Relevancy and the Prophecy of Hip-Hop
Today is my 50th birthday, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to stay relevant as seemingly every demographic is fighting for the spotlight. Nobody talks much about older Gen Xers like me anymore. Even millennials are attracting less attention (despite their staggering buying power) — as industry forecasters and media mavens start looking to Generation Z — the new “it” group that is political and wary of brands, thoughtful about social media, and thinks about gender in new and fluid ways.
I’m not Gen Z and I won’t ever be able to inhabit the same cultural zeitgeist as them. But I do find myself a fan girl tipping my hat to their influence — primarily through my Instagram feed. A wonderful and strange mashup of jewelry companies, cosmetic companies, architects, automobile designers, set designers, web developers, interior designers, media influencers, tastemakers, big box retailers, authors, motivational speakers, CPG companies, advertising giants, business leaders, actors, teenagers and musicians from around the world. All in the name of staying relevant.
WHY RELEVANCY MATTERS
As communications agencies, we too must stay relevant — ahead of trends, in touch with audiences, interpreters of influence and impact. Our clients are experiencing a constant swirl of motion based on factors their brand is not only creating but also reacting to — and they need us to help them navigate. And often even predict what the future will bring. How will this social campaign perform? Will reporters like this story? What’s the next audience we need to target?
That’s why as marketers and communicators we must find ways to watch the indicators. A year ago, nobody thought that an all-black cast could carry a superhero movie. Now, “Black Panther” has made more than $1.3 billion worldwide. Marvel was smart — it read the signs: a critical and cultural fascination with black stories and black perspectives on colonialism, the involvement of black literary icons Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay in the Black Panther comic series, and Warner Bros’ 5x investment multiplier on Ryan Coogler’s previous film, “Creed.” Looking back it seems inevitable.
Reading indicators is a tricky business. Paying attention to the mainstream media and understanding your influencers will get you far, but it’s important to remember that mainstream media is created in part by political and PR influence. The message we hear the loudest is not necessarily the signal in the noise. To understand what’s coming next, we need to look to other industries, pop culture and art. One reliable place to see the future? Hip-hop.
WHAT BRANDS CAN LEARN FROM HIP-HOP
Artists and musicians aren’t beholden to the same messaging requirements as brands and media (although brands and media often look to contemporary artists and musicians to help craft their narratives). Hip-hop has always been future-forward, and some brands have thrived by aligning themselves with hip-hop culture. Think Gucci, a traditionally white luxury brand that was embraced by early hip-hop tastemakers. Gucci parlayed that into cultural cachet — it’s now the most namechecked brand in hip-hop, and its name is synonymous with luxury clothing.
Hip-hop is having an interesting 2018. Kendrick Lamar is the first nonclassical or jazz artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. Kanye — a living example of the kind of cross-discipline trend-watching I’m talking about — is in the headlines for tweeting about philosophy and shoe design (and, regrettably, politics). But my personal favorite is Janelle Monáe.
Janelle Monáe’s latest album, “Dirty Computer,” which comes out on Thursday, feels like the future. It nods to pop and hip-hop of the past (particularly Prince, of whom Monáe is a disciple) while still feeling contemporary, expresses a fluid gender identity (Monáe is rumored to be involved with actress Tessa Thompson), and drenched in sci-fi imagery — flying cars, neon and chrome.
“Dirty Computer” feels very of its time, but what is it signaling? Generation Z’s embrace of gender fluidity? Geek culture and science fiction’s integration into hip-hop? I’m not sure yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing its effects ripple through my Instagram feed any day now.