How Hip-Hop’s Commercial Pursuits Nullified Street Cred

February 24, 2011  |  

Circa 2007, 50 Cent was holding a bottle of Vitamin Water in one hand and a DVD of the underground hip-hop movie “Hot Ice” in the other. He was pushing a beverage which netted him a multi-million dollar endorsement deal while simultaneously bragging about stealing a rapper’s chain in his gritty hood video.

He’s one of several hip-hop artists who’s either abandoned the idea of street cred altogether or is attempting to maintain bases of support in divergent communities. It’s quite a tightrope to walk.  It’s also a tough act to commit to and, if you’re an aspiring rapper, an even tougher act to follow. What we don’t yet know is whether hip-hop’s unquenchable desire for affluence will eventually result in a ghetto version of black flight. One where rappers make their money in the hood and then flee (money in hand) far away from the hood; never to look back or give back.

One could argue that Diddy was the first hip-hop artist to go bubble gum since the shiny suit man was among the first to launch spin-off companies and brand himself as more suburban than urban. Diddy paved the way for artists like 50 Cent to play both ends of the demographic and socioeconomic spectrum in hopes that the two ends would never meet in the middle.

Today, Diddy has appointed himself the king of all celebration. Meanwhile, Jay-Z is being interviewed by Oprah for her network’s Master Class series and standing side by side with Warren Buffet on the cover of Forbes.

50 Cent may still be playing it safe and offering up drivel to his fans in order to satisfy his street cred quota, but many hip-hop artists have abandoned that notion altogether.

The proxy for a hip-hop artist’s credibility – once the urban street – is now Wall Street. It used to be that true G’s on the block were a rapper’s judge and jury and if, according to the true gangsters, a rapper wasn’t “keepin’ it real”, the rapper’s career was dead.  Now these same gangsters are quickly dismissed as haters if they challenge an artist’s bona fides.

This is a pivotal crossroads for the hip-hop genre: On the one hand, rappers can enjoy more freedom now that their album sales aren’t predominately dependent on the consent of backward urban dwellers whose primary focus is on brandishing luxury items and satisfying primal impulses – the demonstration of which is stuntin’ and womanizing. Conversely, acceptance amongst more mainstream listeners expands the artistic license and entrepreneurial marketplace of an artist. In other words, crossover has its privileges.

On the other hand, if hip-hop artists aren’t accountable to the poor communities which inspired their lyrics, then who are they accountable to? And if artists don’t give a voice to the poor, then who will?

What is the consequence of hip-hop being saturated with 21st century rappers who came from the streets, but aren’t accountable to the streets? Today, hip-hop artists belong to their brand, not their fans.  And their brands are beholden to the fluctuations of the market, not the ghetto.

To me, this is a scary proposition which affords hip-hop artists carte blanche over the genre and leaves fans out in the cold. And I say this not because I’m a fan of many of the “keep it real” bobble heads who’ve appointed themselves the true arbiters of hip-hop. It’s just that I don’t like the new owners. I would gladly take bobble heads over Manhattan marketing executives any day. It was the aloof and detached brand executives who disappointed us with the Pepsi Superbowl commercial which portrayed black women as angry and in dire need of medication.

It would be more beneficial for the hip-hop community as a whole to allow for a more accommodating definition of street cred than to abandon the notion altogether.  This is because there is a danger and a contradiction in allowing hip-hop, which has for so long been the voice of the oppressed, to be completely managed from a corporate perspective.

Authenticity has value. And that value was once the currency on which hip-hop artists and fans traded. But, if we allow artists to forgo their commitment to street cred, then we are blessing their future betrayals.  And no matter how you paint it, that’s not a good look.

Yvette Carnell is a former Capitol Hill Staffer turned political blogger. She currently publishes two blogs, Spatterblog.com and GoGirlGuide.com.

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