COCAINE PRETTI

HIGH ART IN LOW ART SPACES: A CRITIQUE ON WHAT THE FASHION INDUSTRY HAS TO OFFER RAP CULTURE

Written on 11/13/2017
FED MEZIE

The explosion of rap culture in the music industry gave rise to a new form of rhetoric employed by inner-city dwellers exposing the everyday experiences of victimhood, terrorism, unjust targeting, and oppression within the urban setting. Its ability to present the social discord between the storyteller/reporter and the pariahs of the justice system was heightened by the relativity it offered to its audiences while offering a catchy sound and drop beats that proved essential in the growth of the genre. Not only did the art form convey a narrative of the "street life" through lyrical punchlines intermixed with "ill" beats, it also created a realm of escapism and redressing by glamorizing the high life of fashion, beauty, and expensive tendencies. And while the rhythms and language of rap culture has certainly evolved, the industries which commodify it have not.

The music industry grosses millions of dollars in revenue from music downloads, record purchases, and tour sales just from rap and hip/hop alone. While rap culture plays a significant role as an economic resource to the music industry, it also offers itself as a cash cow to the fashion industry. The name dropping of high fashion brands and the images of flashy dressing may be for lyrical purposes or visual effects, it nonetheless subjugates the highly impressionable young audiences to subscribe to these notions of fashion standards and brand awareness. Often times the imagery and narrative storytelling employs in rap music and videos offer more of a frivolous and free marketing tactic that benefits the high-class fashion industry and offers little to nothing back to the culture nor its audiences.

 

So what's the problem with this? Seemingly nothing because high society and celebrityhood deserve the finer things in life, not to mention rappers have free reign to express themselves however they feel. Rap isn't just a style of music as much as it is a culture, a way of thinking and behaving for many of its audience members. Notably for those who still hold membership in the same areas that rap and hip-hop where birthed: in the inner-city urban ghettos--the same spaces where the fashion industry does not so readily makes itself available to. Living in New York, I have personally witnessed the distance at which Marc Jacobs or Opening Ceremony are from urban "ghettos". 5th Ave isn't necessarily a rapper’s stomping ground. These brands are spatially and economically out of reach for the young urban population who are some of the founding and current followers of the now popularized art form. Not to mention, the more reachable stores (in terms of price-point) that offer a cheaper duplicate of high-end looks such as Zara, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters. These stores and their much higher end relatives are strategically placed in areas that attract a certain type of clientele/consumer just as their ads are filtered with specific types of models and images.

 

This brings to mind the very real and often overlooked distinctions between "high art" and "low art" and how their intersectionality is usually at the benefit of one more than the other. Balmain and YSL glamorized and promoted by rappers like Yung Thug and ASAP Rocky epitomize a cultivated taste by high culture. Though its popularity supersedes its actual representation and positionality in society,  it is a reflection of low art or low culture characterized by its reach (for the masses), accessibility, and easy comprehending (and for all intensive purposes the connotation of low culture defines the sub-culture of urban dweller). These polarities allow for an unbalanced relationship that offer rappers as free agents endorsing and marketing fashion brands both lyrically and physically. In other words, rap is used as a platform for fashion brand marketing and advertising to the masses no matter their accessibility to it and at no cost. The dilemma exist where rappers get to negotiate their identity between "street life" and "high life" selling a dream to their many followers. Rarely is it acknowledged that the music industry uses rap as a means to commodify a culture of street behavior (gangsta or trap) and luxurious living. What's more disheartening than seeing people buying into fashion brands that they are otherwise invisible to is watching an industry that reaps the benefits and offers nothing back.

 

Specifically identified in the former of this article aren't the middle-class to rich spenders who find amusement in rap culture, but the lower-class consumers who find refuge in rap and have been instrumental in cultivating it to where it is now. Rap culture didn't boom from high class society, it boomed from everyday people who connected with it far past its imagery or name dropping. Rap music spoke to the people undergoing real life hardships and struggles, people facing economic challenges just trying to keep their head above water. And while its rhetoric has become more directed towards luxurious commodities than its original intent, the shift in dialogue has given rise to its free marketing platform that just works to pigeonhole consumers into a never ending cycle of spending, obtaining good or brand clothes that haven't even graduated in creating a space of inclusion and diversity. Far greater than that, in recent years high end fashion brands like Givenchy and Valentino have found ways to appropriate rap culture (black culture) into their sale tactics and runway shows. Far too overused, designers sent models down the runway in braids and cornrows customary to black women and rappers like Andre 3000 who for years dawned the same style. Riccardo Tisci presented black and African inspired looks in the fall 2015 Givenchy show as models walked down the runway styled with oversized and bejeweled faux piercings over their face and curled, slick baby hairs along the hairline—a look lifted from the black and Latina subcultures that are customary in the urban settings. As if it wasn't enough for high end brands to get free marketing through rap music, they're also latent with cultural appropriation.

 

The glorification of the luxurious lifestyle isn't something to be shunned in music, but unfortunately it creates a gateway for increased consumerism--at any cost. As fans and followers of rap culture grow so does the paradigm of increased brand relevance and consumerist habits. As long as rappers make themselves free sponsors to fashion brands, the industry will continue to reap the benefits. Fake Gucci purses don't bother me, it's raps invisibility to Gucci that does.