Year

2018

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of the Arts, English and Media

Abstract

The contemporary hip hop MC faces a commercially powerful and globally established hip hop culture. To be successful in this field requires a distinctive brand, deployed across multiple media types. Within the hip hop culture there is a 'conscious', or socially engaged, style that emphasizes communal identities and is in tension with the imperative to develop self-branding in a neoliberal era. This thesis aims to show (a) how selected artists construct their own personal brands as 'conscious' performers, and asks (b) whether self-branding limits the political critique of the 'conscious' artists.

The thesis examines the self-branding activity of three politically engaged artists: Ladi6 (Aotearoa-New Zealand), Urthboy (Australia), and K’naan (Somalia-Canada). The process of self-branding includes management of online videos, websites, social media, live performance, cover art, costume, body movement, recorded hip hop tracks and merchandise. As I show these personal brands draw on national and gender roles such as the White Australian larrikin, the Pacific beauty, and the African poet.

The personal brands of these performers also make use of ideas that recur in hip hop: references to violence, displaying awareness of the socially disadvantaged, speaking out to assert pride and hope in one's community, and endorsing universality or 'oneness'. Public political critique by the selected 'conscious' artists includes their comments on the treatment of refugees, the objectification of female musicians, and the need for alternatives to poverty and war. However, the models of political work used—such as charity singles, being a 'respectable' role model, or allying with corporate brands to create the appearance of a global celebration—all deflect attention back to the MCs' brands, rather than to the causes they support. This limits the impact of their political messages.

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