The year 2023 marks Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary, where various documentaries have highlighted this simple truth: Hip Hop culture is American culture.

Yet, against the backdrop of this celebration, the founder of Rolling Stone Magazine, Jann Wenner, remarked that women and Black artists were not ‘intellectually articulate enough’ for his consideration in a recent New York Times interview.

His comments bring into sharp focus how his way of thinking likely impacted ‘Rolling Stone’ and other industry media during his decades of leadership.

The convergence of these events made me reflect on my own experiences, both as a music fan and a former designer in the music merchandise industry. I saw a big difference in the treatment of black and white music artists, and I too, was part of the problem.

Early Red Flags

This discrepancy first caught my attention as a teenager in the 90’s pouring through my favorite pop culture magazines. Rolling Stone magazine was one of them.  I couldn’t help but notice that the illustrations depicting popular black artists (if they were even showcased at all) were largely unflattering and arguably racist in comparison to the white rock artists, always depicted as rock deities and royalty.

This initial observation planted the seed for a personal art project that has spanned over two decades, dedicated to celebrating the legendary entertainer, Janet Jackson.

As I made the transition from those teenage years to start my career in music merchandise design, I encountered the industry’s racial dynamics directly, but I didn’t fully grasp the extent of it right away.

5 panel collage of various Janet Jackson illustrations by Aimee Stevland
art tile for

Classic Rock Legends get a Hip Hop Remix

Fast forward to a mid-2000’s design campaign to revitalize the merchandise offering for a legendary rock band gearing up a major marketing push. 

A world-renowned rap artist was on board to remix one of their classic tracks. The band’s management had wisely recognized that the hip hop collaboration could provide new relevance to the aging rock band.

As the creative director for the project, there were various challenges. The band’s frontman had passed away tragically at a young age, leaving very limited imagery to work with. After years on the market, it seemed like every stoner, psychedelic head shop interpretation had already been exhausted on the band’s existing apparel, leaving their offering outdated and stale.

I appreciated the band’s music and their place in musical history, but my personal taste gravitated towards R&B, Soul and Hip Hop, which set me apart from most at the company.

I could already envision how the remix would breathe new life into this classic track, and that got me thinking — why not also give these old visuals a “remix”;  incorporating hip hop and street art aesthetics.

The design approach was very successful with the artists, with retailers and with the fans, and it eventually spread across an even wider list of rock bands looking for a similar refresh over the next few years. (Hold on, I know, I’ll get to the appropriation part in a second.)

Confronting Uncomfortable Realizations

In my quest to revitalize that band’s imagery, I leaned heavily into aspects of black hip hop culture and streetwear.  As I delved into the project, designing what seemed like the 50th shirt for this artist, a nagging thought weighed on me —why are there SO many of these shirts out there when I can’t even find a single one featuring my own favorite, Stevie Wonder?

Now realizing I had been contributing to the appropriation of this culture on behalf of white artists. I began questioning why legendary black artists like Stevie Wonder or James Brown were not equally regarded in ‘classic’ merchandise offerings, despite being just as relevant, if not more so, in the current musical landscape thanks to sampling in Hip Hop.

Now, the contrast was undeniable, and my growing frustration led me to create a proposal to the executive team challenging them to advocate for more representation of legendary black artists on our merchandise roster not only to honor a broader scope of music, but to recognize a diverse audience (including myself) that was being underserved in the marketplace. In other words, highlighting a blind spot towards better business.

My efforts were met with the loud and unwavering refrain: “Black Artists Don’t Sell.”

I won’t repeat what came after that, but I came away questioning myself, thinking that perhaps I was unfairly reacting to a small piece of the bigger picture. After all, they had access to all the financial records, all the data, so surely they knew better, right?

Screenshot of a line chart depicting the popularity of music genres over a timeline.

Good Enough To Prop Up White Artists, but…

How is this possible when R&B/Hip Hop are consistently dominating the charts for most of the 2000’s?

It was deflating to see just how deeply ingrained this myth was within the industry, perpetuating the cycle of unequal treatment. I saw first-hand how the lack of resources invested in the projects of black artists often led to their underperformance. That performance would then be used as a justification for withholding future support.

In hindsight, I understand that my vantage point may have been limited by my status at the company, but leadership’s was limited by choice.  It’s not a stretch to imagine that these executives share the same limited musical interests and opinions as Jann Wenner.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t bring about the desired changes at the leadership level. But, I made it my personal mission to support the few R&B artists that came through our pipeline. Ensuring they were assigned a designer who truly understood and appreciated the genre became my responsibility. Due to limited budgets, that designer was usually me.

Equality and Respect IS Good Business

It’s ironic how we were so quick to appropriate elements from black culture to revitalize white artists, yet we continue to fail to recognize and value those legendary black artists themselves. Sampling and hip hop have breathed new life into all kinds of music, making it appealing to younger audiences. Still, when it comes to giving credit and opportunities to the original pioneers of these cultural movements, we refuse to bring the same energy.

Over a decade removed from that experience, I’ve only seen incremental change. The last time I checked my local Hot Topic, I only found about 4-5 black artists old or new represented in the shirt display.

Some artists have been able to take their offerings online, but the dominance of a few powerful companies can make it difficult to break through. Their control creates significant challenges for anyone outside “the club.” If they actually make it to the inside, they’re likely to get second-class treatment as many of those same executives still hold various leadership positions in the industry.

Advocating for Change

All in all, navigating this experience left me with some insights to share, with the hopes to incite conversations for more awareness, and action towards breaking down these deeply embedded norms.

Document Your Experiences: Keeping a record of your encounters with biases, discrepancies, and challenges can serve as a tangible record of the realities faced in your work. It can also serve as a valuable tool to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Had I been more diligent about this, I may have been more effective in my own efforts, but maybe you can make the difference.

Challenge Assumptions and Biases: Don’t shy away from questioning assumptions or biases, even if they come from leadership. Your unique perspective can uncover blind spots and lead to more inclusive and equitable decisions.

Advocate for Diverse Representation: Push for the inclusion of people from underrepresented backgrounds in projects and discussions. By advocating for more diverse voices, you can honor the contributions of these creatives and serve a new market.

Rock and Soul Tees

Inspired by my experiences and a hope to challenge these outdated industry practices, I founded ‘Rock and Soul,’ a t-shirt brand dedicated to celebrating the rich legacy of black music. Through ‘Rock and Soul,’ I aim to provide enthusiasts of R&B, Hip Hop, and Soul music the opportunity to wear THEIR musical heroes and cultural references proudly. It operates under the premise that celebrating musical legends through original illustration and design is a form of homage and cultural commentary, protected by the principles of fair use and the right of parody.

Most importantly, any proceeds are donated directly to organizations fighting against white supremacy, underscoring my commitment to meaningful change and equality.

It’s beyond time to debunk the myths and break the bias to honor and compensate the influential black artists who have shaped music and culture as we know it  – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s actually good business.

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