The idea of “consciousness” has an annoying stigma attached to it. You think pineal glands, yoga, and your woke friend Tien and his energy crystals. But consciousness in this context holds an entirely different meaning. For one, it was vital in shaping hip-hop into what it is today.
If you study hip-hop’s adolescent years, there’s a distinct subgenre of “conscious hip-hop.”
Which was pretty much just hip-hop that had socially conscious messages in it.
That term isn’t as widely accepted nowadays. It’s rejected by several popular hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli, Homeboy Sandman, and Vince Staples. Times change. Definitions grow outdated. But a clear distinction of “conscious” music was important early on.
The conscious agenda initially pushed by KRS-One, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D and others was a necessary and beneficial step in the evolution of hip hop, diversifying, maturing, and cementing it as a vital part of global culture rather than a self-contained phenomenon. First in contrast with the B-Boying and block party-centric nature of early rap, then as a respite from the gangster wave of the late ’80s and early ’90s (mostly imitators of the somewhat conscious N.W.A.), the movement sprung up in times when it felt like an alternative to the dominant style of the day was needed.
Now what the hell is the conscious agenda? Off to Wikipedia we go.
Conscious hip hop, or socially conscious hip-hop, is a subgenre of hip hop that challenges the dominant cultural, political, philosophical, and economic consensus, and/or comments on social issues and conflicts.
Modern conscious hip-hop efforts are incredibly diverse, and incredibly popular. It’s as relevant as ever with our social and political turmoil in America.
Kendrick Lamar, a mainstream hip-hop artist with powerful meaningful lyrics, dropped the hottest rap album of 2015. To Pimp a Butterfly was packed to the brim with sociopolitical messages, and it was unapologetically black.
Conscious messages have gone fully mainstream. And they’ve grown so integral to hip-hop that being labeled “conscious” is restrictive. It compartmentalizes artists. Trap artists can have meaningful messages, and conscious artists can make party music. Hip-hop has blossomed into a complex personality, and consciousness is just one aspect of it all.
When socially conscious messages were first emerging in hip-hop, streetwear followed suit. It was a natural fit. The streetwear movement was built by the same groups of people, alongside hip-hop out of the streets.
Streetwear used to carry an impressive amount of social commentary. Designs that commented on social and political issues, commonplace struggles, and the state of the world. Conversation pieces that were often uncomfortable, but made you think.
Where has it all gone?
Streetwear as a movement has exploded in popularity, and it’s diversified like no other. Modern streetwear encompasses so many new elements now it’s near impossible to define. But ironically enough, one of the key elements present in the beginning is nowhere to be found: socially conscious messages.
With its propulsion into the mainstream, streetwear’s core problems were never addressed: its obsession with status and self-validation. This deeply rooted insecurity issue was only magnified when hip-hop went mainstream. Successful artists now had purchasing power. Streetwear is no longer a voice for the unheard, but a means for the herd to be more heard.
Like hip-hop, streetwear’s fanbase has expanded and diversified dramatically over the past decade. It’s no longer a minority. They’ve both achieved global mainstream appeal, especially with younger generations. Half of the people who attend Kendrick Lamar concerts are white suburban kids. They really do vibe with his music and message, and most are active proponents of his ideas.
That’s because of the age we live in today. The proliferation of information and ideas through the internet, alongside a new digital era of activism and social justice. It’s never been so easy and so cool to care about social issues.
But streetwear, the global millennial phenomena, has hardly anything to say on the issues. Considering the movement’s reach, its newfound demographic, and the environment we live in nowadays, it’s awfully strange (and mildly discomforting) its lack of socially conscious messages. Not only that brands rarely provide it, but because we as consumers don’t see a need for it.
Or maybe we do.
424 Fairfax, an LA streetwear boutique, dropped their own collection, Post Apocalyptic Gardening, in late 2015. A controversial release based wholly on police brutality. The “We’re Here to Help” design went viral partly due to being worn by Kylie Jenner, but it’s a powerfully relevant statement and a strong design at that. The innocuous text juxtaposed against police decked out in riot gear begs conversation.
The “Make Amerikkka Suck Again” design by Ev Bravado is another one of my favorites; it’s skillfully done. It was released in mid 2016 by Everard Best. The piece has been adorned by Joey Bada$$, who wore the crewneck in a photoshoot for his single, Land of the Free. A politically charged ballad in lieu of America’s political turmoil.
More so than one-off releases is the brand, Noah NYC, created by Brendon Babenzien, who was design director of Supreme for over a decade. But Noah is nowhere near the Supreme knock-off it was expected to be. It has numerous conscious messages embedded into each drop, with a thorough description of meaning for practically every piece.
He’s extended his social commentary so far as to explicitly share his disdain for President Trump through his brand’s Instagram. Even offering to refund any merchandise purchased by a Trump supporter in full.
Political correctness be damned.
And as the icing on the cake, one of the legendary conscious brands of the early 90’s, Cross Colours, actually reopened their doors in 2014. The brand with the motto, “Clothing Without Prejudice.” Maybe they‘re trying to seize a market opportunity, or they’re just distraught by the state of the world. Either way, it’s exciting to see some sort of resurgence of the early movement.
Whether these examples are anomalies or are indicators of change on the horizon, it’s hard to say. Explicit, controversial messages are always the first to gain media traction regardless. But it’s safe to say we can refer to these as “conscious streetwear.”
Consciousness at the level of modern hip-hop, as an integral aspect of streetwear, is a long ways away. But hopefully not too long.