A week or so ago, I decided to, for the first time in forever (no Frozen), check out HipHopDX to see what they had to offer. While perusing through the troll comments, I saw Fat Trel had released a couple new freestyles. I listened, and they had some quotables–most of which unfit for the site (if you want to hear it, click here. Be forewarned that it is NSFW). But what really shocked me was a comment on the song. Some dude made it about appearance rather than verses, saying that because “[Trel] look like a monster” (sic), he couldn’t rock with him. This, of course, brings me to this week’s TWIHH discussion.
When did it become about looks versus artistry? Is this a modern social construct based on the (oft-quoted, but often-misappropriated) “feminization of the black man” theory. Or has appearance been just as much a part of hip-hop culture as the graffiti, turntables, and bars?
As far as I can remember, artists have attempted to distance themselves from the pack. Often, that’d involve some sort of image, some sort of look. Some artists reflected what they felt was gangster culture while others reflected afro-centricity. Artists such as LL Cool J made a career out of showing how much more attractive they were to people when compared to, say, an ODB. Heck, LL made a career out of showing his chest to his audience and he is still one of the most-respected artists (even though he’s had his miscues).
So, for someone to say “oh, hip-hop’s gone soft; it’s homoerotic now because dudes are commenting on how a guy looks” is flat-out silly. I’ll agree that the focus on looks has become more intense over the years, with commentators teetering between critique and general creepiness and artists wearing skirts as fashion (a la Young Thug). But, at the core, hip-hop has always been about looks (and marketability). Perhaps now, since we’ve been brainwashed (somewhat) by reality television, social media, et cetera, an artist’s appearance is becoming more prominent in regards to how they’ll be perceived. But again, it’s always been about a look. If you look different, people will want to know more about you (even if it’s in a “WTH are you doing this” sort of way). But inversely, an artist must still look a part.
Artists are, typically, groomed (either by their surroundings or by their team) to look a certain way to fulfill a role. In the case of a Fat Trel, you wouldn’t expect him to appear in a video in skater shoes, clean-shaven, with a big cheesy smile. That’s not the image he represents, nor would it be a believable image. And then listeners would call him fake. This brings me to another point.
Hip-Hop is, in some ways, a stereotypical art form. I’m strictly talking appearance here.
As an artist, I’ve spoken on this once before, as I’ve been stereotyped as being a “college rapper” a la Asher Roth because of my demeanor and dress. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to stay out of the “spotlight,” per se. I’d rather let the music speak for me and then have people see me and say “whoa, that Speed guy looks like that but he speaks on real issues. Kudos.” If I went about it inversely, I’ve been told that I probably wouldn’t be heard, because I’m a shorter guy with a mental illness (shameless plug) who prefers bars to clubs and a Corona to Patron. And that’s even before people got through the “no-fi” approach.
So what can we, as artists and listeners, bloggers and critics, do?
Open our minds, plain and simple.