Are hip-hop and corporate America headed for a divorce?

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Hip-hop and corporate America have maintained a relatively healthy marriage over the years, but recent debacles between brands and their musical associates suggest a divorce could be looming in the near future. At the very least, a more restrictive pre-nup is in order.

In the past month, the iron fist of big business struck down on rappers to satisfy public outcry. Rick Ross lost his contract with Reebok over a date rape lyric; Mountain Dew similarly dropped Lil Wayne for a line in one of his songs slandering Emmett Till; and Tyler the Creator’s latest digital advertisement for the soft drink was removed after it caused uproar over offensive messaging.

While theses differences of opinion may not completely dissuade brands from signing endorsement deals with rappers moving forward, some marketing executives feel they will inspire stricter contracts.

“When you’re looking at potentially partnering with an artist, every brand needs to know there is inherent risk,” Patience Ramsey, Vice President and Account Director of Sponsorships at Translation, tells theGrio. “As a brand, you have to know what your trigger points are and what’s acceptable and what’s not. If you haven’t thought about that, and you jump into a relationship with an artist, you may be caught off guard…I don’t think these instances are going to make hip-hop artists untouchable to brands, you just really need to make sure that when you’re looking at the type of artist you want to partner with, there must be some kind of shared values system in place.”

Why rap still sells

As a company embedded in hip-hop branding, Translation was founded by Steve Stoute, former manager of artists like Nas and Mary J. Blige, who introduced rap to its commercial spouse by identifying trends in consumerism and linking them directly to hip-hop stars.

Ramsey feels the success of current projects like Translation’s work matching Jay-Z’s Made in America tour with Budweiser, now in its second year, indicates there will not be newfound resistance from brands to align with hip-hop artists simply due to relevancy.

“We believe that brands that lead culture are infinitely more successful than brands that follow culture,” she says. “There may be a time when a brand needs to tap into hip-hop culture to move the needle.”

Mixed messaging makes a difference

If recent controversies don’t change how brands relate to artists, they have already affected the way the public reacts to brands.

When Reebok dropped Ross from his contract in April, for instance, there were those who wondered why he had even been signed in the first place. By no stretch of the imagination is the rapper a mark of athleticism, and while he carries clout in a materialistically-driven consumer culture, his catalog of music is anything but virtuous.

Of course, Ross’ fan base and target market supports his felonious ideology, so it begs the question who exactly Reebok was responding to when they discontinued their partnership.

“It was an obvious move on the part of the brand, but I didn’t think it was a smart move,” comments Riyhana Bey, Director of Client Services at Spike Lee’s advertising agency, Spike DDB. “Brands tend to get in business with artists, and then the first time there is a scandal, one incident that happens, their first reaction is to drop the talent.”

Accordingly, Bey expresses reservations with hasty judgment calls.

“It seems to be an issue around morality and one line in a song, however when you look at Rick Ross’ body of work, he’s not an artist that represented a lifestyle that was completely squeaky clean,” she says. “So it was okay for him to talk about being a drug dealer. It was okay for him to talk about guns and shooting people, and glamorizing that lifestyle. In fact, his name Rick Ross comes from Freeway Ricky Ross, which is one of the biggest cocaine dealers in the country. So it was okay to support an artist that glamorized that lifestyle, but it’s not okay for him to have one line about date rape that he apologized for? I think that’s selective morality.”

Bey played a part in the deal between Chris Brown and Wrigley, which ended in 2009 over the singer’s domestic dispute with Rihanna, and feels it should be criminal behavior or going against character that merits an artist’s dismissal from a brand.

“If you hire talent to appeal to a specific audience, then you drop the talent because some other audience is upset with them, those two things aren’t adding up,” she observes. “You hired Rick Ross to appeal to the hip-hop community, to appeal to the youth community. You hired Rick Ross to make Reebok cool again. So, for those people, were they upset about it? Or was it a group of middle-aged people who took a reaction to it, who often attack hip-hop for a number of things?…Those people are probably not going to buy Reebok, and not going to move the brand and the business. Otherwise, you would have signed a different artist.”

Answering to the public

With the public putting so much energy into lobbying against Ross, Wayne and Tyler, corporations heeded their demands swiftly.

Even with apology statements from Ross and Weezy, public dissatisfaction overruled artist leverage when it came to these corporate decisions. Such a reaction sets a precedent, says Bey, which reflects poorly on the brands, not the artists.

“[These companies] are being overly sensitive because they’re not sure what direction they want to go in as a brand,” she suggests. “If you look at a brand like Nike: Kobe gets accused of rape, they don’t drop Kobe. They stand behind him. They ride the whole thing out because you know what Nike stands for? Nike stands for signing the best athletes in the world. Signing those people that are at the top of their game. Same thing happened with Tiger Woods. Tiger has issues with infidelity. He has to come out and apologize. You don’t drop Tiger Woods…They stood behind his imperfection as a man because of his perfection on the field, on the court as an athlete, because that’s what Nike stands for.”

“So what does Reebok stand for?” She continues. “What does Mountain Dew stand for? If you don’t know what you stand for, then anytime somebody starts criticizing you, you start pulling out of stuff before you think about why you got into it. Why did you sign Rick Ross? That’s the question people should be asking. Not why aren’t you dropping him; why did you sign him?”

A match made in commercial heaven

Though hip-hop and corporate companies may be experiencing a rocky patch, the bond between the two has certainly proven strong and fruitful over the years. Run-D.M.C. set the pace when they made Adidas the shoe to flaunt in the 80’s, and MC Hammer has been lauded as creating a “blueprint” for rap artists to secure lucrative contracts that launch mainstream careers through his own deals with British Knights, KFC, Taco Bell and Pepsi.

Then, of course, there was LL Cool J and Gap. Ludacris and Pepsi. 50 Cent and Vitamin Water. Dr. Dre and Monster Cable. Snoop and almost everything. The list goes on.

By all means, hip-hop continues to be steered by the young, open-minded and diverse, whether or not artists represent the same idealism as they did in the past. Thus, it seems unlikely such an indelible tie could be permanently severed.

“I don’t think it will affect artists getting endorsement deals, but I think it will affect the protection clauses that artists will want inside their deals,” Bey predicts.

Echoing her sentiment, Geoff Sawyer, Legal Affairs Manager at Beyond Marketing Group, feels corporations will create stricter content guidelines up front that dictate their relationships with an artist.

“The marriage between the current state of rap music and big brands, I mean, they’re made for each other,” he observes. “It’s perfect. Rap music is a cartoon celebration of excess in a way that is not embraced in any other way in Western culture…The entire audience feels like they’re not doing well unless they have the latest whatever gear. The only way to look like you get money is to spend money, thus people who don’t get money, spend money anyway.”

From his experience, Sawyer says some companies already ascertain tight constraints as to what behavior flies and what gets clipped at the wings, but he expects more will do so in light of today’s drama.

“It totally depends on how risky a company is willing to be, and who their consumer base is,” he explains. “It’s also based on your ethics. If you’re talking about really actually bad people, or if you feel like they are encouraging bad things, that’s sort of different story. But if you look at it like everybody’s rap career is a fictional narrative, and accept it as such until the community gets pissed about something, I’m not afraid to get involved with those guys.”

Nurturing relationships that create lasting ties

Despite the upheaval, some signs indicate the relationship between hip-hop and corporate America is actually getting stronger. Look at Swizz Beatz, who was appointed Creative Director of Reebok and Lotus in 2011. His partnership has been nothing but positive.

“You’re starting to see a trend where artists are becoming the creative directors of the brand,” Ramsey notes. “That trend really is intended to open up the creative opportunity and the collaboration between the artist and the brand.”

Adds Bey, “If artists were smarter, they would make sure they have more protection in their agreement. I don’t think this is going to change brands’ desire to want to partner with them because hip-hop is still a driving force in culture and lifestyle.”