Be Like Hip Hop

A recently released photo of a young Shawn Carter aka Jay Z by Timothy White, 1988

Recently I was a keynote speaker at Communications Week in Canada and gave a talk called “Diversity Done Right”. I didn’t come up with the title and, to be fair, it was only supposed to be a placeholder until I dreamed up something better. But it did set the bar pretty high and that had me a little shook. After all, I’ wasn’t even certain there's a definitive answer to how agencies could do “right” when it comes to diversity. And even if so, I wasn’t so sure I was the one with the silver bullet answer.

Throughout my career in advertising, I had witnessed plenty of missteps when it came to diversity. Although I started out in General Market, I spent the majority my tenor in the Multicultural arena. I yearned to elevate the level of creative and bring a younger, inspiring and relevant voice to the space. It seemed like a simple plan; create dope work that honestly reflected and celebrated the best of Black and Latino culture - just like the music, art, and sports I interacted with on the daily.

Yet here I am, 20 + years later, campaigning for an industry to pivot down a path that would surely benefit it. The stats are glaring -the country is getting browner by the day, pop culture is inextricably linked to the influence of Black culture, and white supremacists are losing their collective minds. One would think that an industry who’s very survival depends on it’s ability to understand, critique and mimic cultural trends would be the first one to embrace and champion this shift. Yet, the reality is strikingly different.

My advice to the industry on how to do diversity right was simply this -“be like Hip Hop.” No, not rap music. Not Kanye West. Not any singular person or image of the word that first pops into your mind. Hip Hop, the 40+-year-old subculture whose roots and lineage go back a century. Sure- music is the loudest expression of it (which recently took over Rocks position as the most consumed music genre), but not the only one. Fashion ( Virgil Abloh, Dapper Dan, Kanye West), sports (Serena Williams, Lebron James, Allen Iverson) the art world (Khinde Wiley, Swiss Beats, Basquiat), film (Black Panther, Get Out, Janelle Monae) ...these industries have been touched by the influence of this culture and the people whose perspectives are informed by it.

A proof point for the industry to emulate the behaviors of Hip Hop is one steeped in the fact that, by design, it is in a constant state of evolution and reinvention. The music takes old songs and remixes it. The fashion reimagines luxury to imitate streetwear. Its rebellious nature mandates that you zig while the rest zag. Drake disrupted all of popular music when he made rap hits with a sensitive male voice celebrating women. All without losing his street credibility -something previously unheard of.

On top of that, Hip Hop is also hyper-capitalistic. It revels in the idea of self-empowerment, manifest destiny and economic achievement. Its on the brink on producing multiple billionaires (Jay Z, Puffy, Dr. Dre) its created new brands (Fear of God, Raycon, Revolt), revitalized older ones (Adidas, Cadillac) sports organizations (Roc Nation Sports, Big 3)... In short- it’s a marketer's wet dream. The only color it sees is green. Just ask Eminem.

But the one critical point the industry misses time and time again, is that Hip Hop is viciously protective and self-governing. It despises leeches, vultures and bottom feeders. Authenticity is it’s lifeblood and has a built-in kill switch for anything that wiffs disingenuous. It mandates that if you want to ride, you have to have people who are of the culture steering. It is one of the most brilliant moves that the architects of Hip Hop had the foresight to do. Not only does it protect the art form from being bastardized, but it creates opportunities and positions of power for future generations.

Ad agencies will do anything to avoid changing the rank and file from the top down. It guards the C Suite offices to the detriment of its own clients and bottom line. It will go as far to start internship programs and make efforts to hire people of color in junior and middle management positions. Ironically enough, many of these top-level positions are to helmed by South Americans, Australians, Brits and South Africans. But Black and Latinos? Clearly that’s going too far. Shame. Because in truth, the only way to BE LIKE Hip Hop, is to BE OF Hip Hop. The people at the top who come from the culture are the ones who can create the atmosphere and bring on the staff to create authentically out of this culture.

When I helmed Spike Lee’s Ad agency, Spike DDB, for 7 years, my mission was to be as true and reflective of our story as I possibly could. We created some of the most groundbreaking and riveting work of my career and in our client’s portfolio. I’m very proud of that time and my team because we set out to do something I often doubted could be done- get the industry to hear our voice. I’ve since realized, the ad world needs people like us more then we need it.

I’ve now set my sites on the tech world. A sector riddled with many of the same challenges and arcane behaviors as Advertising. New game - same mission. Who wanna ride?

Dabo Ché is a speaker, storyteller and entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, NY.