighborhoods, promote pimping, drug dealing, and you pick a felony, all of that is fine. When the Black pain being commodified is beneficial to corporate profits, at the expense of Black people, it doesn’t matter what is said. Oddly enough, the rappers with a more positive message, or wisdom to share, are widely ignored and considered washed up, but that’s another story. When the popular artists change their tune from “my Jewish lawyer” to “Black people should do this for ourselves” suddenly corporate America changes its tune and the Kanye’s and Nick Cannon’s of the world have to apologize for offending the acceptable order of things.
Young rappers have figured the game out and they do what they need to do for those corporate sponsorships. The music is no longer about artistry or a love for the art form, it is now a non-stop paid promotional product. These brands will have periodic Black History Month products and BLM shirts or something, but this is merely a continuation of commodifying the struggle to benefit those that never lived it. The rappers carefully watch their tongue on being critical of the structure, they rush to condemn breakers of the status quo…as long as they’re getting paid for it. For the corporations, Black lives matter to the bottom line only, because it’s clear that they don’t care about negative messaging for us.