Where Does the Rick Ross Fallout Leave Hip Hop and Corporate America?

April 15th, 2013

(Photo: C.M. Wiggins/WENN.com)

By Gee King

The other shoe may have finally dropped in the Rick Ross “rape” controversy, but this saga is far from over. Reebok’s decision to cut their sponsorship deal with Ross after widespread backlash over his “U.O.E.N.O.” lyrics will have a long-term impact on the way the rap industry and corporate America do business. But will the culture gap that’s kept hip hop on the outskirts of American high society ever truly be closed? Not until leaders from both sides stop tiptoeing around the true nature of this complicated dynamic and get real with themselves and the general public.

Corporations have rushed to pay rappers to be the face of their brands since the day they realized hip hop culture was profitable. But they’ve been just as quick to dump their new business partners the moment critics or protesters compromised their lucrative investments with petitions and boycotts. Bill O’Reilly’s crusade against Ludacris made Pepsi executives rethink their partnership with the multi-platinum MC in 2002. And high-end brands like Cristal, Timberland and Tommy Hilfiger have all tried to distance themselves from urban markets while strategically benefiting from the millions in cultural capital that hip hop’s worldwide influence generates for them. While it’s no secret that corporations first and last concern is profit, consumers have long been told that their power lies in what they choose to spend their money on. But capitalism’s constant clash with hip hop highlights basic contradictions of our society that should make both parties rethink their approach to future deals.

Rick Ross’ now infamous line about putting Molly in an unsuspecting woman’s champagne isn’t the only offensive or immoral line in his catalog. But Reebok had no issue with paying a man who routinely co-opts the names of legendary gangsters for song hooks and album titles to be the face of their latest lines. Their decision to cut Ross was strictly about the bottom line, not the moral issues his lyrics raised or the half-hearted apologies he offered to women prior to his most sincere apology on Friday. Within the context of the American economy, Reebok isn’t obligated to think about this situation any further than: “He’s costing us more than he’s making us, he’s fired.” But with the new media landscape the Internet has created, artists and corporations face more accountability and scrutiny than ever, complicating an already touchy dichotomy between rappers who represent the streets and companies whose greatest fear is alienating mainstream audiences.

If this situation doesn’t wake rappers up to their true place in America’s corporate structure, nothing will. Aside from artists like Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz, few appear savvy enough to pimp their corporate partners before they are pimped. The solution may be to simply stop playing their game and return to the days of self-owned brands like FUBU and Rocawear. But with the materialistic mindset rappers have stamped onto the culture’s collective conscious, a humble grassroots brand will never fit hip hop’s desire for upscale status. Until someone figures out a better solution, MCs will remain at the mercy of execs that only value their culture for the money it can generate their business.

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