Subcultural Capitalism: Some Meditations on Race, Class and Streetwear

N.B. The following piece explores the intersections of race and class, as well as the erasure and manipulation of black bodies, in fashion and streetwear. I’ve weighed up a number of thoughts on these issues for quite a while and wanted to explore them, but in doing so must necessarily acknowledge my own whiteness, and that the presence of another white voice does not resolve issues of black erasure. As a result, I’ve tried to approach this first and foremost as a critique of whiteness and its known mechanisms. There are numerous websites such as gal-dem and Media Diversified doing amazing work highlighting black voices in fashion, music, art, literature and beyond. Please check them out, subscribe and support.

2012

Jayson Musson, aka Hennessy Youngman

Jayson Musson is a New York-based artist whose work sits somewhere on the intersections of social commentary, mixed media communication and performance art. His work focuses primarily on ideas of the black experience in America and its interactions with whiteness. Using everything from canvas paintings and posters to newspaper columns and installations, Musson exposes schisms of affect in society; where one particular group, such as white people, might look at a scenario and see one thing, whilst another group, particular minorities and marginalised peoples, see another.

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In ‘Too Black for B.E.T.’ a series of 34 posters featuring big, bold text and occasionally images from popular culture, Musson subverts clichéd American values, challenging accepted truths with alternative perceptions; one poster declares ‘The fastest route between obscurity and fame is a straight line of cocaine with the right person’; another presents images of Jesus Christ and Osama Bin Laden and warns, ‘Beware of persuasive men with beards’.

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In another series, ‘Barack Obama Battles the Pink Robots’, Musson creates paintings of (now former-) President Barack Obama performing increasingly-absurd acts of good will, from rescuing a cat from a tall tree, to saving Jesus Christ from the crucifixion, to battling a giant monster made entirely of diamonds. As America prepared to inaugurate the most unqualified and inexperienced President in its nation’s history earlier this month, discussions flared up again about ‘black excellence’ and the racism that says for a black person to be president (or any other prominent role, for that matter), then they must be over-qualified, scandal-free, spotless and beyond reproach. If a white person wants to be president, all they have to be is rich and male.

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One of the most interesting of Musson’s creations is his character, Hennessy Youngman, a sort of exaggerated black caricature who waxes lyrical about art practice, theory and academia. White academia, white media and white spaces in general have historically dismissed African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a means of invalidating black thought and creativity and, in doing so, erase and exclude black people from certain spheres — it’s this which makes our parents comfortable trashing all rap music as “just noise” and “not saying anything” whilst praising Sergeant Pepper’s as one of the greatest albums ever made in the same sentence. By dismantling art theory and pulling the curtain back from the “impenetrable” world of modern art whilst speaking in AAVE, Musson subverts the structure and excludes the Eurocentric art world from his own sphere.

In late 2013, Hennessy Youngman moved into the music world, releasing a series of mixtapes entitled ‘CVS Bangers’; named for the popular American chain of drugstores, the tapes consist entirely of cheesy, 1980s easy listening music that CVS plays in their stores, overlaid with trap and hip-hop samples such as gunshots, airhorns, ‘excluuuuusive!’s and ‘more fire’s. Think of ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’, ‘I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight’ and countless Steve Winwood tracks being interrupted by ‘Daaaaamn Hennessy, where’d you find this track?!’ and you’re halfway there.

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At first I took the mix at face value, enjoying it for the humour of hearing super-white, super-corny 80s music overlaid with familiar artefacts of contemporary trap music. It’s pretty funny to hear Rod Stewart singing, ‘Some guys get all the luck’ only for Hennessy Youngman to cut in and go, ‘Awwww, poor Rod Stewart!’ But then I came across a piece by Gavin Mueller for Jacobin where he unpicks a deeper subtext in the CVS Bangers mixtapes.

In his piece, Mueller discusses the historical context of the songs Youngman selects for his mixtapes; released in the mid-to-late 1980s, performed by white artists and loosely classified as ‘Adult Contemporary’; ‘a format that combined easy listening with gracelessly aging Boomer rockers and New Wavers moving into more lucrative slow-dance territory’.

Most importantly, Mueller highlights the prominence of a number of black easy listening artists who are omitted from the mixtapes, such as Lionel Ritchie and Whitney Houston, and interprets ‘CVS Bangers’ as a commentary on mainstream radio and record labels’ attempts to appeal to a ‘silent majority’ audience of middle-aged white people, appropriating and stealing numerous elements of black soul, funk and R&B, whilst erasing the voices that created them. Consider Youngman’s telling ad-lib over Baltimora’s classic single, “Tarzan Boy” — ‘Racism… but so good!’ CVS Bangers is the soundtrack to an audience that wants to indulge in the black creativity and musicality, but does not wish to engage with the politics of its own consumption and inherent racism.

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Mueller then explores Youngman’s use of trap samples and airhorns to theorize Trap music’s appropriation as Adult Contemporary for a new generation, whilst Youngman’s placement of those sound effects over corny 80s pop music lampoons modern rap artists like Macklemore, Lil Debbie and Iggy Azalea by drawing attention to the real “music of their people”. White people want to be hip-hop now? Okay, but they’re bringing their own music with them.

Anyway, Mueller’s article is a brilliant read, and I go back and re-read it often, so I really recommend taking the time to go and have a look. The reason I mention it is that a lot of what I’m about to talk about concerns similar concepts and ideas, though nowhere near as well constructed, so you’d be doing yourself a favour to see a professional unpacking this shit before bothering with my dirge.

This whole topic got me thinking about streetwear, as a concept. It’s been said countless times by people within the industry that nobody quite knows where the term ‘streetwear’ came from. One day this new wave of clothing brands started making printed t-shirts, sweats and caps and eventually the term ‘streetwear’ was created as a category. What’s interesting is that streetwear, like street culture, is inherently connected to black American culture; rooted in hip-hop, graffiti and b-boy culture in cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. But when we think of the iconic, original streetwear brands, like Stüssy, Supreme and Fuct, all were founded by white men. There were numerous black-owned streetwear brands in the 90s such as Fubu, Phat-Farm and later Rocawear, but you’re more likely to find them categorized as “hip-hop clothing labels” these days.

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‘Streetwear’ occupies as interesting space of placing its roots in street culture, whilst charging a comparative premium for its products. Brands like Supreme promise the credibility and authenticity of a label peppered with references to the archaeology of 90s street culture, but at a price that elevates it above street culture itself. Certainly, many of the brands have credible roots in the subcultures that they celebrate, but it’s in recent years that I noticed the young kids buying Supreme these days are the same that, when I was at college, would more likely be buying Jack Wills, American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch.

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Where kids were previously seeking out higher-priced casual clothing that spoke to notions of White British and White American middle-class identity, they’re now looking to brands loaded with streetwear ‘edge’ and the symbology that comes with it. Even if the kids in line for Supreme London don’t know or care for the brand’s referencing 90s menswear labels like Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Sport and Nautica, there’s no way that Palace’s product descriptions and social media copy, dripping with slang and what has come to be known as “roadman talk”, is slipping past them.

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Nonetheless, since the style and the accompanying term were established in the early 90s, the brands have sat somewhere on the periphery of fashion. Stüssy became a global brand, but it’s never been perceived as more than a t-shirt brand; Certain menswear writers were describing Supreme as the best kept secret in menswear as far as back as the early 2000s, but the brand certain wasn’t on the map in any significant sense outside of the insular streetwear community until a few years back.

The majority of people consuming brands like Supreme, however, were tacitly aware of the culture they were immersing in when buying Supreme product. When I first got into streetwear, growing up in a town where weekly wages are supposed to be spent on pints of beer and a gram of coke, I turned to Internet forums like StrictlySupreme and Superfuture to learn more and explore the culture, and the people in these places took pride in unearthing the references and messages in graphic t-shirts and ripped-off Ralph Lauren jackets. Every hip-hop album, every graff artist, references to the Rock Steady crew and so on, knowing this stuff was necessary.

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I always found it confusing, then, how often discussions that would occasionally arise in forum threads and chat-boxes about race and class, exposed worrying levels of ignorance. You can probably imaging the topics; ‘It’s okay for me to say the N word because…’; ‘If X group don’t want to be hassled by police then they shouldn’t…’; ‘If a white person did that to a black person there’d be this, so why isn’t it the same the other way round’. For a group of people so passionate and vocal about their deep knowledge of street culture — something innately interwoven with black culture — there didn’t seem to be much critical engagement with the source material. You always wonder how a group of guys can scoff at somebody for not getting the KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions references in a Supreme collection and then fire off a diatribe of ill-informed, anti-black clichés in the same conversation and not see the irony. If there is one rapper who has consistently pointed out the connections between hip-hop, race, politics, class and society throughout his career, it’s KRS-One.

I brought this up in private conversation with another member at some point and they pointed out that lots of those guys really don’t interact with black people or minorities on a regular basis and based their views on, basically, feeling around in the dark and going with what makes sense. But how can a subculture such as streetwear become so removed from black culture?

The same issue is present on the forums of today; Facebook groups. A few months back I took the decision of removing myself from most of the “big” Facebook buying & reselling groups because I just got total fatigue reading discussions between kids in provincial English towns with minority populations in the fractions of a percent weighing in on discussions about race, class and gender with completely backwards views. That somebody can gas about Palace and “roadman culture” (shudder) one minute and then totally dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement the next makes me feel ill.

Facebook, as a social media platform, is inherently about expression of self. Unlike Twitter, which facilitates engagement with views and opinions outside of your immediate sphere, most people use Facebook to connect with their friends, talk to like-minded people and express their own views. There’s a reason that arguments on Facebook rarely achieve anything and only leave the two parties even more steadfast in their views. People don’t go on Facebook to have their views challenged. They go on there to say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I stand for and this is how I view the world’, and to then accumulate the likes of people that agree with them. People have been pushing Facebook to provide a “dislike” function for years now, but it’s never happened. Even the angry reaction face that they introduced is just ambiguous enough that using it could suggest you angrily share somebody’s view rather than disagreeing.

Back to streetwear. The thing about streetwear, particularly in the age of social media and Facebook groups, is that it’s become more and more about consumption and spending. The celebrities of these groups are the kids that buy new stuff every week, post it, get likes and build rep. Those who purchase and consume the most, thus posting the most fits and pick-ups, thus getting the most likes, are those with the most respected views. With this considered, it’s little surprise that most of the prominent figures in these groups are mostly white, male and middle-class. So you get this weird situation of the authorities of streetwear, and occasionally the social, cultural and political discussions that are connected to them, having zero connection or insight whatsoever.

There was a funny exchange on Twitter back in October, around the time that Wonder Woman was revealed to be a lesbian. A man in a tweet exchange explained to Gail Simone, ‘Baby, I’ve been reading comics since BEFORE you were born. Wonder Woman is not gay. Shoo dear.’ This prompted Simone to send the following razor-sharp response: ‘Dear, I WROTE Wonder Woman, and I can tell you we’ve been saying this for years, and it goes all the way back to her origins. Nice try.’

What this exchange highlights is a misguided notion that consumption within a particular field equates to authority or expertise in that field. The capitalist mechanism of ‘if you have the money, you can buy the clothes’ cultivates a similar attitude of ‘if you bought into the culture, you can speak on the culture’. You’re welcome to be a member of those groups, post and be active, engage with the community — on occasion I’ve seen some very encouraging attitudes on there, but mostly very surface-level things. I’m just saying, don’t be surprised if a community that creates threads like “Post a photo of your outfit and post the total price” turns out to be grossly out of touch with more pressing social issues.

It’s this that got me thinking about Hennessy Youngman and Mueller’s piece. The mystery of that term ‘streetwear’, and its origins; that equally street-heavy black labels such as Fubu are retrospectively labelled as ‘hip-hop brands’; that even today a number of black and minority kids growing up in cities like London, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia are not wearing Supreme or Palace, they’re not wearing big-S ‘Streetwear’, but the clothes they are wearing would unlikely be categorized as ‘streetwear’. Even in music videos with up and coming rap artists; sure, they might be wearing some of the big brands, but how many of their friends are in the back?

I wonder if, like the ‘Adult Contemporary’ genre of the 1980s, there isn’t some strange code going on in streetwear, clothing predominantly rooted in black music, culture and creativity but sanitized into a more palatable form for a majority white, middle-class customer. The same thing has happened in London with the foul term ‘roadman clothing’, a coded term for tracksuits, caps and trainers that promises all the edge of the life of a young black person in London without any of the danger. As Jammer explained when I interviewed him a few months back, they always knew they looked good, they always had their own fashion, it’s just now the fashion world is paying attention. Most kids hyping up about ‘roadman clothing’ and paying premium prices from labels like Palace will never have encountered the life that label entails, let alone lived it, but it’s a great selling point.

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How are we then supposed to feel about high fashion’s increasing interest in “streetwear” now? Gucci has made massive inroads with its embroidered sneakers and jeans; Demna Gvasalia, with both Balenciaga and Vetements, has been repeatedly praised for supposedly “elevating” streetwear to the catwalk. Supreme’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton has been hailed as solidifying the status of two fashion icons in the cultural zeitgeist.

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But then the Supreme x Louis Vuitton collaboration was allegedly inspired in part by late 80s/early 90s New York style, including Dapper Dan, a designer who transformed those same luxury brands into street products and was effectively chased into hiding by threat of lawsuits and financial ruin. Yeah, sure, his influence is being celebrated in the high fashion world now, but will a penny go to him for leading the way nearly thirty years ago? And only the other week it was revealed that Versace uses a code-word for black customers in its stores. And as for Gvasalia, fashion’s golden boy, I hope it didn’t go over anybody else’s head that of the three black models in Vetements’ F/W’17 runway presentation, one was dressed in an imitation Fubu ensemble, and the other like a leather jacket-clad bouncer. So for all the shift the fashion world is making in adopting “streetwear” into its own language, how big is its change in general attitude? I’m not so sure.

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Streetwear just seems, to me, to be a coded term that works for the people who have control over it; white fashion designers, white consumers and white audiences. When a black designer like Sam Ross or Virgil Abloh makes waves in the fashion industry, as both have done consistently over the past few seasons, their ‘streetwear’ brands are praised, simultaneously celebrating them but maintaining their distinction from fashion proper. But then when a high-fashion brand chooses to make tracksuits and sweats, they are praised for incorporating ‘streetwear’ style without sullying their high-fashion status. For customers, ‘streetwear’ is clothing that carries many of the connotations and credibility of street culture, allowing the wearer to immerse themselves in the identity, but without having to be truly engaged with what that might entail. There are two ways to be a roadman; grow up black and poor in London, or buy a tracksuit jacket that conveys an amplified, fictionalized idea of what ‘roadman’ is.

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Returning to Hennessy Youngman, I suppose over the past few weeks I’ve noticed an element of streetwear which could be viewed through the same lens as what CVS Bangers communicates. It’s important for me to stress, in closing, that my aim with this piece is not to suggest that blackness is inherently connected to poverty. Rather, I am interested in how streetwear has become the style du jour for Britain’s white, middle-class youth and other sections of white society, and then acknowledge that any system which has elements of class, race and society at play will necessarily carry the weight of issues that accompany it. When you make clothing “for the streets” and then sell it at a price that is exclusionary to many people who grow up in those streets, the effect is a cultural whitewashing. Think of what the connotations are when America’s President talks about “inner-cities”. Then think about what streets “Streetwear” is referring to. Couldn’t they be one and the same thing? And yet we know they aren’t. Why is that?

READ:
Silent Majority Music — To put it most unkindly, trap music is adult contemporary for the prosumer age.

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  • stainlesscity

    This is a very good read. I like that you comment on fashion in terms of it’s influences to society and cultures. I’m not a person who studies fashion but I am a sociologist who likes fashion so this was very educational. Thank you for writing!

  • Stefan Schwartze

    nice read man ! very refreshing