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Straight outta context

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I wonder if anyone at any point in the idea’s development stopped and thought, “Hey, maybe referencing a rap song that promotes gang violence and murder, and adopting a uniquely hip-hop / culturally black symbol for promoting a university student union isn’t exactly the image we’re trying to create for ourselves.”

That’s fairly close to what I immediately thought upon gazing at UFV’s student union’s new ad campaign posters, “Straight Outta SUS.”

N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton — the album that the posters take form from — was released in 1988, and largely contributed to the creation of the gangsta rap subgenre. It was a significant incarnation of the lived experiences of black Americans in the 1980s. According to Bryan J. McCann, assistant professor of rhetoric & cultural studies at Louisiana State University, the album “constituted a watershed moment in black popular culture that coincided with the devastating consequences of austerity, surveillance, and scapegoating associated with this period.”

The genre is an expression against the system that exploited and ghettoized black Americans, but is also notably marked by unashamed misogyny, pseudo-gang life, and a fascination with violence. This is why referencing the album, as a stylistic choice for the posters, seems not quite on brand.

The intent of any advertisement is to connect with an audience, and the posters’ content states their goal is to hire to their team. We know content doesn’t constitute the entire message, so what is it then?

A quick read of the poster might lead to an interpretation where “Straight Outta SUS” positions the Student Union Society as a type of Compton. Some might take offence to this because of the cultural relevance. But obviously the pastiched phrase isn’t meant to suggest an “in place of” reference, otherwise the student union would be likened to a ghetto. Not to say Compton is a bad place, I’ve never been. However, situated in the N.W.A. / Straight Outta Compton context, it symbolizes black ghetto violence.

Equating the student union to a high crime rate city would be unfavorable. There must be more intention here. Being that the posters give homage to a pop culture symbol, perhaps it’s an attempt to reify nostalgia. Considering that, it actually references the album on multiple levels.

Loren Kajikawa, professor of ethnomusicology and musicology at the University of Oregon notes that the genius of the album was the way it “manufactured a narrative” of Compton, and centred N.W.A.’s identity within it.

What N.W.A. successfully did was tap into America’s love for racialized entertainment, and teased white America’s pervasive fears about gang violence.

Kajikawa adds that the group essentially created a brand of rap “that moved from third-person descriptions of street life to first-person portrayals of the gangstas themselves.”

Eazy-E and the boys distinguished themselves from other musicians as authentic, the real deal, by rapping about the nature of gang life in Compton, and strongly built their image on being from Compton. In essence, they invested in the currency of authenticity.

Richard Peterson, in “In Search of Authenticity,” defines authenticity as “a claim that is made by or for someone, thing, or performance, and is either accepted or rejected by relevant others.”

In the same way that N.W.A. likened themselves to being legit or from the streets, using the image of Compton they created to also define themselves, the poster’s intention is perhaps to denote grassroots legitimacy, or a sense of “we’re like you.”

But the symbolism has two implications: the original messaging used by the album was intended to portray authenticity to the listening audience, and that image was hardcore. It is the case then that the poster’s anachronistic iconography attempts not to compare the student union to a ghetto, but instead to liken the poster’s speaker to its constituents: We are one of you, as fellow appreciators of culturally relevant symbols.

It is neither the rap or the Compton that is indexed, but the idea of associating with what society has constructed as an important icon. I would suggest that for most viewers it isn’t even the album that is indexed, merely the sentiment.

In a sense, this takes the original album’s marketing technique of establishing authenticity, but through the use of referencing the album itself. However, where the album uses a created identifier of authenticity, the poster attaches itself to the implied nostalgia of the album.

Noting that, the SUS posters are to be taken as a self-presentation of authenticity, and not in any way a comparison or likening to the album’s cultural identity. Unfortunately, it still co-opts hip-hop. The problem with nostalgia is the nostalgia mode, as identified by Fredric Jameson. Eventually the nostalgia text spirals into itself until the signifiers exist with no recollection of what was actually signified.

But I guess this is the era of a constant recycling of cultural experiences, and the commercialization of recycling of cultural experiences.

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