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Months before Lil Pump’s raunchy single “Gucci Gang” went platinum and spawned what’s sure to be a classic Saturday Night Live skit, high school junior Jonathan Mondragón discovered the rapper on Instagram. Pump’s designer wardrobe, assortment of tattoos, and rainbow dreadlocks instantly intrigued the student — all before he’d heard a word of the rhymer’s imminent hit.
“I like his style, Gucci; it fits him well,” Jonathan says. “His hair is nice, too. It’s colorful.”
Both Hispanic, male, and roughly the same age — Jonathan is 16, Pump is 17 — the teens are worlds apart when it comes to their access to high fashion. At Jonathan’s Downtown Los Angeles high school, 94.5 percent of students are categorized as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” by the California Department of Education. Still, some of his peers manage to pay for clothing from streetwear brands like Supreme or Bape, Jonathan says. But Gucci is high fashion. The polo shirts Pump shows off on his Instagram cost roughly $800, out of reach for the average middle-class kid, let alone teens from low-income households. The fact that Pump, née Gazzy Garcia, is himself a teen makes the clothing he wears, and its costliness, significant to his young fans in a way that Jay-Z rapping about Tom Ford could never be. While Jay-Z is old enough to be their parent, Pump could be a friend. As such, his clothing carries as much weight as their classmates’s, and the reality that it’s completely out of grasp is all the more evident.
In some ways, the young rapper’s embrace of fashion reflects tradition in the music genre. Rappers have served as unofficial brand ambassadors since hip-hop’s onset, plugging Kangol, Puma, and Adidas in the 1970s and ’80s. Today, though, emcees are peddling more expensive brands than ever, from Cardi B’s salute to Louboutins in “Bodak Yellow” to Pump’s “Gucci Gang.”
While other rappers shout out brands in songs, Pump has gone a step further, making his love of designer brands the core of his identity as an artist. He’s tattooed Gucci symbols on his body and floods his Instagram with pictures of himself in the brand. And “Gucci Gang” isn’t his only track about high fashion. There’s also “Designer,” and his new single, “i Shyne,” is about the bling on his neck. Although Pump’s fashion worship has undoubtedly earned him cred with teens, pop culture experts warn that it makes kids crave an unattainable lifestyle and that the rapper is doing himself a disservice by fanning out for a brand that has yet to return the favor.
Jonathan’s classmate, Edgar Juárez, says that until Lil Pump released his slurry ode to Gucci, he hadn’t heard of the label. But neither boy resents seeing someone their age rocking such expensive clothing. They only have admiration for Lil Pump’s fashion fixation.
“I think he’s pretty cool, the way he dresses,” Edgar says. “I like his hype beats.”
If he were in Pump’s position, Jonathan also would be decked out in designer clothes, he says.
“I would have done the same thing.”
The fact that the teens feel admiration for the well-dressed rapper rather than resentment does not surprise child psychologist Allen Kanner, PhD, who co-wrote the book Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World. He says young people are no different from adults who ooh and ahh when they see actresses clad in luxurious gowns and jewelry at events like the Academy Awards.
“People don’t criticize them,” Kanner points out. “They wish they could be like that.” He adds that many rappers come from impoverished backgrounds, and if young fans with similar upbringings see them in designer gear, they may strive to purchase it as a way to transcend their own circumstances. Their mentality is, “If I could have this product that’s associated with all of this success, then I’m going to be able to join this world,” he says. “I’ll feel better about myself.”
Some rappers feed their fans this message by presenting expensive clothing as a measurement of their achievements. Take New York rapper Princess Nokia: In December, the former foster youth posted a picture of herself on Instagram in Gucci sweats, along with a message describing how she’d made $1 million by age 25. “Thank you, God, for allowing my blessings to manifest into being a powerful, successful women of color,” she wrote. Her approach may be more humble than Pump’s, but the message is the same: Wearing Gucci signals that one has made it.
People of color may be especially receptive to such messages. A 2007 study called “Conspicuous Consumption and Race” found that blacks and Latinos spend about 30 percent more on visible items such as cars, clothing, jewelry, and personal care goods than whites do. Whites, in contrast, spend more money on food, furniture, entertainment, education, and healthcare, the study found. The researchers suggested that blacks and Latinos may spend more on conspicuous items to mitigate their “random, anonymous interactions in society and not for status forthcoming from interaction with friends, family members, or colleagues.” In other words, looking good isn’t as much about keeping up with the Joneses as it is about buffering the prejudice they’re likely to face. And seeing a rapper from humble origins overcome socioeconomic obstacles, with the clothing to prove it, can be intoxicating.
But Jawn Murray, a television journalist and pop culture commentator, wants young people to know that smoke and mirrors may be at play when they see their favorite rappers in luxurious clothes.
“A lot of these brands aren’t accessible to a lot of the artists selling the lifestyle,” he says. “They may really be robbing Peter to pay Paul. I think even those who are in the new money category should be conscientious. Countless artists, MC Hammer being the most famous, have ended up overspending or mismanaging their money. Some of these artists should resist high-end goods instead of flaunting them.”
Jayneoni Moore, a celebrity stylist for more than 15 years, says that when kids see entertainers in designer duds, they definitely want to emulate them. Some may be able to cough up enough cash for an accessory from a luxury brand.
“They may say, ‘Let me save up enough money for a Gucci belt, even if I’m putting on my Target jeans,” she says.
In fact, Jonathan says some of his classmates have scrounged up enough money for Gucci slides, which can be found online for $210. But all too often, Moore says, kids who can’t afford any designer products, even a keychain, turn to counterfeit goods — a problem since knockoffs have been linked to gangs, terrorism, and human trafficking. Like Murray, she advises teens not to take what they see entertainers wearing too seriously. Lil Pump posing in picture after picture in Gucci is simply his way of chest-thumping, Moore suggests.
“I think he wants to be flossing,” she says. “‘Look at me, my money, my cars, my girls, trying to rock all the designers. I’m a rapper; this is who I’m supposed to be.’ That mentality is all about sending a message to his community, to his followers. All these rappers want to be the next big thing, so they rap about Tom Ford or Givenchy.”
Gucci, she notes, is a great designer to wear if one’s goal is conspicuous consumption. While a celebrity could spend thousands on Balmain or Givenchy, their fans likely wouldn’t recognize that they had on haute couture. With Gucci, everyone knows because of its prominent branding, she asserts.
Even in the 1990s, rappers indulged in high fashion; Notorious B.I.G. loved Versace and COOGI sweaters. But Moore says that during this decade, she’s especially seen rappers, R&B artists, and athletes take a keen interest in luxury clothing. Gone are the days when the hip-hop community flocked to streetwear brands.
“It’s part of the initiation process,” she says of high fashion. “They don’t want Sean John; they want to be seen in Gucci, Tom Ford, Givenchy. That’s what the rappers and the athletes want to be seen in.”
Rappers, of course, aren’t the only entertainers with a hankering for the high end. Last month, actress Taryn Manning told TMZ how unhappy she was that her stylist put her in a $200 Adrianna Papell gown for the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“It’s whack that my stylist didn’t tell me that,” she said. “But now everyone else can afford it; that’s what’s cool about it, but it still sucks for me. I want to be in, like, a superstar gown.” Manning later apologized on Instagram, but still insisted, “Every artist dreams of wearing couture on a red carpet, if given the opportunity.”
Kanner says such attitudes contribute to the nation’s consumer debt crisis. NerdWallet’s 2017 American Household Credit Card Debt Study found that consumer debt in the US now totals $905 billion, almost an 8 percent increase from 2016. Also, the average US household with credit card debt has a balance of $15,654, according to the study. And teens aren’t immune to consumer debt: A 2015 CreditCards.com study found that credit card users ages 18-20 have an average balance of $611, not an insignificant amount if they have a low-wage job and school or housing expenses as well. In recent years, the Credit Card Act of 2009 has helped cut down on teen debt by requiring anyone 21 and under seeking credit to have an adult co-signer or proof of income. Given the rising consumer debt in the US overall, however, Kanner says young people need messages to counteract materialism, specifically the idea that consumption will make them happy. He says kids will get jobs and spend their money on a fad rather than on something sensible because of marketing.
“Teenagers’ brains are still developing, being manipulated by very sophisticated adults who study them and monitor all the changes in pop culture,” he says. “They take those changes and find people, like rappers, and use them to spontaneously sell products to teenagers by association. That’s been going on for years.”
Neither Gucci reps nor Lil Pump’s management responded to Racked’s requests for comment for this story. But Moore says that all too often luxury brands have no intention of supporting hip-hop artists and their fans, making it unwise for rappers to give any brand a stream of free advertising, as Pump has done for Gucci. Murray echoed Moore’s concerns.
“A lot of the younger artists, when they get into business, they have that new money syndrome,” he says. “You’re making more money, you have more access to things, so you start wearing the consumer brands you always dreamed of wearing. Sometimes that works, and other times you’re publicizing and promoting a brand you may not be an ideal demographic for. You’re giving them free commercials, and there’s no return.”
While Chanel and Louis Vuitton have collaborated with Pharrell Williams and Guess with A$AP Rocky, Gucci may never enter into a business partnership with Lil Pump. The fact that he’s underage and routinely raps about illicit drug use doesn’t help his case, nor does his misogyny or liberal use of the N-word. The Florida-born rapper has not confirmed his ethnicity, but fans have said that he has Mexican and Cuban heritage; it’s unclear if he has any African ancestry.
A rapper’s reputation matters if they desire to partner with high-end fashion brands, Murray contends. A company is not going to forge a relationship with an artist that will cause stockholders to retreat, he says. “There is an intersection for hip-hop artists to meet fashion if they do want to partner with higher-end brands, but they also have to be conscientious.”
And if an artist is a bit too raw for the likes of luxury fashion, he can always take matters into his own hands, like Kanye West, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and a number of others have.
“I think what happens is that when artists mature, you notice a lot of them stop promoting a product unless they have a specific business partnership,” Murray says. “We’ve seen so many launch their own fashion lines. They figure, ‘If there’s this much value in my brand as an artist, why am I not capitalizing on that?’”