The Hiphop Soda Pop Shake-Up

Is Rap vs. Pepsi a New Step or 'Same Ole Two Step'?

The February 12th agreement between corporate giant Pepsi and the B-boy lobbyists of Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) to head off a Hiphop-led boycott may have inched Hiphop culture closer to fulfilling its promise as the spiritual successor to the civil rights and black power movements, but it remains to be seen whether this situation will form a bedrock for Hiphop's crystallization into a viable political force.

A possible boycott was sparked recently by the perception of double standards when the cola company tapped geriatric rocker Ozzie Osbourne, the foul-mouthed dysfunctional dad, and his family as endorsers after dropping rapper Ludacris on the grounds that his image is raunchy and sexually explicit. It appears, though, that Hiphop has been cast in the same plot as its predecessors, and only the soundtrack has changed.

The whole affair has been a back and forth song and dance that would outstrip the glitziest Hiphop video. It all began last year when right-wing rabble-rouser Bill O’Reilly began a campaign against Pespi on the grounds that it was "immoral" to have Def Jam recording artist Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris, as its spokesperson, urging his listeners to "fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse, and does all the things that hurt particularly the poor in our society."

In response to the resulting pressure from O’Reilly’s constituents, Pepsi dropped Ludacris from its marketing campaign, then went on to debut spots with Osborne and family during the Superbowl, sparking charges of hypocrisy. HSAN demanded an apology and threatened to boycott Pepsi if corrective action was not taken. According to Minister Benjamin Muhammad, president and CEO of HSAN, as the deadline for the boycott approached, Pepsi brass sat down with the HSAN and hammered out a verbal agreement, thus alleviating the threat.

But once the details of that agreement were made public, O’Reilly renewed his assault, and Pepsi issued a statement on his show that appeared to contradict the agreement. HSAN then proceeded to move forward with a press conference to announce a boycott, and another truce was reached in the 11th hour. "Ten minutes before we were to depart to go to the press conference we received a signed written document from Pepsi laying out the verbal commitment they had made," says Muhammad. "We went on with the press conference and rather than announcing the boycott we announced that we had received a signed written agreement from Pepsi."

The terms have yet to be finalized, but HSAN spokesperson Jody Miller says: "We know that they are going to give a million dollars a year for three years and that a steering committee is going to be formed made up of members of Pepsi, the HSAN and the Ludacris foundation to decide where those monies are going to go, but that steering committee is still being formed; the charities are still being researched."

Pepsi however, continues to do tap on a tightrope between rap culture and the mainstream, downplaying the significance of the partnership. They claim that they gave nothing except the opportunity for HSAN and the Ludacris foundation to help direct some revenues to grassroots organizations in what PepsiCo spokesman Larry Jabbonsky told The Los Angeles Times was "just an extension of our long-standing commitment to community relations and to urban marketing."

All of these shenanigans have left numerous unanswered questions. What is the ultimate significance of this episode in terms of Hiphop’s emerging role as a political power player? Was this just a textbook case of corporate shakedown that will only benefit Hiphop's better-positioned elite? HSAN’s chairman, fashion and media magnate Russell Simmons, says the action was not about Ludacris losing his endorsement deal, but to challenge the hypocrisy in subsequently hiring another personality that embodies the same elements that were objectionable in Ludacris. Simmons says that it was a campaign for respect and maintains that he did not gain any compensation from his involvement in the deal. Ludacris, who will still not be doing any more commercials for Pepsi, although HSAN maintains they were offered, does not receive any funds from the deal either.

"When Ludacris was dropped my response was I went and bought a beverage company," says Simmons. "I didn’t give a fuck. Ludacris didn’t care; they paid him. He went home. Everybody was fine. The answer was: if you don’t want us, we don’t want you. It’s not a problem. The problem came up with the inconsistency."

Activist/Writer Kevin Powell, founder and chairperson of the grassroots Hiphop Speaks organization, agrees with Simmons’ motivation. "Anyone with half a brain knows that the Osbournes are an incredibly dysfunctional family and are more foul-mouthed than many Hiphop heads," says Powell, "yet they get embraced by mainstream America, including cultural tastemakers like Pepsi. This sort of corporate hypocrisy does need to be challenged because Hiphop America is a serious marketing force, and some of us now realize we have the ability to boycott folks if they do not respect us and our buying power, and if these corporate entities continue to practice double standards."

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