In hip-hop, as in all things, you get what you pay for, even if you don’t read the fine print.
Three times in recent weeks large companies have learned this the hard way, severing ties with rappers they had previously happily paid to endorse their products: Reebok dropped Rick Ross over objectionable lyrics, and PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew did the same to Lil Wayne, just days after it had cut short an ad campaign it had worked on with Tyler, the Creator.
This is a neon-bright sign of corporate retrenchment in the face of protest, bad press and flashes of moral rectitude. Ross’ casual lyrics about rape incited a petition and a protest outside a New York Reebok store. Lil Wayne’s lyrics spurred an outcry from relatives of Emmett Till, the black teenager murdered during the civil rights era whom the rapper had mentioned in a vulgar context. Tyler, the Creator was jettisoned after a black scholar called his soda commercials racist.
But these reactions are also a signal of how expendable hip-hop culture — and, by extension, black culture and youth culture — is to mainstream, predominantly white-owned corporations. These companies have been happy to associate with hip-hop while turning a blind eye to some of the genre’s rougher edges, but at the same time they have remained at arm’s length, all the better to dispose of hip-hop artists once their liabilities outweighed their assets.
This is a familiar story with roots way back in the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, during the days of the Parents’ Music Resource Center and the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial, which coincided with hip-hop’s rise as a cultural force, one both alluring and a potential scourge.
Hip-hop’s commercial power and success, penetrating even the least forgiving corners of the mainstream, seemed to ensure that the old stigma and disapproval had all but vanished. (The same goes for the old accusation that hip-hop artists sold out by partnering with big corporations that held purportedly opposing values — hip-hop took those contradictions and made them into art.) In this environment rappers looked like safer bets than ever for corporate endorsements: widely known and admired, with a frisson of counterculture still stuck to them. They are outsiders recognizable to insiders, and far better celebrities than the generally faceless titans of dance music or the declining stars of rock.
And yet those old debates have returned with a vengeance in recent weeks, re-energized by the frictionless way social media can speed up conversations. In each instance it was only days between the identification of the offense and the end of the business relationship. In the case of Ross and Lil Wayne the intense criticism was justified. Ross alluded to nonconsensual sex with a woman, using slang for Ecstasy, in his verse on Rocko’s "U.O.E.N.O.": "Put molly all in her Champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that/she ain’t even know it." Lil Wayne, on his verse in the remix of Future’s "Karate Chop," invoked Till as part of an explicit sexual simile. (In each situation the offending verse was part of another artist’s song and therefore might have been policed less vigilantly than if it had been on Ross’ or Lil Wayne’s own album.)
Ross’ lyric is reprehensible; Lil Wayne’s is regrettable and tacky. (Lil Wayne is by no means the only rapper to mention Emmett Till in song, but his use is easily the messiest.) Both men issued tepid nonapologies. Ross eventually progressed to a full apology, but only after prodding.
In each case justice was swift, as companies said, rightly, that their values didn’t jibe with the sentiments of those lyrics — and, by extension, those artists.
Except when they do, that is. A cursory glance at any rapper’s catalog, from Jay-Z on down, will be likely to turn up a lyric that’s offensive, in poor taste or eyebrow-raising. By that metric, almost every rapper of note would be ineligible for corporate partnerships.
But hip-hop’s place at the table is secure, and has been for years. No category of celebrity celebrates consumption more than rappers; they’re natural endorsers, and probably will continue to be. That’s why, instead of scorched earth, a better policy would be to turn disruptions like these into opportunities for genuine action. Companies already spend millions on endorsements and millions on social causes. In difficult situations like these, it would be more progressive to use that financial muscle to align the interests of the company, the artist and the public to raise awareness of the issues brought up.
It would be a model of creative corporate citizenship, and almost certainly a pipe dream, though maybe less so as corporations have been increasingly inviting rappers into their executive suites. (Swizz Beatz, for example, has a longstanding formal relationship with Reebok, although he’s remained conspicuously quiet throughout the recent ordeal.) Mere endorsements signal a midlevel relationship at best. What’s attractive now is ownership, as in the case of 50 Cent’s initial arrangement with VitaminWater as an investor, a more meaningful deal that goes beyond an artist’s fame.
PepsiCo found a way to use Tyler, the Creator in unexpected ways, contracting with him to direct a series of short ads for Mountain Dew. His clips depict a tetchy goat that craves the soft drink and attacks a waitress to get it. In the third ad in the series, the injured waitress, who is white, scrutinizes an all-black (except the goat) police lineup. This led Boyce Watkins, a scholar in residence at Syracuse University, to deem it hopelessly racist. (Watkins later recanted that charge.)
Tyler, the Creator had more leash to play with, since his arrangement was a step beyond typical endorsement deals. His ad was no more offensive than some of his skits on "Loiter Squad," the Odd Future sketch show on the Adult Swim cable network, and its characters were no odder than the recurring ones who run through his music. If he is guilty of anything, it’s of being unfunny or merely silly. Nevertheless, the ad was quickly pulled.
If the long pas de deux with corporations has taught rappers anything, it’s the importance of having your own business. Like many other rappers, Lil Wayne and Tyler, the Creator have started their own clothing lines; while it’s lucrative to endorse someone else’s product, it’s maybe more important to have something of your own to sell, especially in times like this. Why waste energy pitching for someone else when you’ve got your own vision to flog? Then, for better or worse, you’re answerable only to yourself.