Editorial: Issues of AgencyAugust 23rd, 2013 by fuckinyeh
Agency has become a big word for me over the past year. Having engrossed myself in discussions surrounding perception and representation, my understanding of the way meanings are formed has become stronger and more complex. When one talks of somebody – be they an individual, group or otherwise – as an agency, they are referring to that being’s ability to act and perform within a situation. For every word that I transmit in my agency, there is another agency at work in the person hearing the words. For example, I think of a cat and say the word ‘Cat’. The person I am talking to then hears the word ‘cat’ and their mind processes it to produce the notion of ‘cat’. We transmit, our message travels, and it is received and decyphered. Ergo, meaning belongs not only to the transmitter, but is also in fact a universal and co-operative process.
The other week I had my attention drawn by Ollie D to at-shirt by the brand Eleven Paris on ASOS.com. In a similar style to celeb-wear brand Hype Means Nothing’s “finger goggle” t-shirt series, Eleven Paris has produced a collection of t-shirts featuring the faces of celebrities, sporting the well-known ‘finger-moustache’ tattoo across their lips (see: Will Smith version).
Various celebrities have been appropriated in the series, including Lenny Kravitz, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson and Marvin the Martian. Conceptually, it is indeed almost identical to Hype Means Nothing’s productions, but there was an element of these t-shirts that really stuck in my throat. I saw many agencies at work, and began to question for what reasons.
One of the biggest issues that arose for me was how many of the images used in the brand’s designs are well-known or iconic images of the star in question. A quick inspection of their website shows pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Wiz Khalifa, Iggy Pop and Barack Obama that I know are already widely publicised. Alarm bells instantly go off in my head about whether these images have been sourced legally and responsibly, but unfortunately I doubt I will be able to answer to that question.
The problem gets trickier though, when one then realises that many of the photographs being used have clearly been edited, with the moustache-adorned finger being pasted over the star’s image. Even if the person who took the photograph is aware of their image’s use and being appropriately compensated, what about the agency of the stars and celebrities whose images and identities are being manipulated? Is Barack Obama aware that his official imagery has been re-appropriated to make him look like a goofball? If representing these people in such a way was such a foolproof idea, why did the brand not just contact these individuals and ask for their involvement? How long could it take for Wiz Khalifa to pose for a photograph with his finger outstretched?
Unfortunately, my frustration didn’t stop there. Rather, it compounded when I came across the following iconic images of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, playfully ‘reimagined’ by Eleven Paris.
I was initially frustrated by the complete lack of restraint. You know, the ‘is nothing sacred?’ type bullshit that we all get when something precious to us is violated. The problem was, this kind of got deeper and deeper the more I thought about it.
See, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls never really got that much respect from the Mainstream Society when they were alive. Ever since N.W.A. first confused White America with that line about another day being ‘another nigger dead’, Gangster Rap has been unapologetically dismissed as ignorant and detrimental by people who were never in a position to fully appreciate the sentiments expressed within – of course people blame rappers for glorifying gun violence, they just won’t consider the few centuries beforehand that never set those men up for better things.
To put it another way, there were plenty people to attack B.I.G. for ‘robbing motherfuckers since the slave ships, with the same clip and the same .45’, but not so many people asking what was in his head when he told them, ‘I want to go to hell, ‘cus I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fucking tell’. Mainstream society as an agency is at liberty, by virtue of its dominant position, to pick and choose the discourses that it wants, and rappers have always had the negatives of their genre exaggerated while the reflective depth is widely ignored. That’s why you’ll always hear people dismissing Waka Flocka Flame as ignorant and stupid, but they’ll never ask why dealing drugs is so synonymous with ‘eating’ in his lyrics – his agency as a transmitter pales in significance next to the agencies of News Stations and Public Figures who ‘know better’.
Tupac and Biggie are tragically gone, and as such they are only able to represent themselves now through their music, and that’s only if somebody chooses to listen. Shopping their images with jokey tattooed hands – and a White one, at that – is a hideous example of the marginalisation of their own representations when you consider the narratives within their lyrics. Now take a look at the slogan beneath their photographs.
‘Life is a Joke’.
Okay, well no, erm… yeah. So two of Black America’s most prominent voices; two of hip-hops most revered lyricists; two of the black youth’s most potent channels of expression against the mainstream’s portrayal of their culture, both of whom were killed in cold blood, both of whose deaths have never been properly investigated or solved, placed above a slogan that reminds us of the folly of life. Tupac once said, ‘I see no justice. All I see is niggas dying fast, the sound of a gun blast, then watching the hearse pass.’ Likewise, Biggie told us, ‘I’m living every day like a hustle. Another drug to juggle. Another day, another struggle.’
The slogan that Eleven Paris has placed beneath these men goes to completely contradict the very message of their own agencies and legacies. Life was not a joke to Biggie or Tupac. It was a struggle. It was a struggle that they tried to relate to the world through their lyrics, and incidences such as this show how unable or unwilling to listen so much of the world was – Eleven Paris obviously acknowledges them enough to use their images and accompanying ‘brand power’ to sell a product, just not enough to actually consider the content of their art and respect their agencies by remaining representative.
Once the severity of these two violations had sunk in, it became much easier to see how utterly misguided so many of these t-shirts were, especially flying over that horrible tagline; Johnny Depp, former owner of the Viper Lounge where one of his closest friends died of a Speedball overdose; Marilyn Monroe, a woman whose most famous utterances tell a story of a woman who used the patriarchy that tried to keep her down as the fastest route to the top; James Dean, the perpetual poster child of mindless ‘re-appropriation’, forever a victim of his own death, no longer tragic but iconic and ‘badass’. At times you feel as though his death was nothing more than a public service to the pop culture canon.
There have been many brands that have trodden the fine line between homage and exploitation. Supreme’s Hells Angels t-shirt from a few seasons back supposedly led their NYC store being visited by a large group of angry bikers. A quick search for ‘Biggie’ on Urban Outfitters will give you a reel of alternative representations of the rapper, from ‘Party + Bullshit’ to ‘The Notorious P.U.G.’ (I know).
The problem is, a lot of people have the ability to notice these violations, but seem only to do so in all of the wrong places. Every time a fashion brand comes out with a piece of clothing in blue or red paisley, there’ll be a hundred comments talking about how someone will be shot in a gang neighborhood, but nobody willing to talk about why gang culture is still so prominent in some parts of society. Someone will remind us that the folks buying these expensive clothes don’t hang out in gang neighborhoods, but nobody will question the implication that people from these neighborhoods might never progress from the environments that they’re trapped in.
Mainstream Media has made us experts in drama and conflict. Every episode is the most explosive yet, and each series will be bigger and badder. If there’s a dichotomy of any kind, you can bet your sweet ass it’ll be a ‘battle’ or a ‘crisis’. We all want to be ‘Us’, and we all hate ‘Them’. And yet, despite all of this, we have been taught and trained to ignore these problems whenever it really matters. ‘Real Life Issues’ has become an ingredient to good television, while the ones on our streets are sadly ignored.
It’s important to consider what is happening when people’s stories are represented by third-party agencies. It’s important to ask where, when and how people actually have the right to manipulate representations like this. Unfortunately, the more we start asking ourselves these questions, the more we are going to learn that we don’t have the right at all. For the guy that wants to make clothing that will connect with people, this might mean necessarily having to dig a bit deeper when researching designs, or keeping their hands off altogether when entering a territory that simply isn’t theirs. For mainstream labels, whose main objective is to appeal broadly, sell quickly and maintain profit margins, this means learning that you can’t just pick and choose the imagery and representations as and when they suit you.
Unfortunately, you’ll rarely convince somebody in a comfortable chair that it would be better for everybody if they stood up. By the same token, it’s not likely that the dominant forces in society will sort their act out for the negative impact on the little guys. That’s the way of the world.
But next time you buy a t-shirt, ask yourself who is getting paid, and then ask yourself why. And finally, stop telling me how great Breaking Bad is. I don’t care how accurate the science is, and I don’t care how many sarcastic quips Malcolm’s dad makes nowadays. Most guys cooking meth on the streets don’t have moustaches, and they definitely don’t have Chemistry degrees. Think about it, please, and stop telling me to ‘just enjoy it’ when there are so many people in the real world that can’t.
Gregk writes regularly at his own website, Fuckin Yeh.