Has ‘Blackness’ become marketable? Critically discuss using a case study of adverts, music, clothing, dance, TV shows or any relevant ideas, using pictures to illustrate
It will be argued here that ‘blackness’ has become marketable, and this will be critically discussed through an analysis of contemporary music videos. First of all, the essay will consider what is meant by ‘blackness’, arguing that it is a social construct, actively produced by media representations, and connected to issues of power. It will then be discussed how this relates to stereotyping and the exploitation of stereotypes for profit. This will be discussed in more detail, in relation to the work of Foucault and Edward Said, in relation to productions of ‘otherness’ that legitimate the normativity of white western values. It will then be argued, however, that these images of ‘otherness’ are used primarily as desirable. Through a close analysis of the music video texts, as well as bel hooks’ work on exoticism and primitivism, it will be argued that ‘blackness’, in this context, operates as a lifestyle signifier of ‘cool’ or ‘real’ for a mass-market audience. It will be argued that music videos construct ‘blackness’ not only in terms of representation of lifestyle but also in terms of emotion and affect – making people feel cool and consume. This argument will be developed in relation to work on African-American musical traditions, and hip-hop in particular. It will contrast constructions of hip-hop as an ‘authentic’ form ‘appropriated’ by the market, with definitions that focus on the potentially positive hybrid potential of producing new forms through market processes.
It is necessary first of all, to define what is meant by ‘blackness’. Rather than defining this in terms of a fixed unchanging essence or pre-existent identity, post-structural cultural theorists have focused on ‘blackness’ as a socially mediated and constructed category actively produced by media discourses. Hogue, for example, focuses on “the ways the power dynamics in the media and other agencies of production and transmission…work to create and recreate racial formation” (1996, p.24). This focus allows for recognition not only of race as a socially constructed term, but also its key relation to issues of power. Blackness, understood not as essence, but as social construct is a term constantly contested and redefined, ‘created and recreated’ as Hogue points out, and the media industries play a key role in these processes.
On one hand, this can be liberating, as it allows for ‘blackness’ to be constantly challenged and redefined as a fluid concept. Meaning, as Storey has argued of post-structuralism is “a very unstable thing” (2006, p.98), and representations are, to a certain extent, open to unlimited multiple readings (p.98). On the other hand, however, the power of media industries to actively create concepts of blackness can lead to issues such as stereotyping, as one-dimensional reductive and often negative images are played and relayed across media channels. Richard Dyer has written on the damaging nature of stereotyping, arguing that “there is plenty of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not just put out in books and films, but are widely agreed upon and believed to be right” (2006, p.353). This, according to Dyer’s argument leads not only to reductive associations for readers/viewers, but also the unconscious conformity of those represented to the stereotyped images (p.253). Even being aware of blackness of a media construct, we must still focus on exactly how that construct is created and to what effect. Some theorists have argued that the production of blackness in the media is used primarily for marketing value. Coleman argues, for example, that “black identity is exploited for profit by capitalism” (2003, p.51). In order to consider how exactly this claim can be substantiated it is necessary to go now into further detail.
Foucault has written about how the discourse of ‘otherness’ is actively produced in order to produce a fiction of the self as normative (2006, p.168), and a fundamental aspect of the construction of ‘blackness’ is its positioning as ‘other’ to the assumed ‘normative’ white subject. Edward Said has written at length about how narratives of ‘the East’ as other to ‘the West’ are vital and founding narratives to legitimate the colonial imposition of Western values. This process he calls ‘orientalism’ (Said, 1979) and it is an important framework for understanding media representations of blackness. Blackness is represented as ‘other’ from the dominant white norm, in order to re-affirm that norm through a focus on what deviates from it as somehow less advanced or less civilized. Critics have developed this analysis in relation to media representations. Potts for example focuses on “a plethora of images and narratives of ‘the dangerous black man’ widely disseminated through the broadcast and print media, feature films, and music videos” (1997, p.11). In Potts’ argument, this use of stereotyping serves not only to create a negative image of black identity but also how this stereotype functions as “a profitable exercise” (p.11). This image is marketed, in other words, in order to legitimate repressive and exploitative measures against black communities.
While this may be one way that blackness can be understood as ‘marketable’, in the context of popular media representation, as will be shown in the case study here, it is not now the most common. Images of ‘blackness’ are constructed across popular media not mainly as negative dangerous stereotypes, but as desirable representations of aspects of ‘lifestyle marketing’ (Leiss, Kline and Boterill, 2002, p.265) such as ‘cool’ (Alleyne, 2002) or ‘realness’ (Bennett, 2004). To make sense of this, it is relevant to consider bell hooks argument of the exoticisation and commodification of otherness:
Cultural appropriation of the Other assuages feelings of deprivation and lack that assault the psyches of radical white youth who choose to be disloyal to western civilization (2006, p.370)
hooks frames otherness not in terms of negativity, but in the way it is ‘appropriated’ by primarily white audiences as a rebellious stance. She argues that, rather than blackness being defined as lacking in relation to dominant white norms, it is instead something in excess of white culture, which seduces with its desirability, and is thus used and exploited by white culture:
The commodification of otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. (p.366)
Blackness is marketable according to hooks’ argument, because it offers an image of ‘the exotic’, it is different in an exciting way, “ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (p.366). This is not, however, a positive representation of blackness, as its intensity and excess is merely reduced to an object to be consumed by the dominant culture she describes as “the white supremacy” (p.366). Blackness is used in a relation of ‘primitivism’. It is produced as perhaps less developed, but more ‘real’, more ‘alive’ and more ‘intense’ because it is closer to nature. These are all, of course, completely stereotyped assumptions. Consuming blackness in such a way allows the white consumer to ‘get a bit’ of this intensity, take it and exploit it without going too far (not actually disrupting the oppressive system), without necessarily understanding it, and without accounting for the perspective of those being consumed:
From the standpoint of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desires for the ‘primitive’ or fantasies about the Other can be continually exploited, and that such exploitation will occur in a manner that reinscribes and reaffirms the status quo. (p.367)
In her analysis, hooks specifically mentions advertising (p.370), and fashion (p.372) as two examples where this exoticisation of primitivised blackness for the consumption of a white audience is prevalent. There are many ways in which her argument can be criticized. She does not account, for example, for the experiences of black spectatorship. On a broader level, and more importantly, she does not really challenge the oppositions between black and white that she seeks to analyse. She maintains the structure of ‘white’ as dominant, normative and centred, and ‘black’ as other, without challenging a politics of racial identity as a whole. Further, as Headley argues, “she [hooks] can only advance a simplistic denunciation of essentialism” (2009, p.141), she offers no real suggestions as to what ‘blackness’ could potentially be beyond a commodified product for white audiences.
In order to develop these arguments around the marketability of blackness further, the focus will now be on the chosen case study of popular music videos. These have been chosen are it has been argued that music videos are a key media form for the production and dissemination of representations of blackness (Perry, 2003; Kitwana, 2005). The first text chosen is the video for Replay by Iyaz (Iyaz, 2010). The video constructs ‘blackness’ using a number of elements. Not only the skin tone of the performer, but also cultural references such as graffiti (Bennett, 2004, p.186), hip-hop fashion such as chains and reversed baseball cap, the choreography of macho gestures associated with hip-hop culture (Baldwin, 2004, p.165) and the iconographic Caribbean backdrop (all in Fig.1) all come together to create an image of ‘blackness’. This is not blackness in the sense employed by Potts (1997) as a dangerous deviation from the norm, but makes more sense as an expression of the exoticised ‘otherness’ explored by hooks (2006). The laid-back delivery, iconic beach location, glaring sun, hyperreal colour and luxurious lifestyle signified by accessories such as the watch and chains (Fig.1) market cultural signifiers of blackness as an exotic escape from the day-to-day grind, or lack of intensity, alluded to in hooks’ argument. Significations are complicated however in the intersection of racial and gender representations. While representations of black masculinity offer one particular stereotype, representations of black femininity offer an entirely different one. The female star of the video is presented as an object gazed at by the male protagonists (Fig.2), scantily clad, sexualized, and, as Mulvey has argued, objectified through fragmented images for the assumed ‘male gaze’ of the viewer (Mulvey, 1989, p.22). While the male protagonists play an active role in the foreground, she remains an object of visual pleasure in the background (Fig.4). These visual representations are supported by the textual narrative of the song. The female is objectified, “that girl like something off a poster” and represented with a stereotypically ‘feminine’ lifestyle “at the mall with her friends” defined only by ownership of the male “she is the gun to my holster” (Iyaz, 2010). As Perry has argued of black women in hip-hop videos, “they are commodified reminiscent of symbols of pornographic male sexual fantasy” (2003, p.137). The videos, she goes on, “assume a heterosexual male viewer who will appreciate the images of sexually available young women” (p.137) and this is certainly the case here. All of these examples show that while blackness is created as a marketable commodity, intersections with other identities such as gender play an important role, which must also be accounted for.
It is not only representation in the video but also its form that employs black cultural references. As Iyaz moves his hands, the video jumps as if it is being ‘scratched’, a reference to scratching records in hip-hop tradition. This is interesting on many levels. Firstly, it is another example of the gender politics at play – he has the power to create and recreate the representation, while she is just the object “like a song on an ipod” stuck in his head. Secondly, it shows how the cultural traditions of blackness can be employed in a more subtle and more affective way than simply showing images of black people. Kodwo Eshun (1998) has written on the importance of scratching as texture in black musical tradition. The effect of this in the video is to create a seductive glitch, which along with the catchy hooks of the music draw in the viewer/listener. The consumer is marketed to, not only on a representational level, but also physically and affectively, vitally important, as theorists such as Goodman have argued, to contemporary capitalism and its “modes of catalyzing the motivation to consume” (2009, p.145). This is particularly relevant to the music video, which must allow its music to function as an ‘ear-worm’ (Goodman, 2009, p.143) getting stuck inside the head of the consumer to motivate consumption. Visual techniques can work together with these strategies, suggesting new ways for blackness to become developed not only as a marketable signifier, but also as a marketable affect, or non-representational emotional force (Shaviro, 1993, p.23).
Turning now to the second text, the video for Baby by Justin Bieber. Here cultural signifiers of blackness are again employed. There is a breakdance ‘battle’ for example (Fig.8) and the singer is situated in an iconographic ‘downtown’ location (Fig.5) representing the ‘authenticity’ of the public space of street culture (Bennett, 2004, p.188). What is different here, however, is that the singer is white. The video is interesting as it shows how he incorporates or ‘appropriates’ cultural images of blackness in order to make his song seem more ‘real’ or ‘authentic’. He is pictured always with black friends (Fig.5), functioning as the key rap music video narrative device of ‘the posse’ (Rose, 1994, p.10) his love object is a black girl (Fig.7), and most significantly, he ‘features’ a rapper on the track who appears halfway through the ballad to attempt to give it some legitimation as a fashionable urban song-text. This is interesting in relation to marketing blackness as it shows a none so subtle desire to use the ‘cool’ associations of blackness, epitomized by Ludacris whose star image of black masculinity is grafted onto the video, to market what bell hooks would describe as ‘the dull dish’ of Bieber’s song. In relation to Perry’s argument, associations of ‘lifestyles encoded as ‘black’ are also used to give Bieber the ‘sexual charisma’ (Perry, 2003, p.137) necessary to achieve his conquest in the video narrative.
Here then, blackness has clearly been used as a marketable asset. How this has been done can be approached in different ways. In one sense it could be argued that mainstream predominantly white culture has ‘appropriated’ an authentically black culture for marketing purposes. Tricia Rose for example, argues for the ‘authenticity’ of rap:
Rap music is a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America…From the outset rap music has articulated the pleasures and problems of black urban life in contemporary America (1994, p.2)
On the other hand, histories of African-American music show how black musical traditions have constantly intersected with, been primitivised or appropriated by white audiences. Lemke writes of the ‘Jazz Age’ of the 1920s for example when black Amsricans from the South migrated to Northern cities and jazz clubs became important sites of urban cultural expression:
The disaffected flocked to jazz clubs for a first hand immersion in the primitive…[with] the romantic idea that blacks, and their cultural expressions are more emotional, natural, spontaneous and joyful. (Lemke, 1998, p.66)
Rather than reading this narrative in terms of authenticity and appropriation, Paul Gilroy has focused on the productive movements of ‘blackness’ throughout history in terms of its potential for producing new cultural forms in a criss-crossing of continents he describes as ‘The Black Atlantic’:
The stereophonic, bilingual, or bifocal cultural forms originated by, but no longer the exclusive property of, blacks, dispersed within the structures of feeling, producing, communicating and remembering that I have heuristically called the Black Atlantic world. (2002, p.3)
The music videos discussed here show how blackness, through the signifiers of hip-hop culture in music videos, has become marketable. As Neal has argued, “subject(ed) to the paradoxes of mass culture, hip-hop has become the very spectacle that it attempts to counter” (1999, p.164). In other words, what originated as a counter-cultural form (Rose, 1994, p.2) is now very much part of commercial mainstream culture. This can be approached in different ways. Hooks argues for example, that we should be ‘critical’ of images of blackness (2006, p.380) suggesting that it is within the domain of reading strategies and theoretical academic work that resistance to negative stereotyping and exoticisation can be found. Others have argued that resistance can be produced by the media texts themselves, Neal for example argues that “[hip-hop] becomes arguably the first form of popular expression to actively confront issues of commodification and commercialization as narrative themes (1999, p.164). He gives the example of the video for Common’s I Used to Love H.E.R (Common, 2007) which stages the processes of commercialization of hip-hop, and the commodification of blackness in its narrative themes, thus drawing attention to them and operating as a self-aware space of critique. Coleman argues that what needs to be confronted is the market forces that make blackness into a desirable commodity (2003). Another possibility however, is to accept that blackness is marketable and to see what positive effects this could have in redefining stereotyped images. Taking Rose’s view (1994) of the commercialization of hip-hop as the appropriation of an authentically black cultural form, then marketability will always be seen as a loss. Taking on Gilroy’s view however, that new connections can be made through translations and inter-combinations, then the process can, potentially, be seen is more positive terms. Homi Bhabha’s concept of ‘hybridity’ has been employed to show how elements of different cultures can be productively combined to create new forms irreducible to the essentialism and identity politics of ‘black’ or ‘white’ (Young, 2005, p.25). In this context the ‘marketing’ or commercialization of discourses of blackness becomes, potentially a channel for them to mutate and escape limiting definitions imposed by a focus on ‘origins’ and the repeating of stereotypes. As Kodwo Eshun has argued, blackness can be defined as much by its future, what potential future recombinations it can make, as by returning to its past (Eshun, 1998). Through processes both of globalization (Neal, 1999, p.159) and local interpretations of globalised media circulation (Bennett, 2004, p.189) ‘blackness’ is, as proposed at the beginning of the essay, constantly defined and redefined, created and recreated. What needs to be more fully explored is how processes set into play by marketing need not lead to the perpetuation of stereotyping but can challenge this by productively redefining what blackness is and could be.
Alleyne, S. (2002) ‘The celebrity sell: Advertisers use black celebrity endorsers to pump up sales’, Black Enterprise, Sept, 2002, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1365/is_2_33/ai_91040607/ [accessed 29th May, 2010].
Baldwin, D.L. ‘Black Empires, White Desires: The spatial politics of identity in the age of hip-hop’ in M.Gorman and M.A.Neal (Eds.) That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, pp.159-176.
Bieber, J. (2010) ‘Baby, ft. Ludacris’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kffacxfA7G4
[accessed 28th May, 2010].
Bennett, A. (2004) ‘Hip Hop am Main’ in M.Gorman and M.A.Neal (Eds.) That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, pp.177-200.
Coleman, R. (2003) ‘Elmo is Black! Black popular communication and the marking and marketing of black identity’, Popular Communication, Vol.1. Issue 1, Jan. 2003, 51-64.
Common (2007) ‘Video for I Used to Love H.E.R’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C99iG4HoO1c, [accessed 29th May, 2010].
Dyer, R. (2006) ‘Stereotyping’ in M.G. Durham and D. Kelner (Eds.) Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, Oxford: Blackwell, pp.353-365.
Eshun, K. (1998) More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction London: Quartet.
Foucault, M. (2006) History of Madness. London: Routledge.
Gilroy, P. (2002) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. London: Verso.
Goodman, S. (2009) Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Headley, C. (2009) ‘The Ethics of Blackness: bell hooks’ Postmodern Blackness and the Imperative of Liberation’ in M.Davidson (Ed.) Critical Perspectives on bell hooks. New York: Taylor & Franics, pp.132-155.
Hogue, W.L. (1996) Race, Modernity, Postmodernity. New York: Albany.
hooks, b. (2006) ‘Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance’ in M.G. Durham and D. Kelner (Eds.) Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, Oxford: Blackwell, pp.366-380
Iyaz (2009) ‘Replay Prequel Music Video’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXxV9g7lsFE, [accessed 28th May, 2010].
Kitwana, B. (2005) Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wangstas, Wannabes and the New Reality of Race in America. New York: Basic Civitas.
Leiss, W. Kline, S. and Botterill (2002) Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace. London: Routledge.
Lemke, S. (1998) Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the origins of Transatalntic Modernism. Oxford: OUP.
Mulvey, L. (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Neal, M.A. (1999) What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. London: Routledge.
Perry, I. (2003) ‘Who(se) Am I? The identity and image of women in hip-hop’ in G.Dines and J.M. Humez (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Text Reader. London: Sage, pp.136-148.
Potts, R.G. (1997) ‘The social construction and social marketing of the ‘dangerous black man’, Journal of African American Studies, Vol.2, No.4, March, 1997, 11-24.
Rose, T. (1994) Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover: Wesleyan Press.
Said, E. (1979) Orientalism. London: Vintage.
Shaviro, S. (1993) The Cinematic Body. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Storey, J. (2006) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. London: Pearson.
Young, R. (2005) Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge.
Fig 1: Still from Iyaz (2009)
Fig 2: Still from Iyaz (2009)
Fig 3: Still from Iyaz (2009)
Fig 4: Still from Iyaz (2009)
Fig 5: Still from Bieber (2010)
Fig 6: Still from Bieber (2010)
Fig 7: Still from Bieber (2010)
Fig 8: Still from Bieber (2010)
Fig 9: Still from Bieber (2010)