Vic Mensa on hip hop and brands: ‘Nobody likes those #ad posts on Instagram!’


Streaming has helped to make hip hop the most popular recorded-music genre in the US, according to industry-tracker Nielsen. A panel at the Cannes Lions conference today explored what this means for brands, who are mulling how best to work with established and emerging artists in the field.

Artist and producer Vic Mensa was joined by Havas US chief creative officer and co-chair Jason Peterson for the discussion, which was moderated by Annex strategy director Michael Fair. “I think that our industry is completely fucked, and the traditions of our industry are standing in the way of us truly serving our audiences and our clients,” said Peterson about the advertising industry, in a bracing introduction.

“If you think about what your favourite brands are, it’s because they treat you with a level of respect. My favourite brands are Apple, Adidas, Kanye West and Drake… When it comes to the social world we live in, artists have taken the lead in connecting and communicating with their consumers in a way that brands can learn from.”

“Hip hop is almost 50 years old. Is started on the fringe, but it’s gone to mass adoption… and every step of the way it has challenged the status quo, breaking and bending what we think is possible for music, but also influencing culture… Hip hop is no longer just music: hip hop is culture,” said Fair. “Its viability is really in its influence: in our everyday lives, from the way we shake hands, talk to each other, the way we dress and the way we move. How we live our lifestyles.”

He defined culture as connection, conversation and creation. “Hip hop is absolutely culture,” said Fair. “There is a distinct human truth around the fact that artists are the new brands. They are operating completely and solely as entities making waves within culture. They are promoting their own products… And the modern brand is best articulated within hip hop artists. They are self-sustaining, and they have their own teams.”

Peterson chimed back in, saying that “the majority of our brands have lost… that respect for our audience” and suggesting that brands are consistently getting social media wrong. “There’s a level of authenticity that artists are doing that applied to a brand, can get people into the place where they want to seek us out”.

The panel’s structure focused on elements of hip hop that can be applied to brands, starting with ‘drop bombs’ that ignite and drive cultural conversations.

“Hip hop is counterculture in essence. And even as it becomes annexed by the mainstream, it still retains a spirit of counterculture and being something thats to the left of the beaten path. And being a sphere for expression of unpopular ideas at first,” said Mensa, citing NWA opening up conversation about police attitudes as just one example. “Hip hop is not trying to be anti, but this is a place where we go against convention.”

And also: “We have that connection to our audience to where our audience is us and we are our audience. There’s no boundary or limitation between us. I talk to my fans all the time,” said Mensa. “I DM with my fans all the time.”

Second: ‘experience is a must’. Fair talked about credibility for hip hop artists, whether it comes from where they grew up, the people they grew up with or other aspects of their character. “The experience is all about the credibility of the hip hop artist, and also the immersive quality of the storytelling that hip hop artists are doing,” he said.

Mensa related this to his own career: a 2016 project called ‘There’s Alot Going On’ that was politically charged, talking about police brutality, addiction, depression and other societal issues. “To release it I connected with this organisation called Hip Hop Caucus. It was kinda like the new Rock The Vote. I hd people to register to vote through this service in order to download the mixtape, and when I went on tour, I had booths where kids could register to vote, before, during and after the show,” he said.

“I thought that was dope. It was more than just a concert. Hip hop is an action… So we have the opportunity and the space to bring physical action into everything we do. And I just think that heightens the level of the art that we create when we bring this in-person aspect to it. Because everything’s so fucking fake on the internet! Everything’s so two-dimensional> So when you have the opportunity to bring something three-dimensional into it, you can connect in a different way.”

The next topic was ‘co-sign’ culture in the hip hop community. “Co-signs are all about organic connection. The most valuable co-signs, I believe, just come from artists genuinely acknowledging and recognising each other, saying ‘I like what you do’. Those co-signs can do everything for you. Well, not everything, but open a lot of doors for you,” said Mensa.

“Especially from a brand standpoint: if you work with the right people, you’ll make the right things that people just like. Nobody likes those #ad posts on Instagram! That’s just not cool! You can’t connect to that. It’s so much better when you create to a level, and with a goal and a demographic in mind, and you do what that demographic likes, so that people who are spokespeople for that generation will pick up on what you do, and they’ll want to throw on a shirt or a backpack or whatever it is.”

Peterson said that partnerships with hip hop artists is not just making brands seem relevant: it’s actively boosting their valuation and their bottom lines.

Mensa: “The thing to take note of too is that I actually interned at an ad agency when I was in high school… And something that I saw is that oftentimes, brands can be hesitant to go with artists or collaborations that are not the biggest artists. And I think that’s often where they fail. You might go with the biggest artist with the biggest Instagram followers who doesn’t actually have the biggest cultural impact… You want to find the person that the biggest artist is watching and copying! That’s probably going to be someone younger.”

“As it goes for collaborations, I think that when brands really get the shit wrong is the whole conversation of cultural appropriation. That’s worth noting, because when you get accused of that in a serious way, a lot of people particularly on the darker side of the skin spectrum… we’re not going to fuck with you any more!… It takes Gucci getting called out for copying Dapper Dan, for Gucci to hire Dapper Dan… Now they got him, it’s fresh. But it’s like here’s how you get around that: you give respect and give props where props is due. When you’re inspired by someone, get them in from the start… Hire Dapper Dan in the first place!”

The next hip hop code to be discussed was that ‘the family matters’ – the way artists are crafting teams meticulously to serve their needs and open up new opportunities. Fair cited a famous Frank Ocean quote: “I never let a random motherfucker shoot the b-roll!” Hip hop artists choose very specific people for very specific tasks.

Mensa said he looks for people who “understand the mission and the motive” to work with on his team, who share his creative mindset. “Every little thing matters to me, and that’s why I have to have people that understand and know what I’m referencing, where I’m coming from, what I’m trying to achieve on every step of the journey.”

“Every single great hip hop artist is managing their own brand on a minute by minute basis,” said Peterson. “Every artist has this crew of creators who are making their voice and pushing it out… So how do we [an ad agency] take that network of creators and put it into our creative department?” He cited Drake and Beyoncé as examples of artists who have (for example) filmmakers and photographers on-staff, to control the content that they put out.

Mensa agreed. “Having my guy that is my go-to photographer who’s always with me removes the uncomfortability of having a camera in your face,” he said, warning artists and brands alike against “bringing random motherfuckers into the equation!”

The final topic: ‘Community comes first’ and not forgetting where you came from – and taking social action accordingly. Mensa is from the city of Chicago, for example. “I owe everything, my existence, my mindset, to Chicago. And as I’ve gained a level of platform and resources, it’s imperative, it’s necessary for me to put it back into the community, because the community raised me. Hip hop is born of struggle… and we speak of this struggle. So as that struggle through words and music puts us into a new life, a lot of us feel a lot of responsibility to our hometown… We were born from the struggle and we have to put back into the city we came from.”

He has started a foundation to invest in social programs in Chicago. “The city has been forgotten in a lot of ways, so we feel that with resources and with people willing to give resources, that we have to direct that to the city,” he said.

Mensa reacts to brands who are willing to help: he switched his mobile deal to AT&T “because they cut a cheque for the foundation… Brands might not have a soul, but I’ve got a soul. We’ve got a soul. If you invest in our family and our community, you can get some soul. Not every company recognises that: they want to come in and reap the benefits: you want to tap this market or audience… But a good way to do that is to invest in things that matter to them. As opposed to taking, you’ve got to give.”

Peterson agreed: “If you don’t stand for things that are relevant to your consumers, I don’t want to hear from you,” he said. “I think that every brand needs to become a social brand, and doing good things for the communities that they want to be loyal to their products.”

Mensa: “When I tell you the black community is a consumer, we buy everything! We buy so much shit! We support motherfucking brands, and it might not be for them, it might be for us, but we support this shit… So when a company like AT&T show some support to the actual community, I appreciate that in a different way. We’re supporting all of these corporations, so these corporations need to support us. This needs to be reciprocal… We need to be appreciated for that!”

“In essence, cultural relevance is driven by being part of the community, and giving back. By being socially connected and dialed in,” concluded Fair. “In hip hop, the worst thing that can happen is you flop… You [as a brand] have to show respect for the culture, or risk flopping.” And flopping was certainly not a risk being run by Mensa’s two-song performance, to close the session:


Written by: Stuart Dredge