The Rise of the Black Hipster

What happens when the hybrid hipster culture hits black America?


Hipsters. They’re everywhere. You’ve seen them on skateboards, in the mall and at the club. You’ve seen them shrugging dismissively in Oakland, Calif., Willamsburg, Brooklyn and Austin, Tx. And, suddenly, in Barack Obama’s Washington, too. Recently, I encountered Hector, a teenager skateboarding with friends outside a McDonald’s in downtown D.C. He’s wearing a neon T-shirt, impossibly skinny jeans, and a bored expression. So, are you a hipster or what? “Man, no,” he says. He does not care much for labels. Can he have a cigarette?

Hector is black. And these days, if you spend enough time in Union Square in New York City, Gallery Place in Washington or even Brick Lane in London, you know that there are thousands more kids just like him—black, white and brown. What gives?

By now, the traits of hipsterism are easily recognizable to culture vultures: Hipsters are white, urban, occasionally privileged, attitudinally earnest and functionally alternative. They live life at the intersection of Pabst Blue Ribbon and day-glo leggings—worn with irony, or maybe not. They listen to indie darlings like Pavement, or anthem rockers like Arcade Fire. Maybe even a little Wu-Tang. Everything obscure is good; a headband on some longhair of a man; a waifish girl sporting several thick gold chains.

The hipster—torn between ironic, “who cares if I’m wearing a tracksuit” detachment and the exhibitionism required to perform the trend—is complicating traditional ideas of identity and sexuality. And this lifestyle is all the more striking when the kids mixing white-boy silhouettes and post-punk swagger are already culturally conspicuous—when they are black.

So just what is a black hipster—a “blipster” or “alt-black”? Like many recent cultural trends, this one straddles race, politics, fashion and art. For the purposes of discussion, we’ll stick with men (though I have seen some Flock of Seagulls-looking black females out and about of late). As Lauren Cooper, a Howard University graduate who admits to an indie lifestyle, puts it, “It’s probably easier to pick out a black male ‘blipster’ than a female.”

Simply put: The racial archetypes that had defined the last 15 years of masculine street style have given way to a radically new aesthetic. Gone are the extra-long T-shirts, saggy jeans and Timbs long favored by young black men. They haven’t swapped them for the mopey, emo tees once favored by young whites. Rather, urban youth of all colors now rock snug pants, bright, oversized graphic tees, spotless vanity sneakers and hats with brims flatter than Kansas.

And a skateboard, too, if you can hack it. More than anything, these black hipsters are the “Kick, Push generation. Just as “swagga” has gone mainstream, the racially ambiguous fashion statements of Lupe Fiasco, Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. or black skateboarder Steve Williams have become a prominent urban aesthetic, from mallrats in San Diego to grown men in Chicago.

Say what you will about the blipsters and their crazy tastes—but we should have seen it coming. Black folks have had plenty of role models when it comes to edgy style. Dwayne Wayne, a character on A Different World and one of the earliest templates for today’s blipsters, wore flip-up sunglasses without irony. Black rockers like Prince laid the track for musicians such as Brooklyn-based TV on the Radio, singer Kelis, who famously “screamed on a track” or even hip-hopper Jim Jones, who’s partnered with fairy-funk act MGMT and once declared himself “too fat to fit into those skinny pants.” And don’t forget the sheets, diapers and hot pants worn by Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire. 

In short, blipsters are proof that everything old is new again.