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.”
HSAN’s assertion that the cause of the soda pop face-off was disrespect rings true with New York Daily News critic-at-large, David Hinckley. “There’s no doubt Hiphop is still incredibly disrespected and regarded with a mixture of ignorance and fear by much of the media world,” says Hinckley. “I think a fair number of white kids and fans have some appreciation for Hiphop, because it’s done a remarkable job of breaking down barriers—just as jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll did before. But that appreciation hasn’t always trickled up to those who have access to print and broadcast media.”
University of Southern California Professor Todd Boyd, the main academic advocating that Hiphop is the heir apparent of previous prehistorically black movements, says it’s more than just misunderstanding. “It’s deeper than cultural insensitivity. It’s Pepsi responding to what they consider to be a strong constituency. Pepsi obviously feels that the audience for the O’Reilly show is a valuable audience and they don’t want to offend them, so they act in accordance with that. It’s market driven,” says Boyd. “They ultimately decided that [O’ Reilly’s] audience was more important to them than the audience Ludacris represented. It’s market driven but at the same time there are some obvious racial connotations there that can’t be denied.”
However, Boyd is uncertain if this action will become a major point along the timeline of Hiphop’s political development. “Let’s assume that they did boycott,” says Boyd. “I don’t know how much ultimate difference it would make in the long run. What happened was something that needed to be addressed. First of all, O’Reilly shouldn’t have this much power. Secondly, Pepsi should either pay attention to what they do when they hire people to represent them or not cave in to what some asshole with a TV show has to say . . . I don’t know if the animosity that was suggested towards Pepsi indicates a new civil rights movement. It simply suggests that people in the Hiphop Generation have organized around an issue and were potentially ready to challenge that issue.”
Activist Rosa Clemente of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement thinks that the whole debate is moot in the larger context of the socio-economic struggles of the Hiphop nation and in light of the basic implications of our government’s foreign and domestic policies. “Pepsi’s not the issue. Can we talk about domestic issues right in urban communities that affect the Hiphop generation?” asks Clemente. “We’re losing sight of that and our kids are suffering on the street. We’re under siege in our communities by the police. Brothers are getting shot and killed left and right and it’s not making any type of news.” Clemente thinks that if Hiphop is to boycott Pepsi, it should’ve been because the company hasn’t come out against the war, not because it dropped Ludacris.
Hinckley offers a similar observation. “I think there’s some value in hip-hop activists asserting themselves and standing up for the art. It can’t hurt to have them there. But the fact that a commercial endorsement lies at the heart of the particular controversy probably dilutes its impact,” Hinckley speculates.
Simmons agrees that there are more important issues that challenge the Hiphop nation but asserts that in organizing a youth culture movement with limited resources, HSAN has not been able to tackle everything that it wants. “With young people you have to lead them with what you can get them to move on,” says Simmons. “A campaign for respect is what [the confrontation] was about. It had nothing to do with Pepsi. It’s about respect and three more million dollars in the community was not bad. It’s payment for lack of respect.”
Essentially most pundits assess the entire situation as ludicrous itself, especially O’Reilly’s demonizing Ludacris into the role of the Devil incarnate. “Ludacris to me is like a Mickey Mouse rapper,” says Vibe magazine music editor Serena Kim, who is concerned that the action may not translate to anything meaningful on the grassroots level, which HSAN says it’s working to assure. “He’s not a danger or a menace to society.” Simmons sees Ludacris as being about as harmful to society as the movie “Animal House.”
“The whole context of hiphop, where it came from and the things it says, so far transcends the specific language of a line here or a song there,” says Hinckley. “And an O’Reilly, of course, doesn’t want to have the larger debate because he’s experienced enough to know where his winning turf lies.”
As for the where this dance is leading Hiphop, HSAN has moved on to joining the voices of opposition to war with Iraq and Simmons pledges that a portion of his gross revenues from his new beverage DEF CON 3 (“It’s a smart energy drink.”) will fund the work of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network. In that respect Simmons has diverged from traditional empowerment models that seek to merge or influence existing power structures by creating his own. Even though the performance remains the same, political salvation lies in Hiphop gaining expertise in improvisation.