authenticity and consumption in the australian hip hop culture

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  • Authenticity and consumption inthe Australian Hip Hop culture

    Damien ArthurThe School of Commerce, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia


    Purpose The purpose of this paper is to investigate the effects that local interpretation and theglocalisation of the Australian Hip Hop culture have on the consumption practices of members,exploring the reasons for such effects, and drawing marketing implications.

    Design/methodology/approach Three principal methods of ethnographic research were used:participant observation, informal conversations, and semi-structured in-depth interviews.

    Findings The findings suggest that symbolic representation within the Australian Hip Hop culturetakes the form of consumption of brands congruent with the values of authenticity and self-expressionat the core of the Australian Hip Hop culture. Many mass-produced Hip Hop brands originating in theUSA were not perceived as authentic as their meanings were associated with commercialisation andartificiality by cultural members. Furthermore, members of the Australian Hip Hop culture appear toexpress authenticity by being true to themselves, refusing to imitate African-American Hip Hop styleand rejecting what they perceived as black Hip Hop brands. Finally, members of the Australian HipHop culture also represented their geographical place via consumption, and used symbolicconsumption as a form of subcultural capital.

    Originality/value This paper fills a gap in the literature by providing a detailed analysis on theeffects of interpretation and the glocalisation of the Australian Hip Hop culture on consumption.

    Keywords Consumption, Culture, Australia

    Paper type Research paper

    The scene takes place in Adelaide, Australia, at the welcoming of an internationalconference for studies in popular music. An aboriginal dance group has just concludeda routine acknowledging the original owners and custodians of the land the Kaurnapeople. One of the dancers, KT, steps forward to the microphone and addresses theaudience. During his speech he grabs his oversize FUBU jersey, thrusts it forward withhis fist and states:

    You might see me in my FUBU top. It doesnt stand for FUBU. It stands for Full Blood.

    As he leaves the stage, I sneak out the back and catch him with the rest of the dancegroup preparing to leave.

    DA: Excuse me KT. My names Damien and I am a PhD student investigating symbolicconsumption. I just wanted to ask you a few things about what you said up there, aboutFUBU standing for Full Blood. Is that widely known in the aboriginal community?

    KT: No. Thats what it means to me.

    DA: Oh, Ok. Whys that?

    KT: Well the red you see, thats symbolic of the blood. And the black, thats my colour.But amongst the aboriginal community it stands for For Us, By Us.

    DA: So thats the case even though the Us originally referred to African-Americans?

    The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at



    Qualitative Market Research: AnInternational JournalVol. 9 No. 2, 2006pp. 140-156q Emerald Group Publishing Limited1352-2752DOI 10.1108/13522750610658784

  • KT: Well yeah, I mean there arent any Aboriginal brands and until we develop a brand of ourown, then yeah, I guess we align ourselves with the African-American community.

    IntroductionAs the prologue indicates, much of the utility of consumption is its symbolic value(Belk, 1988). For KT, the brand FUBU symbolises his unmixed aboriginal ancestry.However, this is an internalised representation, one that the wider population or eventhe rest of the aboriginal community are unlikely to interpret. This is what FUBUmeans to KT, and he is proud to tell us of his interpretation. KT is also aware thatamongst the aboriginal community FUBU stands for For Us, By Us. Thisinterpretation is a shared meaning understood not only by the aboriginal community,but also by the Hip Hop community, and by some members of the general population.Interestingly, the Hip Hop interpretation of Us in FUBU refers to theAfrican-American community. Upon its arrival in Australia the shared meaning ofFUBU has grown to incorporate the Aboriginal community. Upon further questioning,KT revealed he is aware of the original interpretation, but justifies his appropriation ofthe meaning of the brand through an alignment with the African-Americancommunity, based on a shared blackness, and the absence of any Aboriginal brands.

    The above example illustrates the transformation of the meaning of Hip Hop brandsas they cross the Pacific and arrive in Australia. In an increasingly inter-connectedworld, brands are crossing borders at a faster rate than ever before (Solomon, 2003). Asa result, the meaning of brands is increasingly interpreted outside of their culture oforigin (Howes, 1996)[1]. As the FUBU example illustrates, when a brand is consumedoutside of the culture of origin, its meaning is often altered, and adapted by the hostculture. In an effort to develop a greater understanding of this process, this paperexamines the symbolic meaning assigned to Hip Hop brands by members of theAustralian Hip Hop culture.

    The Hip Hop culture revolves around four key activities: rapping, graffiti art,breakdancing and DJing. It originated in the South Bronx area of New York Cityduring the early 1970s, and articulated the values and attitudes of the urban inner-cityyouth (Rose, 1994). During the 1980s, hip hop became more than just a culture, but alsoa profitable commodity, with Hip Hop music, fashion, and entertainment consumedacross the world. Hip Hop initially arrived in Australia through the mass media as anAmerican cultural export. Symbolic representation of Hip Hop authenticity wasusually denoted by the imitation of American Hip Hop style and the consumption ofAmerican Hip Hop brands. As global Hip Hop values mixed with the local conditions,Australian Hip Hop differentiated itself from its US roots to create its own uniqueidentity. This fusion, combined with the consumption of brands outside of the cultureof origin, has created a shared understanding of the symbolic meanings of Hip Hopbrands by members of the Australian Hip Hop culture, which has serious implicationsfor marketers. The next section undertakes a selective review of the literatureregarding the role the local interpretations of foreign brands and the glocalisation ofmass cultures play in determining consumption is undertaken. The paper thenpresents the research objective, method and the qualitative findings, before drawingsome recommendations for marketers.

    Authenticity andconsumption


  • Review of the literatureSubcultures of consumptionIn 1995, Schouten and McAlexander introduced the subculture of consumption as acollective of individuals who identify with certain products, brands or consumptionactivities and, through these products, brands or activities, identify with other people.Like other communities, a unique ethos or set of common values, rituals and traditions,unique jargon and an identifiable set of social relationships among members governsubcultures of consumption. Furthermore, subcultures of consumption have often beenobserved to transcend national and cultural boundaries, and ethnic, age, and classdifferences (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995; Muniz and OGuinn, 2001; Schau andMuniz, 2002). Past research on subcultures of consumption have investigated bothbrand focused communities, such as Harley Davidson (Schouten and McAlexander,1995) and Apple (Muniz and OGuinn, 2001), and non-brand focused communities, suchas gay consumers (Kates, 2002) and the rave scene (Thornton, 1995).

    The Hip Hop culture can be considered a non-brand focused subculture ofconsumption in that it is a collective of individuals who identify with similarconsumption activities in regards to music, fashion, and entertainment. As it is anon-brand focused subculture of consumption, brands that are perceived as authenticwill be rewarded through consumption choices (Kates, 2004). Hip Hop members useauthentic Hip Hop brands as symbolic cues to determine membership in much thesame way as the gay consumers in Kates (2004) study used their gaydar as a means ofscanning for signs of gayness. Furthermore, by manifesting an identity in materialgoods, the culture establishes a degree of security, a feeling that the culture is real andexists. This is important in that the Hip Hop culture in Australia is perhaps bestdescribed as neo-tribal: dispersed and loosely organised, and hence rarely, if ever,experienced in its totality (Maffesoli, 1996).

    Local interpretations of foreign brandsGiven the accelerated pace and increased scope of world trade, branded goodsincreasingly cross borders (Solomon, 2003). In addition, advances intelecommunications and media technologies have allowed cultural industries tomore easily disseminate information to a growing proportion of the world population(Appadurai, 2001). When branded goods and popular culture move from their cultureof origin to host cultures, interpretations of the symbols tend to become indigenised.That is, the understanding of the symbolic meaning assigned to the brand in the hostculture may be entirely different to that interpreted in the culture of origin (Howes,1996). Given the role of the symbolic value of brands in explaining purchase choice(Sirgy, 1982; Solomon, 1983; Belk, 1988; McCracken, 1988a, b) this consideration mayexplain the failure of some brands in markets outside of their original culture.

    As cultural signs, brands allow individuals to construct their own meanings aboutthe world and to communicate meaningfully to others (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979;McCracken, 1988a, b; Hall, 1997). Interpretation is an essential aspect of this process,and numerous studies have emphasised how the interpreta