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Barneys Lawsuit Puts Spotlight On Race And Branding


A black college student sued Barneys last week. He was stopped by undercover police after buying a $350 belt at the department store. And that brought back memories for freelance writer Johnnie Roberts.

JOHNNIE ROBERTS: You know, it was a bit of a nightmare for me, really, because I'd almost suppressed that memory. It was an ugly time for me.


The memory Johnnie Roberts almost suppressed was his own detention at Barney's back in 1990. He was shopping with the winnings from a journalism prize.

ROBERTS: Just inside the door, I heard this voice: Come with me. And I kept walking because I didn't think it was addressed to me; I didn't pay much attention. And again: Come with me. I was baffled and asked, for what? You stole a tie. Well, no, I didn't.

INSKEEP: Now, Barneys this week called that kind of treatment unacceptable, but the latest news is only the beginning of this conversation. Upscale retailers are involved in an intricate relationship with the changing country around them.

MONTAGNE: Barneys, accused of hostility to black shoppers, also has a marketing agreement with the rapper Jay-Z, which has caused him some embarrassment. Like many artists, Jay-Z fills his music with references to expensive brands, like Tom Ford Fashions.


INSKEEP: Rap has long celebrated Gucci, Bentley, Cristal. And hip hop artists started endorsing such products decades ago, a trend that Johnnie Roberts has followed as a journalist.

ROBERTS: It was authentic. These artists weren't being paid, initially. They were wearing and consuming these brands because they loved them. They aspired to them. So they were consuming these things naturally, which made it real. Flash forward maybe a decade later, mid-'90s, the era of bling in rap. So you had Courvoisier cognac brand. "Pass the Courvoisier" was the name of the song by the artist Busta Rhymes. Basically, the lyrics were pass the Courvoisier.


ROBERTS: For five minutes or so.


ROBERTS: And it blew up. It absolutely blew up that brand.

INSKEEP: They could not have paid for that kind of commercial time.

ROBERTS: Exactly. And the other thing is that, you know, the audience started to take its style cues from these artists. So they could really have an impact on a category of product.

INSKEEP: We're talking with journalist Johnnie Roberts, and I want to bring another voice into our conversation. NPR's Gene Demby is in our studios. He writes for the blog Code Switch, which has its finger on the pulse of cultural issues. And Gene, help us understand something here. How was it that Jay-Z ended up being drawn into this Barney's dispute?

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So if you want to look at the way both hip hop and wealth have evolved over the last decade-plus, you would look at Jay-Z's career, right? He started off rhyming about Lexuses and Benzes and now, he would never be caught dead in these entry-level luxury vehicles. So Johnnie spoke...


INSKEEP: Only a five-figure car.

DEMBY: Right.

INSKEEP: You've got to have a six-figure car.

DEMBY: Right. And so this is his sandbox now. He was rich 15 years ago; now, he's super rich. And so this is the logical next step for his brand association.

INSKEEP: He's connected with Barneys how?

DEMBY: Next month, Jay-Z has a holiday line that will be unveiled at Barneys, which among the items for sale are a $34,000 watch - which I'm sure you'd love, Steve.

INSKEEP: Oh, sure. I'll drop by and check it out.

DEMBY: Those super-expensive, lux items are part of Jay-Z's brand now.

INSKEEP: So how has he come under pressure, then, after this incident?

DEMBY: So initially, on sites like AllHipHop.com and Bossip.com, the conversation was about why he hadn't said anything these incidences of alleged racial profiling.

INSKEEP: It's almost as if the people are suggesting it's his company that was doing it, or something.

DEMBY: Right. In the last few days, it seems that he's become the focus of this story. His response was seen by many as very defensive. He said that he wanted the facts to come out, and he wanted to let the stories play out before he made any judgments. This is very different than the way he responded to the incident with Cristal.

INSKEEP: What was wrong with Cristal?

DEMBY: So Cristal is a super expensive champagne line, and it was thoroughly embraced by the hip hop community because of the price point. And Cristal thought that the negative associations with hip hop were a bad thing for it. And a spokesman for the brand made an offhand comment about those negative associations with hip hop. That prompted Jay-Z and a bunch of hip hop artists to actively insult Cristal. But Jay-Z actually went so far as to buy his own vodka company in order to divest himself from it.

INSKEEP: I'll show you - he was basically saying.

DEMBY: Absolutely. And he had the money and the cache and the clout to do so.

INSKEEP: Johnnie Roberts, what does this make you think about?

ROBERTS: I think this is an exquisite cautionary tale of what happens, too, when you add together these brands.

MONTAGNE: Just to be clear, you're talking about Jay-Z as a brand, when you're saying brand.

ROBERTS: Jay-Z as a brand. Jay-Z talks about himself as a brand. I mean, that's clearly a product of hip hop, this notion of the personal brand.


ROBERTS: The cautionary tale, though, is that you can end up - as in this case - having one of the brands, quote, "sully" the other brand.

INSKEEP: Gene Demby.

DEMBY: Right. There's an irony here in that the rapper is being sullied by the super high-end luxury retailer.


DEMBY: But one of the conversations that's been happening on social media in the last few days is people have kind of been skeptical about the way the story's been covered because suddenly, Jay-Z is the face of this controversy. This black rapper is suddenly the face of racial profiling in these two incidents and not, you know, the NYPD or Barneys.

INSKEEP: As weird as this all is, gentlemen, is it good that people are being forced together in different and unusual ways - even if it's awkward, embarrassing, or even horrifying sometimes?

ROBERTS: Well, I certainly think it's good that the retailing world has to realize that the world is changing. So someone who might not have walked through the doors of your store, you know, 50 years ago or, in my case, 20 years ago, that world is gone now.

DEMBY: If you're under the age of 35, say, hip hop has been the dominant musical idiom for your life. And part of that...

INSKEEP: Whatever race you are.

DEMBY: Right, whatever race you are. And part of that is that it has democracized(ph) this idea of a certain kind of aspiration, and a certain kind of wealth. And so there are all kinds of people who want these things. And what we're saying is that these associations are not simple ones. I mean, there are people like the kid who wanted the $350 belt who want these things because they've been name- checked, and they're everywhere.

And the retailers and these brands want the cache of being named-checked everywhere by influential artists. Jay-Z, in particular, is in a very awkward position because he is both trying to be part of the proletariat, as it were, even if he is part of the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

INSKEEP: Hmm. NPR's Gene Demby of our Code Switch blog. Thanks very much.

DEMBY: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: We also talked with Johnnie Roberts, freelance journalist. Thanks for dropping by.

ROBERTS: You're quite welcome. Thank you.


INSKEEP: And you heard them on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.