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In Hip-Hop, Is All Publicity Actually Good Publicity?

A revision to the classic adage is overdue.
Bhad Bhabie, Kodak Black, 2019

Over the past week, a viral video has been circulating across social media, depicting Haiti Babii, an emerging rapper from Stockton, California, adopting, let’s call it, an avant-garde approach to a freestyle he performed for Los Angeles radio hosts, Bootleg Kev and DJ Hed.

Sounding a bit like Young Thug if he were tripping on salvia, the freestyle is undeniably entertaining, funny and perplexing in equal measure, but far from what most people would consider an aesthetically pleasing piece of music. 

“Bro wtf is this???” read the caption of the video that blew up on Twitter. Judging by the 14,000 retweets and 50,000 likes this tweet received, it seemed clear people were laughing at Haiti Babii rather than laughing with him.

Predictably, as is so often the case with viral phenomena, it only took a day or so for the pendulum of public opinion to start swinging in the opposite direction. Leading the charge of this reappraisal was American model and author Chrissy Teigen, who tweeted, among other things, “[the] first 20 times I watched this I was crying laughing. Views 20-45 I decided it made me so happy I can’t even make fun of it.” 

On May 8, Swae Lee, one-half of Rae Sremmurd, took up residence on this hill as well, tweeting an impassioned defense of the freestyle that focused, surprisingly, not on its entertainment value, but on its redeeming qualities from an artistic perspective:

The quality of the freestyle aside, a turnaround of this magnitude in just three days—from widespread ridicule at the hands of the general public to praise from one of contemporary music’s best songwriters—is undeniably impressive. Whether it was worth being the laughingstock of the internet for a few days is hard to say, but for what it’s worth, Haiti Babii doesn’t seem to be the least bit bothered by any of the mockeries he’s been on the receiving end of. If you visit his Instagram page, it’s clear he has leaned into the meme head first.

On some level, Babii must know the comic shelf life of his freestyle will expire shortly, but the thousands of new followers he’s gained on social media, the cosigns of people like Swae Lee, and the curiosity he’s aroused regarding his music will potentially linger for longer.

Zooming out slightly, the overarching lesson here is that building a platform in today’s saturated hip-hop landscape is objectively more important than the methods one leverages to do so. If an artist's ultimate goal, as I'm sure Babii's is, is to build a lasting career in the music industry, then the choice between listeners placing an asterisk beside their name in light of an embarrassing viral moment and listeners not knowing their name at all is quite clear. 

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Worst case scenario, even if Babii is never able to escape the shadow of the meme he's become, at least his brief moment in the spotlight will give him the opportunity to try. There's little cause to celebrate not being pigeonholed if no one knows who you are. 

Meanwhile, the speed of the news cycle has an uncanny way of fogging up peoples' memories of these fleeting viral moments regardless, so in most instances, there's little to lose by leaning in. Case in point: look no further than the ascendance of Bhad Bhabie, once known exclusively as the "Cash Me Outside Girl." 

Bhabie's rap career started off as a joke, universally lambasted as a cheap and problematic ploy to capitalize on her dying fame, yet as she continues to release one begrudgingly catchy song after another, she is gradually beginning to shed the gimmicky connotations that have followed her around to this point in her career. This isn’t so much the opinion of a fan—I’m personally indifferent to her music—as it is a fact. Racking up almost 4.5 million plays on Spotify each month, it’s undeniable Bhad Bhabie has benefited immensely from her outsized platform, even if it once seemed to be built on a foundation too unflattering to transcend.

Admittedly, these aren’t exactly groundbreaking observations. The cliché expression, “all publicity is good publicity,” long predates the formation of hip-hop, but I’d argue that the timeline of hip-hop's rise coinciding roughly with that of the internet has made these impacts feel far more pronounced. When we refer to “publicity” in hip-hop—or any aspect of contemporary popular culture—we’re not talking about something that is controlled by a select few gatekeepers, we’re talking about a crowdsourced narrative, over which the artists themselves—depending on the size of their platforms—possess a great deal of control.

Following outdated modes of thinking, the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” would suggest hip-hop publications are to blame for propelling Kodak Black to his current standing as Spotify’s ninety-fifth most streamed artist because the frequency with which his reprehensible behavior is covered keeps his name in the headlines. Yet, anecdotally speaking, we know this isn’t the case, because we’ve also seen publications wield the potential to undercut an artist’s popularity by covering them negatively as well. If all publicity was indeed good publicity, no one would ever be “canceled.”

In truth, Kodak Black’s popularity exists entirely independent of traditional media. Early in his career, he built an immense platform, which he leverages to great effect to promote himself to a fan base of people who couldn’t care less that he’s an alleged sex criminal, a documented peddler of harassment, or an all-around garbage person

All most hip-hop fans care about is whether his music slaps, and as long as he can convince them it does, his career will thrive. A third party service might step in and try to de-platform him, but as we saw with Spotify’s failed attempt to remove documented abusers from its promoted playlists last year, any half-measure in this direction will undoubtedly be met with backlash.

With all of this in mind, a revision to the classic adage is overdue. In 2019, it’s no longer accurate to say, “all publicity is good publicity.” Rather, any platform, if sizable enough and operated correctly, has the potential to be greater than any traditional publicity an artist will ever receive.



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