Union LA and Streetwear’s Relationship With Black America
Words by Calum Gordon
Streetwear owes much of its current form today to Hip Hop culture, and therefore, by extension, black culture. The two – Hip Hop and black culture – have become so intertwined that it would be nigh-on impossible to pinpoint a facet of contemporary African American society which has not been touched in some way by the ever-evolving genre. And so, with streetwear’s love affair for Hip Hop comes the pitfalls of exploitation – an accusation that has been levelled at plenty, from marketing companies to, more recently, Iggy Azalea. Without meaning to launch into a diatribe about the exploitation of traditionally black genres within the American entertainment industry, I have always felt it important that streetwear does not find itself in this predicament. Certainly, its rise to prominence from a niche subculture of outsiders helps off-set some amounts of cynicism when J Dilla appears on a Stussy t-shirt, or KRS-ONE collaborates with Supreme. Yet, I feel that the streetwear community – if such a thing does still exist – must continually be on its guard when it employs Hip Hop for commercial uses, because it is an industry that is predominantly white.
This is all a long-winded way of saying props to Union LA for their continued and conscious stance against police brutality in America. For many, it would be easy to slap Cam’ron on a t-shirt (no disrespect to Alife), make bank and then turn a blind-eye to the blatant injustices which have engulfed American society for decades. Of course, the recent spate of high profile murders of young black men at the hands of racist police authorities has made this issue all the more relevant. Union LA’s set of collaborative t-shirts with three African American brands – PNB, TooBlackGuys and GQR$ – is exactly how streetwear should be reacting in solidarity with African American communities. Each t-shirt will raise funds for charity, while their evocative imagery ensures that police brutality towards black America is not an issue that is allowed to be swept under the carpet, like so many would like to. For me, all brands that employ Hip Hop-led imagery and rhetoric have a social responsibility to use their undeniable reach in the name of progress. Sure, it may contribute little in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important nonetheless. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming another exploitative industry, feeding off black culture simply for profit. This is not the first time Union LA and Chris Gibbs have taken a stand – last year choosing to shut on Black Friday as a response to police brutality – and while they lead the way, it is my hope that others will follow.
You can purchase the tees here.