Black Ain't Fashionable: Barneys, Jay Z, and the Muddled Voice of Genre

Black Ain't Fashionable: Barneys, Jay Z, and the Muddled Voice of GenreImage via AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Written by Justin Charity.

Last week, when it was reported that the NYPD had detained a black teenager from Queens for splurging on a Ferragamo belt in April, the general reaction of many readers seeing the story was something like a resigned sigh. Thoughts along the lines of "It’s 2013, and shit like this is still happening, because of course it is," weren't uncommon. There was disappointment, chagrin, but no surprise. Only fools and those turning blind eyes could possibly believe this incident of racism was an isolated event in the fashion industry.

 

Jay’s initial response this past weekend wasn’t concerned with (alleged) racial profiling so much as it was a defense of Jay’s brand.

 

As the news broke of Trayon Christian’s perilous purchase from the flagship Barneys store, Complex was among the first to spotlight the coincidence of Jay Z’s holiday-season collection partnership with Barneys, set to debut November 20. And while many hip-hop fans hoped that Jay might publicly denounce the department store’s flagrant foul, if not dissolve his partnership with Barneys all together, Jay’s initial response this past weekend wasn’t concerned with (alleged) racial profiling so much as it was a defense of Jay’s brand:

“I move and speak based on facts and not emotion. I haven’t made any comments because I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys. Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately? The negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration have forced me into a statement I didn’t want to make without the full facts.”

It's a practical defense, bordering on sympathetic. (Oh, Jay: never change.) Sure, we’ll grant that granular details of the case are muddy, but in the meantime, facts only:

  • After making a purchase at Barneys, police singled out a customer, questioned him on his consumer habits and income source, and subsequently detained him for being too fly.
  • Despite a sitting African-American president's reelection, blacks in the U.S. are broadly weary of how they’re regarded by society.
  • Beyond retail, of course, the NYPD disproportionately physically scrutinizes thousands of blacks and Latinos each year for the supposedly riotous acts of standing and walking through New York City.

Today, Reverend Al Sharpton meets with Barneys CEO Mark Lee, along with other civil rights activists and community leaders, to begin an internal investigation after this flare-up.

Apart from corporate mega-deals and glad-handing with the Obamas, most of us know Jay Z as, at once, a rapper and a capitalist pioneer. When he sparred with iconic civil rights activist Harry Belafonte earlier this year, Jay notoriously proposed that his “presence” is, itself, his greatest charity. He went further, suggesting that his flow is a gift of inspiration, aspiration, and such. 

But regrettably, in the case of Trayon Christian, what Jay’s statement lacks is a sort of commiseration akin to what we’re used to hearing, a la "99 Problems," in his music—a commiseration that we’re used to hearing from Jay Z, the rapper, if not from Shawn Carter, the million-dollar cursive on the dotted line, the cautious mogul flanked by lawyers and accountants. 

 

There was a time when hip-hop would have told Barneys to fuck off. Indeed, there was a time when Jay said as much to Cristal...

 

There was a time when hip-hop would have told Barneys to fuck off. Indeed, there was a time when Jay said as much to Cristal, when the brand’s managing director, Frédéric Rouzaud, dissed hip-hop’s embrace of the champagne brand. Jay Z, then president and CEO of Def Jam, regarded Rouzard’s comments as racist and launched a boycott of the brand. That was in response to an uncouth interview quote, mind you. But that’s the influence and unique positioning of hip-hop in the new century: commercial might and cultural prevalence that owe foremost to
fans like Trayon Christian, who meant to cop a $300 accessory based on a style cue from Juelz Santana. 

Hip-hop currently occupies a particular moment when "Black Skinhead" can both lambast the establishment and reference Malcolm X while simultaneously selling Moto X phones. The question then: How does hip-hop straddle its dueling outlooks, between Kanye’s visceral distrust of all the suits in the executive suite, and Jay’s stealth mission of locking down more seats at the table for black excellence like himself? Jay might attribute much of his success to quiet moves through boardrooms governed by vultures, but apart from any one mogul’s success, hip-hop is still a culture and genre that’s absolutely accustomed to calling reality as it's seen by those living it—whether it’s splashed on the front page of the Daily News, or written off by politicians as statistical fate.

The peculiar case of Trayon Christian is, as Jay notes, a developing story. The rush to unravel a lucrative partnership won't necessarily atone for the foul of one Madison Avenue cashier. But there’s a broader reality that Jay—and Diddy, and Dre—might acknowledge just a little bit louder in their meetings with the elites of luxurious industry: that hip-hop, as a palate of black and brown realities, isn’t merely an aesthetic ripe for appropriation.

The culture is the fans, many of whom look like Trayon Christian. If you’re dapping Jay Z for credibility, it’s not too much to ask that you welcome his legion hometown fans to your checkout counters. Especially considering that, please believe, black buying power is on the rise

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Tags: jay-z, barneys, racial-profiling, nypd
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