“Being fresh is more important than having money. The entire time I grew up, it was like…I only wanted money, so I could be fresh.” ~ Kanye West.
Recently, I had the chance to see the indie film entitled Dope. The movie centers on Malcolm, a straight-A student and musician from a rough neighborhood in present-day Los Angeles. Obsessed with 90s Hip-Hop music and fashion, the movie captures his search for identity while navigating the turbulence of his immediate environment. Embracing a retro style patterned after the 90s, he wears a high top fade haircut, stonewashed denim jeans, Nike Air Jordans, and other brands prevalent during the “Golden Era of Hip-Hop”. Unfortunately, he is inadvertently pulled into criminal life when he comes to posses several kilos of a drug dealer’s molly, and presented with the choice of two potential life paths. This choice between two essential life paths is presented to today’s youth on a daily basis, and the search for personal identity is universally experienced during the adolescent stage of development. So why did Malcolm look to a past aesthetic of fashion to represent his present identity? His choice possibly was made to visually and distinctively set himself apart from the negative expectations for black males in his community.
Throughout history, all art forms have reflected the cultural elements of communities. As a result, there has been a constant exchange between artists and the communities from which they originate. Essentially, the arts have been impacted and influenced by their communal environments, and inversely, communities have been impacted by the artistic forms emanating from within them. Fashion trends as an art form, especially those prominent in Hip-Hop culture, are exemplary of this mirrored relationship. Furthermore, the art of fashion has been moved forward by the push and pull between forces of innovation and conformity within specific communities. In this vein, Malcolm’s character felt that he did not fit into the stereotypical mold of the young black male in Inglewood, California. In the midst of gangs and drugs that existed within his community, he was considered a “nerd” because he was focused on school, played in a punk band called “Oreo” with his two friends, and he was still a virgin. In his position, I believe that Malcolm and his friends embraced this particular style as a conscious derivative of the past in an attempt to escape the harsh realities of their present. Even though Malcolm and his friends did not actually live through the ‘90s, the concept of their nostalgia as a form of rebellion against the expected norm, paid homage to the idea of “better times”. Consequently, this establishes a direct link between one’s socio-economic environment and their artistic expression of their status within it. According to Dictionary.com, socio-economics is “the study of the interrelation between economics and social behavior.”
On Friday, June 26th, a documentary was released that traces the history of Hip-Hop fashion entitled, Fresh Dressed. According to this film, the term “fresh” refers to “a crisp, new-in-the-box fashion look or tidy appearance.” Not only does this film discuss the impact that fashion has made on Hip-Hop culture, but it also notes fashion’s role to express commentary on social and economic statuses. Again, the mirrored relationship exemplified in fashion is explored. So, what is the connection between socio-economic statuses and artistic forms? In this documentary, Hip-Hop mogul, Damon Dash, makes a profound statement on the matter. He mentions that the whole idea of looking fresh stems from “the insecurity of not having anything.” He continues:
“The only way that you can kind of show that you have anything and feel some kind of status is, you know, what you have on your body. What you have on your body is a reflection of how you’re economically doing. It’s just a status symbol based on insecurity.”
Shirt King Phade, Co-Founder of Shirt Kings adds to Dash’s point, “When times are bad, a lot of people tend to gravitate towards art. Art takes our mind to another place.”
What I personally appreciate about the artistic expression of fashion, especially in Hip-Hop culture, is its ability to be both definitive and flexible. While at times a person can clearly take on a specific “look”, that same person remains able to represent his or her own individuality, ideas, or personal philosophy through their stylistic choices. In a sense, fashion can be a reflection of a person’s search for an identity within a paradigm of a specific culture. In the documentary, Pharrell Williams states, “When you’re young, there’s like a sense of wanting to express yourself…an importance of individuality.” This urge to find and establish individuality is a prominent challenge for the main characters of Dope. While Malcolm is not the only exception to the perceived “black male” typecast, through his character, the film examines a spectrum of stereotypes that are projected both inside and outside of an urban community. As seen in the current events that have spurred recent protest movements, stereotypes of black males are in full swing in today’s cities throughout the world, and our youth are continually placed at the intersection between expression of their own values, cultural histories, and pressures within community environments.