Blue Jeans, Hip Hop, and Sociology in the Black Community
By Jaylin Paschal
It is not unusual for brands to become representative of social status in communities. Materialism has always pushed consumers to reach for and consider the “name,” instead of solely the product. All brands have a way of implying the quality and longevity of a product, but some brands do this while simultaneously saying something about the owner of said product. True Religion is one of these brands.
It is a brand which has had a particularly strong hold on the black community. Since the early 2000’s, hip hop has served as a vehicle to popularize True Religion, holding the brand’s influence on black youth firm for years. Artists like Chief Keef, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, 2 Chainz, and Jim Jones have all contributed to the brand’s popularity in hip hop culture. There have been rap lyrics, songs, and entire mixtapes inspired by and referencing True Religion jeans. These references furthered the brand’s constant presence with lyrics like “Soulja Boy be clean, True Religion jeans” (Soulja Boy, “Zan With That Lean”) and “Said f— it all up on jeans, I’m a True Religion fein” (Future, “Racks”). Beyond just being referenced, the jeans are often portrayed in a luxurious, glamourous light with lyrics such as “Money, thousands, True Religion trousers!” (2 Chainz, “Beez in the Trap”). The brand’s prominence in hip hop in turn causes masses of black consumers, particularly black men, to reach for True Religion jeans above all else.
Similarly, hip hop defends the integrity of the brand with lyrics like, “I don’t f— with fake dudes wearin’ fake Trues, I just talked to 2 Chainz and he said, ‘Truuu!’” (Kanye West, “U Mad”) which are commenting on the frequent purchase of knock-off jeans or the practice of attaching your own labels and patches. Both wearing fake designer jeans and generic jeans are forms of social suicide in the black community. It’s often times designer jeans or no jeans, and a particular loyalty is granted to the True Religion brand, “When I die, bury me inside the True-y store,” (2 Chainz, “Birthday Song”). And old sentiments like Kirk Franklin’s “You hand me down dreams with those hand-me-down jeans,” have been pocketed in hundred dollar denim.
Ultimately, the jeans have arguably become representative of more than coolness, but elitism. It’s not just whether or not you own a (real) pair, but how many pairs you own in how many different cuts and how many different washes.
The phenomenon that is True Religion becomes even more interesting when you consider two facts:
The average pair of True Religion jeans is $200.
The average weekly income for black men working full time in the first quarter of 2016 was $732, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It is almost objectively absurd that a demographic which makes on average, $732 per week, dedicates so many of their financial resources to blue jeans. The fact of the matter is, often times, the consumers of these jeans are not those we would immediately classify as being able to afford them. They are certainly not for the minimum-wage worker or the thrifty shopper. They’re a luxury piece, found often, arguably too often, in less than luxurious lifestyles. I personally have a friend that lives nearly paycheck to paycheck, and once spent an entire one on a pair of True’s. You could walk through low-income neighborhoods or into low-income homes in the black community, and will likely find at least one pair of True Religion jeans.
Note: This is not, at all, to say that all black people can’t afford True Religion, or even that every purchase of a pair serves as a financial setback.
And before it seems as if I’m picking on the True Religion brand, it is important that I explain that this brand is nearly an example easily expressed because of its large presence in hip hop and hip hop’s direct connection to the black community. When it comes to lower or middle class black youth in America buying into expensive brands, you could easily replace “True Religion” with “Air Jordan” or “Polo” or “Tommy Hilfiger.”
So perhaps this piece isn’t about jeans at all, but rather about materialism; about how needing the “coolest” pair of jeans or shoes or anything has become one of the most important aspects of life; about how being regarded as “cool” is almost seen as an advancement and is often listed as a goal.
So then perhaps this piece is not about materialism at all but about accomplishment, and the false sense of validation we get from owning “stuff;” about how the accumulation of designer pieces registers as “success” to some; about how saving up enough money for expensive items triggers something in us to believe we “deserve” an “award” and splurge; about how satisfying it is to fit in.
So then perhaps this piece is not about accomplishment at all but about belonging. Perhaps black Americans, often displaced and misplaced in this country, reach for pricey denim, because what’s more American than blue jeans? What’s more American than “stuff?” What better way to fit in? What better way to assimilate into the American mainstream when you’ve been marginalized for so long?
So then perhaps this piece is not about belonging at all, but about the American Dream. Maybe black Americans who struggle to pay rent but own $200 jeans, know that this is as close to that “dream” as they’ll get anytime soon. Maybe they know that a down payment on a house is unreasonable and on a car is unlikely, but they can afford those jeans or those shoes, so that’ll do for now.
Perhaps this piece is not about race at all, but about class; about how we all constantly reach for the next level; how we all seem to aspire to be seen with or accepted by the wealthy. Maybe this piece is about how success in capitalism translates as the ownership of expensive goods, which is presented through images of the super-wealthy.
Perhaps this piece is not about class at all, but says something about us; something about U.S.; something about all of us.