Friday 20 June 2014

Thoughts - The urban voice and the mainstream discourse

Every year, top creatives from around the world gather for Cannes Lions, the world's biggest celebration of creativity in communications and an avenue for discussing great ideas changing the ways brands interact with their customers. I have long been an admirer of this event because of the job it does in highlighting the work of the people whose ideas shape the way we see the world but this year's event had an extra dimension that got me really excited.

Hip hop heavyweight, Kanye West was invited to speak on “Technology, culture and consumer adoption: learning to read the cultural landscape” and London based Jamal Edwards, founder of online broadcasting platform SBTV, was also invited to speak on “If your ad agency doesn't have the answer, are you asking the right question”.

Maybe Kanye West offering his opinion is not really anything new but I was particularly pleased to see Jamal Edwards, a self-made urban entrepreneur, on that platform. It felt like a moment in the history of the urban music and lifestyle scene that will be referenced in future discussions about the rise of its influence.

Rise of the urban voice

The urban culture in the UK has been on the rise for a few years now. From the days of So Solid Crew and the early days of Garage music to the present, the UK mainstream has been exposed to doses of urban culture. Although a lot has changed over the years and a lot of the culture has been assimilated, there is still a lingering feeling among many that the culture is not respected or accepted in the same way as other cultures with similar levels of influence.

When asked why he started making YouTube videos, Edwards said it was because there weren't any videos on YouTube that he wanted to watch at the time, so he decided to make some of his own. And if SBTV's over 400,000 subscribers and over 100 million views are anything to go by, it means he was not alone in that original struggle. That original struggle still resonates today with many urban youths who feel like their voice does not reach the top table and that the people in the limelight do not understand or represent their experiences.

We can talk about Dr Dre's multibillion dollar deal with Apple as an example of how far the urban culture as a whole has come but until we address these feelings of disconnection, we stand to lose a generation of young people whose ambitions will be curtailed by the unfortunate crime of omission.

Governments and people with power often talk about engaging the youth of today, especially those of the urban persuasion, without a full appreciation of their journey and an unintentional but yet palpable sense of patronising. In a world where achievement is so narrowly drawn but so highly valued, most of these disconnected urbanites, often from deprived backgrounds, feel like the cards are stacked against them even before they've made any moves. Though this is often a perception and not necessarily always true, it is very important that this mindset is seriously considered at all times when discussing the voice and the plight of the urban youth.

What Cannes Lions has successfully done this year is that they have brought the voice of the urban scene to the top table, giving it an equal platform with other cultures and influences and giving it the opportunity to state its case and be heard by many who perhaps wouldn't otherwise get to hear what it has to say. They haven't created a “special” platform for it to “do it's thing” but they have added the voices of its pioneers and influencers to their own and given listeners and onlookers the opportunity to make up their mind on what it has to say, the same way they make up their mind about any influence and without any avoidable preconceptions.

Overall, I am happy, as a proponent of the urban scene to see that the maturity that is going on within is being reflected and perceived by the outside world. There is obviously still a lot of work to be done and a lot of mountains to move but if things keep moving in this direction, it won’t be long until these sort of discussions are ones we refer to and not ones we find ourselves constantly having.

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