Hip-hop -- the clothing, not the music -- has taken a beating lately.
The evidence was there Tuesday night in Detroit, when the city's scandal-plagued "hip-hop" mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was reelected, but only after renouncing his affection for hip-hop and dramatically removing his signature diamond stud.
It was apparent in the opening days of the professional basketball season as players arrived for games wearing sport jackets instead of oversize T-shirts in compliance with a newly instituted NBA dress code.
The fashion industry embraced hip-hop style as a kind of classic, in-your-face urban sportswear, making millions of dollars selling baggy jeans to suburbia and high society. But unlike other trends -- hippie chic, punk rebelliousness -- that long ago severed any connection to their origins and became pure aesthetic gestures, hip-hop remains inextricably and problematically linked to its gritty, aggressive beginnings.
Basketball players who previously favored baggy shorts, sneakers and large, diamond-studded medallions while engaged in league business have gamely put on collared shirts and dress shoes. They have not exactly shown themselves to be the most elegant in their style choices, but they've proved themselves capable of putting on a corporate costume.
The dress code, which has been described as "business casual," essentially bans players from wearing the traditional markers of hip-hop(do-rags, sneakers and the like). It is not meant, for example, to discourage players from celebrating Western style, if that, for some reason, should be their preference. Apparently Western shirts, cowboy boots and belt buckles the size of Frisbees would be just fine, although to some eyes -- those who never found good old boys particularly endearing -- no less unattractive or distressing.
Four years ago, Kilpatrick became the youngest mayor of Detroit. Only 31 at the time, he had the swaggering attitude that is so much a part of the hip-hop ethos. Most notably, he wore a significant diamond stud in his ear. The earring became an issue during that first campaign, when polling revealed that women of a certain age had a negative opinion of it. So he removed it. After winning the race, he reclaimed his favorite accessory.
By the time Kilpatrick turned his attention to his reelection campaign, his administration was scandal-plagued and facing questions about exorbitant personal expenditures bankrolled by the city. He was behind in the polls. He was called immature. So with great solemnity, he announced he was removing his earring for good. It had become a distraction, he said. No one could focus on his plans for the city's future. Folks were obsessed by that diamond and its reference to hip-hop's affection for flash. It had become a powerful symbol of the mayor's negative image.
On Election Day, while politicians such as New York's Michael Bloomberg and Virginia's Timothy Kaine went to the polls in suits or sport jackets, Kilpatrick showed up in a dress shirt and a vest that buttoned high on his chest with lapels that reached nearly to his shoulders. It made him look like the lost member of the Temptations. It was not his finest aesthetic moment, but it was more Motown than Compton.
With the earring gone, Kilpatrick claimed victory over challenger Freman Hendrix.
The fashion industry would have one believe that the power of hip-hop style -- its ability to intimidate, to raise racial hackles -- has been diluted. It's just "edgy" -- often unattractive -- clothing. Sean Combs's Bad Boy millions have gained him entry to the clubby world of Seventh Avenue designers, the pages of Vogue, the selling floor of Bloomingdale's and the fragrance labs of Estee Lauder. Giorgio Armani invited rapper 50 Cent to sit in a front row seat at his recent spring 2006 runway show. Tommy Hilfiger built his brand on the backs of rappers and their tough guy image.
Hip-hop style has always been defined by crotch-grabbing machismo, confrontational displays of wealth and unnerving swagger. The fashion industry thought all that had just become part of an elaborate marketing plan. But young black men who aspire to success would do well not to believe the sales pitch. In front of a general audience -- corporate NBA fans, voters -- hip-hop style, even when worn by millionaires and incumbents, still signifies trouble.