We all know that Kanye West has an ax to grind with corporations—specifically with some of the major fashion houses and how he thinks they’re trying to sabotage his attempts at launching a high-end clothing line. He thinks he’s experiencing racism and celebrity-ism, saying that because he’s a musician—and a hip-hop musician at that—clothing designers are pigeonholing him into a certain box and aren’t taking his talents at face value. He’s ready to burst through a glass ceiling and the Louis Vuittons and Nikes of the industry are not trying to see that happen.
Then there’s Damon Dash—Jay Z’s former business partner. He’s been on the press circuit in the past several months blasting the “culture vultures” and “culture robbers” that he says are sucking the blood out of hip-hop culture. Dash called out executive guys like Lyor Cohen and Steve Stoute, who, Dash believes, hook up artists with inauthentic branding opportunities that only end up hurting the artists’ brands, and by extension, hip-hop culture. As an example, he cites Mary J. Blige, who was practically laughed out of town after her Burger King ads ran in April 2012. Many people—including Blige herself—felt strongly about their genre being appropriated to peddle greasy fast food in a way that felt a bit like shucking and jiving.
While West’s and Dash’s concerns are a bit different, both of them reflect the ongoing tension between art and commerce. Both men are battling age-old questions: As an artist, how do you “keep it real” and profitable? How do you stay true to your craft and identity, but maintain a healthy bottom line as you veer into other markets? How do you convince executives to take you seriously—especially if the movers and shakers in a particular industry are predominantly white and aren’t used to having African-American collaborators, let alone leaders?
Two professionals in the art world who noticed artists grappling with these questions created a course in New York City aptly titled, How to Play the Art Game Without Sacrificing Artistic Integrity. It’s taught by art curators Amani Olu and Larry Ossei-Mensah—co-founders of the Medium Group, an organization “that helps brands and artists navigate the art world.” If West were a student in their class, he might ask, “How do I get the fashion industry to support and take my efforts at launching a high-end line seriously?” And Dash might ask, “Am I wrong for promoting the independent movement and raging against these corporate partnerships that don’t understand or respect our culture?”
Here’s how Olu and Ossei-Mensah might advise West and Dash:
1. It might take 20, maybe 30, years for your work be perceived as a formidable high-end fashion line with staying power.
It’s not that West hasn’t shown he’s dedicated to fashion and has the talent to develop a competitive clothing line. It’s just that he seems to think that his success in the fashion industry will come in the same way that his success in the rap game did: he’ll find a back door into it by becoming a highly sought-after producer, developing a solid rapport among industry leaders, climbing on tops of tables to show executives that he’s passionate, and a couple of years later, getting a life-changing deal, like he got from Dash and Jay Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records back in the day.
But in the fashion world? Eh, not so fast. Sure, he’s got some of those elements in play today. His back door into the fashion game is his music résumé and celebrity, he’s got close friendships with some of the most influential, creative fashion directors in the business and his version of hopping on tables is doing avant-garde press interviews about how fashion executives won’t kiss the ring. But Ossei-Mensah and Olu explained that West needs to accept the fact that the fashion industry doesn’t exactly work like the music industry: “The fashion industry is waaaay more complicated,” Ossei-Mensah stressed.
Ossei-Mensah points to designers like Valentino, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors—all men in their late 40s, 50s and early 80s who came into the industry just as wide-eyed and bushy tailed as West, and had to work tirelessly over the course of a few decades to be mentioned among the greats. This is especially true for West, who doesn’t want the run-of-the-mill clothing lines that Hollywood celebrities typically put out. He wants a line comparable to Ralph Lauren, Polo, Prada—which will likely take a boatload of patience, trial and error and humility—which brings us to the next point:
2. Work on being constructive.
Everyone may wish that more industries were a true meritocracy, but unfortunately, Ossei-Mensah explained, it doesn’t work that way in fashion.
“I’ve been to their trade shows—the business is controlled by a handful of people,” he said. “You get on somebody’s wrong side and they can be like ‘We don’t need you.’”
It’s a catch-22, because Jay Z and some of Dash’s other former artists likely benefited from Dash getting all up in people’s faces back in the day, demanding a bigger budget to shoot music videos and promote an album. But all of that bravado and negativity make people not want to stick around. Olu suggests that artists argue and disagree constructively. In fact, if you know your value and the value of your craft—something that Dash does a good job of stressing—then most of the time you can avoid those arguments. Speaking of which …
3. Know your values and proceed accordingly.
“As an artist, you need to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ five times,” Ossei-Mensah said, because when artists know their values and know what principles they’re committed to, they’re going to make better decisions that won’t undermine their brands.
Dash seems to have a solid understanding of the kind of product he likes to put out, and if he feels that a corporate sponsorship will sully that brand, then he’s well within his rights to forgo that route. However, it’s not appropriate to group all corporate sponsorships together because some of those deals help artists in creative or financial ways. If one of an artist’s core values is to not associate with a brand that does not respect black culture or hip-hop music—something that irks Dash—then it is the artist’s responsibility to cherry-pick collaborations that align with his or her ideals.
LL Cool J was able to put FUBU on the map when he wore its fitted hats in that Gap commercial. These kinds of partnerships can go both ways. And contrary to that widely held belief, earning a lot of money as an artist doesn’t cheapen your craft or make it any less authentic or illegitimate:
4. The “authenticity” argument is played out.
Now, here’s where Ossei-Mensah and Olu disagree. Ossei-Mensah uses Alicia Keys’ partnership with BlackBerry as an example of a deal that was “off-brand” for her. Shortly after the announcement was made that she would serve as the phone carrier’s creative director, she sent a tweet using an iPhone. That role obviously wasn’t congruous with her lifestyle, Ossei-Mensah explained. Also, he says that Keys is not exactly a tech person.
“You don’t look to Alicia Keys for tech cues,” he pointed out, and went on to say that the partnership didn’t make sense for Keys’ art and brand. The same with Blige’s Burger King commercial. The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul needed to be doing ads for Chanel, Ossei-Mensah opined. “All money is not good money.”
Olu, on the other hand, says that an artist’s decision about how he or she chooses to make money shouldn’t affect how his or her art is perceived. “I don’t care about how people get their money,” Olu said. “I’m going to judge Mary J. Blige on her music and her albums.”
5. Do your work, and sometimes quietly.
Yes, West has done his due diligence in the fashion world, but both experts stressed that he needs to continue to work on his craft and consider doing it quietly. Olu explained something that sometimes goes unnoticed when art is created:
“When you release art into the world, whether you are a writer, making a painting, a furniture designer, et cetera, it typically takes people awhile to come around to a new type of aesthetic,” he said. “All new art is typically ugly.”
Both West and Dash should know this from personal experience. Dash got several doors slammed in his face when he and Jay Z tried to peddle Reasonable Doubt to major music labels. In fact, that’s part of the reason they created their own record company. West, on the other hand, needed to convince music labels that his non-gangster image and lyrics would do well in rap music. Now, he's the godfather of this new wave of rap artists who are super-artistic, introspective and value high-end, avant-garde fashion.
That lyric on West’s first album about how he created “five beats a day for three summers” needs to be reapplied to his fashion grind, Olu said.
“He needs to be patient, and he can’t feel so entitled,” Olu said. “Anyone in the aesthetic business knows that art is something that you hone in on and develop over time. A couple of collections doesn’t put you in the canon.”
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.