Let's Get It On turns 50: Contextualizing Marvin Gaye's sonic foreplay

As with most things in my life, I blame Charlie Puth.

It was the overnight sensation’s 2015 single, titled “Marvin Gaye”, that turned Gaye’s name into nothing more than a funny pick-up line for mid-2010s millennials to pretend to use at the trendy speakeasies they invaded in their too-far-gone gentrified downtown areas. For many born after 1995, Marvin Gaye was the face of a bygone era: an era of cheesy love songs and doo-wop slow jams. Moreover, it was the introductory guitar lick of his hit single “Let’s Get It On” that does nothing but elicit giggles amongst a younger generation. The guitar became a single proposition – a corny, nonverbal cue for “let’s have sex” – losing all the surrounding context that made it a hit in the first place.

For another generation, Gaye’s artistry was a beacon in pop music. Going from a talented session musician to an all-star singer was not an easy path, but Gaye’s infectious melodies and his intensely soulful vocal performances willed his fame into existence. While What’s Going On is oftentimes considered his magnum opus, it was the album after that, Let’s Get It On, that solidified his place in the cultural zeitgeist. A raw, emotional album that speaks to the most primordial feelings of love and longing, Let’s Get It On has stood the test of time as one of the most important albums in the history of RnB.

The issue now lies in the fact that the respect and acclaim for the album by casual listeners has seemingly diminished over the five decades since its release. Perhaps this is due to the evolution of RnB, where star artists like The Weeknd or SZA have incorporated elements of hip hop and alternative music into the genre. Even the Grammys maintained two distinct RnB categories – introducing Best Contemporary RnB for records that “incorporate production elements found in rap music” – up until 2011, in which the categories were combined once again: a signifier that the previously “contemporary” elements of the genre had grown into the norm. What is considered “traditional” (in terms of the sound of classic RnB and soul music) has seemingly fallen out of the biggest pieces of our modern cultural subconscious.

Regardless, it’s important to keep the legacy of Gaye’s album alive. It’s almost hard to imagine Gaye would have even believed his record would have had such a withstanding legacy. This is  especially so given it was coming off the success of his seminal work – and according to Rolling  Stone, the greatest album of all time – What’s Going On. But today, a half century after the album’s release and nearly 40 years after Gaye’s murder, there is a deep, seemingly unknown lore surrounding the context of the album, as well as its advanced musicality that forges connections between RnB of the 70s, and today.

While the record might not be taken as seriously today as it was previously, the context of the album serves as an immediate reminder as to why it was so successful in its rawness. Let’s Get It On came out in 1973, the same year the United States had removed themselves from the Vietnam conflict. In turn, it was notable that Gaye’s erotic lyricism was a far cry from What’s Going On, a politically charged concept album about a veteran returning from war to a broken home country. 

What’s Going On reflected a broken country in the Vietnam era, but Let’s Get It On was more reflective of the free love movement that started at the end of the 1960s, with the famous “Summer of Love” in 1967. After the peace movement revolving around the war in Vietnam, there was a sudden rise in the acceptance of sexual desire, something that was considered taboo prior. Once again, and much like the political inspiration behind his 1971 masterpiece, Gaye was taking the world around him and materializing it into song. The record was inspired heavily by Gaye’s tumultuous home life as well.

Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Gay Jr., after his father, Marvin Gay Sr., who was a pastor. Gay Sr. was abusive towards Marvin and would often put his son through brutal beatings. Gay Sr. would soon turn to alcoholism, and his relationship with Marvin’s mother, Alberta, would quickly deteriorate. Gay Sr. also went on to be his son’s murderer in 1984, shooting Marvin twice after a physical altercation between the two. In a police interview, Gay Sr. was asked if he loved his son. Gay Sr. responded, “let’s say I didn’t dislike him.”

While Gay Sr. was the devil on Marvin’s shoulder, his mother was his angel. Alberta Gay was a staunch supporter of Marvin’s and would often spend time with him when he would go through severe battles with depression. Her connection was important, and she was mirrored in a new character in Marvin’s life, Janis Hunter.

“On the day he starts working on what becomes Let’s Get It On, a friend brings this young lady to the recording session,” says Professor Fredericka King, a professional pianist and music professor at Emerson College. “[Gaye] said she was drop dead gorgeous. She immediately became a huge part of his life. He was also leaving [Head of Motown] Berry Gordy’s sister, [who was Gaye’s] wife. So, this young lady became a huge thing for him. To a certain extent, a lot of the attraction was the visual, the sexual, but I think she also ultimately represents something kind of spiritual for him by way of connection. She was somebody who understood him. Not quite like his mother did, of course, but you know, she sort of was this this pocket of ‘okay, this person gets me.’”

It is commonly thought that much of Let’s Get It On’s eroticism was inspired by Janis Hunter’s sudden arrival in Gaye’s life. While the erotic lyricism might be laughed at by today’s listeners, in the 70s it was a powerful proclamation of intense longing for one’s physical intimacy.

“[The album] is basically [saying] ‘I want you to believe that this feeling I have for you is really, really powerful. I hope you feel that too. I hope you reciprocate,’” analyzes King. “People really feel this incredible emotion in it. A lot has to do with his gospel style singing, [and the] personal feeling he was having at this point in his life that he really did not want to ignore. Even after they broke up, he said, ‘I'll be writing songs about her until I die.’”

However, Gaye’s creative power was somewhat limited before his string of 1970s classics. Much of his previous work was based around his label, Motown, attempting to find ways to market the young singer. His first few albums were grounded in jazz, a genre Gaye loved due to his admiration for Nat King Cole and Ray Charles. His attempts in the jazz sphere were not commercially successful, and Gaye and his label would often disagree on the music Gaye should make. Motown saw success in RnB, but Gaye was apprehensive and felt he would lack crossover appeal if he stuck to the soul sound that Motown craved.

By the advent of the 1970s, Gaye yearned for creative control, and when he turned in his single “What’s Going On” to label head Berry Gordy, the executive reportedly hated it. Gordy was worried the politically charged song would ruin the crossover success that Gaye had accumulated in his career.

“What’s Going On” was released without Gordy’s knowledge in January of 1971 and immediately became Motown’s fastest selling single. Gordy would soon travel to Gaye’s residence and approve his demand for more creative control, on the condition that the rest of the album would be finished within thirty days. Gaye went on to record the rest of What’s Going On in no more than ten.

What’s Going On – the album – became a hit, selling two million copies within a year, and Gaye’s record deal was restructured for $1 million, becoming the highest-earning black artist at the time. The record maintains success today, thanks to Gaye’s timeless lyricism surrounding political subject matter that wasn’t typically sung about in RnB prior, especially at Motown.

“You feel him when you hear him,” described Texas-grown and Los Angeles based musical artist ‘Sekend, a self-professed Marvin Gaye fan. “Being able to reflect the times, like how he did on a lot of his songs like ‘What's Going On’ and ‘Mercy Mercy Me’… it's still reflecting a lot of the same turmoil that we’ve witnessed over these years. I still can listen to ‘What's Going On’, and those lyrics do resonate just as they did 50 years ago.”

‘Sekend’s history with Marvin Gaye extends over the last decade, where he was part of a Marvin Gaye tribute show at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. The 2014 tribute show would take the 1997 posthumous release Vulnerable – a record full of jazz ballads – and put it on stage with the help of guest vocalists. ‘Sekend was part of Berklee’s revived Neo Soul Ensemble – led by bassist Skip Smith, who played with the likes of B.B. King and Aerosmith – who worked for an entire semester on bringing the Vulnerable show to life. The aforementioned Janis Hunter (then Jan Gaye) was in attendance that night.

It was What’s Going On’s success that allowed Gaye the freedom to work on his records in any way he pleased. When Let’s Get It On first released, it was immediately both a critical and commercial success, outselling What’s Going On to claim the title of Marvin Gaye’s best-selling album at that point. The clear focus in the public sphere, however, was its erotic nature, especially in contrast with his previously political work.

For the early 1970s, the album featured some of the most intense eroticism ever recorded. It was home to the controversial “You Sure Love To Ball”, a song in which was titled after a sexual euphemism (ball was slang for sex), but also put recorded moans to wax, leading the song to be banned from Armed Forces radio. Or, how about “Keep Gettin’ It On”, where Gaye urges listeners to get it on during “mornin, noon, and night time”. The sexual nature of Gaye’s references was not always as obvious as the lyrics he wrote. A lot of the explicit nature came from the pained performance that Gaye records throughout the record. Take the slow jam hit, “Distant Lover”, a heartbreaking ballad to a fling that ended due to distance. The song is not overtly sexual in its lyrics, but Gaye’s sensual falsetto – especially during his breakdown at the end of the song – brings listeners into Gaye’s headspace; he is not ready to let go of this fling, and he’ll do anything to hold his lover one more time. “Something I wanna say,” he laments. “When you left, you took all of me with you.” As the band around him grows in tempo and volume, he asks “do you want to hear me scream?” Gaye’s performance allows listeners to buy into his pain, his longing for connection, and even his sexual desires, something that a phoned-in imitation slow jam could never do.

The influence of Gaye’s erotic lyricism was felt immediately, but so was his technical prowess as a producer. Unknown to many, Gaye was lead producer on not only Let’s Get It On, but also most of his solo work post-1971 until his death in 1984. All the records that are often considered Gaye’s most critically acclaimed and most influential work were made within this period. Gaye’s effect on the traditional Motown sound was felt far and wide, and he was one of the first artists to diverge from the typical sonics of his labelmates. This started with What’s Going On but affected pop music as a whole on Let’s Get It On.

Motown was well known for their formulaic “Motown sound”, which practically guaranteed them chart success. It was based around gospel influenced call-and-response songwriting, optimistic and cheerful hooks, and a mixture of big band instrumentation. Motown producers would reportedly adhere to the simplest production possible, as it had proven successful within the 50s and 60s. Gaye was not keen on this style of production.

One of the biggest changes Gaye made to the Motown sound was the addition of multitracked vocals. Whereas typical Motown releases prided themselves on the efficiency of singular vocal tracks and the sonic “cleanliness” of their records, Gaye was interested in multiple takes of melismatic vocal runs to enhance his performance. Take the third track of Let’s Get It On, “If I Should Die Tonight.” The romantic declaration makes perfect use of multitracked vocals, enhancing the feelings of yearning and appreciation for his lover. At about a minute and twenty seconds into the song, Gaye’s vocals split during the titular chorus. In one take, using strained vocals with staccato articulation, Gaye sings what feels like a poignant statement – a promise. In the second take, Gaye records falsetto vocals that fill the stereo space, leading directly into Gaye’s band resuming their instrumentation.  All throughout the rest of the chorus, Gaye’s two voices battle each other sonically; an auditory representation of the push and pull inside Gaye’s heart.

This breakthrough, along with the jazzy style of instrumentation, has given the record the unofficial title of “slow jam blueprint”. It would bring an immediate wave of influence, as fellow Motown artists Rick James and Lionel Richie would pen some of their biggest hits in the aftermath of Gaye’s flawless album run in the 1970s. Gaye’s production style had also deeply influenced contemporary neo-soul artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, who in turn would make modern masterpieces like Voodoo and Mama’s Gun respectively.

‘Sekend’s own work is greatly inspired by Gaye, even 50 years later. His 2022 self-titled EP is led by the track “Your Heart”, a groovy funk ballad with a bassline that feels like it could be ripped out of Gaye’s 1981 record In Our Lifetime?. It’s the hook – where ‘Sekend belts out “I’m not going to lose your heart” in his smoky baritone voice – that feels like a love letter to Gaye’s work, where passionate horns and glittery background vocals accentuate his declaration of love and loyalty. The song is glamourous and soulful, reminiscent of upbeat ballads made popular by 70s soul groups who often walked the path that Gaye would trailblaze for them.

‘Sekend’s goal was not to imitate artists like Gaye, but rather bring their soul back to popular music.

“At that time, RnB was pop, like [how] today hip hop is pop,” he says. “Pop music is popular. So, I wanted to bring back the essence of pop music with inspirations like Marvin Gaye and The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. In a way, like, subconsciously, I did embody that.”

While pop music’s essence changes every half decade, Marvin Gaye’s status as a musical legend will not fade. Amongst critics, he is one of the most awarded artists in history and Let’s Get It On is viewed as one of the greatest albums in popular music. In Rolling Stone’s 2020 edition of their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, it’s ranked #422. It’s featured in Robert Dimery’s “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die”, as well as Elvis Costello’s Vanity Fair article “500 Albums You Need”. But how many people today know of its artistic value, or its significance in RnB today, a genre that is listened to now more than ever?

“You need to study,” says ‘Sekend when asked about Gaye’s status amongst today’s generation. “If you want more, he’s got more.”

In the advent of the streaming era, where music comes and goes and is rooted deeper in trends than many realize, the influences of a listener’s favorite artists might fade into the background. Admittedly, Marvin Gaye’s influence might be a generation or so behind current day artists. The genealogical tree of RnB does not go straight from Marvin Gaye to current RnB stars, but it could jump from Marvin Gaye, to D’Angelo, to Summer Walker. As it stands, Marvin Gaye acts as a grandfather to modern RnB. His influence might not be as clear as it was in the 80s and 90s, but his legacy stands the test of time.

“Most people just encounter that song [Let’s Get It On],” remarks King. “They don't encounter the album. I think I might want them to look at the album as the many facets of how deeply you can love and how much you would want to be loved in return.”

For younger people, Let’s Get It On might only live as a dusty vinyl found in your parent’s attic. To some, it might only mean something when paired with rose petals and a glass of pinot noir. But as we reach the 50th anniversary of a landmark record like this, it’s important to get others to dust off the vinyl and sit down and finally listen. When the album is properly contextualized, Let’s Get It On ends up becoming far more than a soundtrack to casual sex. When the album is truly heard, it is a sonic mosaic; a church window of metaphorical stained glass – each tile a facet of Gaye’s performance and production – coming together to represent the emotional catharsis of a man in need of human connection.


Opinion: Out of sight, out of mind: Let’s not delegitimize the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Monday afternoon, my roommate came back from class and told me that one of his classmates asked the professor what would be the appropriate way to joke about Ukraine. Thankfully, the professor replied with “you shouldn’t,” but the entire interaction had me scratching my head.

Over the last week, I’ve felt like I’ve been in a different world than some other students – students who can laugh and joke about the war crimes happening 5,000 miles away. It got me thinking: do student activists stop working as activists when issues are happening outside of the United States? 

Do we think of crises less when they aren’t happening in our own backyard? With the seemingly endless distance between the United States and Eastern Europe, and the constant humor surrounding it on places like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, have we subconsciously devalued the Russian invasion of Ukraine? 

Some context: I’m a Lithuanian American journalism student. My mother was born in Šilutė, on the western coast of Lithuania. Born 30 years into the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, she lived under the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union until she moved to Germany at the age of 18. Her family lived under the same Iron Curtain until Lithuania finally declared its own independence in 1990, and became the first Soviet-occupied state to do so. This led to three years of Russian violence, with two separate massacres of peaceful Lithuanian protestors, until the final remains of the Soviet Army left the country in August of 1993. 

So, you could say I’ve had beef with Russia since birth. 

So far, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been eerily similar to the violence the Soviet Union inflicted on Lithuania. As of two hours before sitting down to write this piece, Russian military bombed the Ukrainian TV Tower, killing five and injuring more – a move practically identical to the events of Jan. 13, 1991, where Soviet forces occupied the Lithuanian TV Tower and slaughtered 14 Lithuanian civilians in cold blood. The parallels are horrifying, and they paint a much scarier picture than one that many Americans are currently aware of.

The Russian War Machine has not evolved. In the 30 years since the January events in Lithuania, it has not diminished or become any more diplomatic. These are imperialistic movements by a government with a lust for power. Lithuanians today are calling Vladimir Putin “Putler” – combining the Russian President’s name with Hitler’s – in case you needed the Lithuanian stance on this invasion to be made any clearer. 

Since the announcement of Russia’s “special military operation” last Thursday, I’ve seen minimal activism for an event that threatens global security in the way this one does. I feel as though Emerson students – and honestly, Americans in general – may not realize how this event really affects them, when truthfully, it has the potential to affect the entire planet in ways we haven’t seen since World War II. 

For one, economic sanctions on Russia will squeeze the global economy. Major countries like the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and even the historically neutral Switzerland have enacted economic sanctions on Russia. This will lead to heightened oil and gas prices, a disruption in supply chains for major industries like farming, travel restrictions due to Russia and Ukrainian airspace becoming no-fly zones, and even a more volatile stock market. Those are only the things that will affect American life right away. In the long term, this conflict will greatly affect American imports and exports, and the trickle-down nature of these industries could mean a deep impact on every American’s wallet. 

More importantly, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens the basis of our global security. For those who don’t know, a huge reason for the Russian invasion was Ukraine’s interest in becoming a NATO ally. NATO is a military alliance between 28 European and two North American countries that agree to mutual defense in case of attack by an external party. 

Ukraine – which shares a border with Russia – is labeled as an aspiring member, much to the displeasure of Vladimir Putin. For Russia, a country with no NATO allegiance, having NATO bases a border away in a country that they had been at odds with for nearly six years was not ideal. As a matter of fact, last December Russia urged NATO not to include Ukraine in their alliance, something that NATO quickly refused. 

Countries that are a part of NATO — Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia— all have an extended history with Russian invasion. For many residing in the Baltic states, the fear is that the fall of Ukraine could escalate into a Russian “revenge tour” on NATO territory. This act would be considered a declaration of war on 30 countries, the U.S. included, and could lead to what would effectively be a third World War. The line has been drawn in the sand, and it’s up to Russia to cross it. 

With all this context, the question stands. Have we devalued the invasion? Why are students in classes asking how to crack jokes about a war that has already led to hundreds of casualties – women and children included – in less than a week? I’ve sat in classes where the invasion is reduced to “they won’t be drafting me” jokes, or “World War III am I right?” types of comments. Are people truly ignorant of the situation, or do they simply not care? 

The presence of social media activism surrounding the invasion is lacking as well. One of the only posts I’ve seen regarding Ukraine was one Emerson crypto-fan’s flex on how much Bitcoin had been donated to the country. While it’s great that large amounts of money are being used to fund the heroism of the Ukrainian people, it was the student’s only public acknowledgement of the invasion, or at least the only one I saw before I blocked them. 

They also did not post crypto-wallet info, or a link to the tweet asking for donations. It was simply a desperate cry for crypto validation using the topical nature of the invasion, and that is sick. If you’re going to use the death of civilians and the invasion of a sovereign nation as a vessel to promote the scam that is cryptocurrency, kindly go outside and touch some grass. 

I also rarely see the shallow infographic-based activism that has become so popular in the last two years. Perhaps this is a good thing, and internet activists have finally realized that hitting “share to story” is not real activism, but it does worry me that there could be a lack of actual awareness as well. 

So many people around me ask “why is this happening?” or “how does this affect us,” which is the biggest reason I felt moved to write this. Hopefully some of the context above helps people understand how this affects the entire world, not just Eastern Europe. 

Let’s be sure to take this seriously. There’s a time for jokes and there’s a time for action. Now is the time for action.

If you find yourself inspired after this but have no idea how to help because of the distance, I implore you to donate directly to charities, or directly to the Ukrainian military. Don’t “buy from Ukrainian brands” like the infographics might tell you. Instead, use your dollars towards organizations like the Lithuanian charity Blue/Yellow, who have committed thousands of dollars to Ukraine since the first outbreak of Russian violence in 2016. Support the Ukrainian Armed Forces, whose donation links can be found on the official Ukrainian Twitter page. Finally, you can donate to the Kyiv Independent, an English publication for Ukrainian news, and an invaluable resource for minute-to-minute updates on the situation in Ukraine at large. 

Can’t donate money? Spread awareness, but not hollow, pretty infographics made by freshmen MassArt graphic design kids. Post links to promote direct help from others who can directly assist. I would even cosign the posting of pictures and videos of Russian atrocities and war crimes. This situation isn’t pretty, and it shouldn’t be made out to be. Sometimes we need a reality check to light a fire under us and make things click. 

Hopefully you have a much better idea of what has the world glued to the news. Remember not to devalue these global crises, not only with Ukraine, but with Yemen, Syria, Libya, and other countries that may not get the screen time Ukraine does, but also suffer under the radar of the rich, white “Insta-activists” that can be found at Emerson. 

Activism doesn’t stop on American soil. True activists will fight for human rights around the globe. If you take anything from this, just remember that activism is possible, whether you’re five miles away or 5,500 miles away. The truth is, you never have to sit back and watch things happen.


Working On It: Why Isn’t Hip Hop Represented in Emerson’s Music Publications?

by Niklas Walker

As an incoming freshman, I was enamored with the idea of Emerson College. As someone from a suburban town in the south, the opportunity to live in a big city, let alone one like Boston, blew my mind. I couldn’t wait to come to class and meet people interesting in the same things I was. I was fascinated with hip-hop, and I was eager to find a group of people who shared the same love I had for the genre. It was a fun fantasy. One month into my time at Emerson, I realized that I was in the minority when it came to my music listening, and that for many, hip hop was not on their minds when it came to choosing what music I listened to. I would play some of my favorite songs, realizing that no one knew what they were. I was not able to convert many people either. It kind of shook me, in a way. 

Hip-hop, which became the United States’ most listened to music genre in 2017, has broken into the mainstream culture in an exponential fashion, similar to past explosions of pop and rock. However, tiny subcultures hidden in places like college campuses oftentimes do not reflect the American mainstream, instead creating unique norms that refute what is currently popular in today’s cultural landscape. 

Emerson College is a good example of this. Instead of a contemporary approach to pop culture, students at Emerson favor nostalgia culture in the likes of vintage clothing, vinyl records, and the 90s-esque love for cigarettes. This admiration for something akin to “underground counterculture” is reflected in its student led music publications, most notably Milkcrate and Five Cent Sound, who in the last two years – despite hip-hop’s reign as the most popular genre in the US – have less than 10% of articles surrounding hip hop. 

Both publications consider themselves to be voices of the underground, specifically within the local music scene in Boston. Ashley Onnembo, the editor in chief at Five Cent Sound, has been with the magazine since 2019, and became the editor in chief in the fall of 2021. Since her inheritance of Five Cent Sound, she’s made it her mission to empower local artists. 

“What I think the focus should be and what I really push when people are writing about stuff”, says Onnembo, “[is that] I always recommend uplifting the local music scene here at Emerson and in Boston because the pandemic hit it really hard.” 

While admirable endeavors, much of both Five Cent Sound and Milkcrate’s coverage is based around Indie/Alternative music, thanks to the saturation of bands that fall under that genre in Boston’s local music scene. Unfortunately, this may mean little representation for other genres. 

Five Cent Sound, which publishes a biannual magazine for student consumption, had posted 198 stories on their blog over the last two years. Of those 198, 40 were “filler” pieces, like photo galleries, lists, or playlists. Of the remaining 158 stories, only 12 were about hip hop, which is equal to a miniscule 8%. One other worrying statistic: four of the 12 stories focused on white rappers. 

Milkcrate, an offshoot of Emerson’s student run radio station WECB, had posted 132 stories onto their online blog, along with 29 “filler” pieces. Hidden in the remaining 103 posts were nine stories revolving around hip-hop, rounding up to an equally tiny 9%. The publication has written more about Taylor Swift and Harry Styles – mainstays in Emerson music culture, but not the Boston music scene – in the last four months than it has written about hip hop entirely.

Milkcrate director Lily Hartenstein – who has been director since the spring of 2020 – faced similar challenges in representing hip-hop, citing the lack of a local music scene as a defining factor in their lack of coverage. 

“Around [Boston], it’s a lot harder to find [rappers],” Hartenstein said. “And once again, talking about underground and going to basement shows, all the basement shows are punk and indie. That poses challenges.” 

Jeanie Thompson, who worked with Five Cent Sound as head of the newly established Diversity and Inclusion editing board, refutes this claim. 

“Berklee [College of Music] is, like, what, 4 T-stops away?” said Thompson. “Get involved with the community! A ‘lack of hip-hop’ in the Boston community shouldn’t even matter because it’s simply not true. People love hip-hop or engage with musical genres that are spear-headed by Black people all the time. I personally just think that because these publications are predominantly white, they don’t know how to exercise efforts in the right way in order to attract diversity across the board.  

Another reason for the lack of hip hop representation on Emerson’s campus lies in its demographics. According to both publication editors, hip hop is listened to less on campus compared to other genres. 

Thompson likens this to the whiteness of the school itself. 

“Most students here are white and, sadly, prefer to function in spaces that cater to their whiteness and white interests — this includes music,” said Thompson. “I don’t even think there’s been any radio shows run by Black students until this year. Until Emerson prioritizes diversity, I don’t think any of the publications will reflect inclusivity and representation accurately.”

“With Emerson, hip hop is not really almost anyone’s favorite genre,” says Hartenstein. “There are not a lot of people at Emerson who are dedicated to the genre. One of the problems is that it’s hard to recruit that. When we open Milkcrate applications, we’re just like ‘do you want to write about music’, and the people that come to us are the people that come to us’. I was considering [asking] ‘do you wanna write about hip hop’, but I don’t want to single people out.”

Onnembo is equally aware of how little Emerson students seem to listen to hip hop. 

“I don’t think the number one genre or what most people listen to at Emerson is hip hop,” she says. “I think when it is brought up, it’s a lot of indie rap or alternative rap, and that’s the go to. I don’t really think there is enough representation around hip hop.”

It's not only musical demographics that affect hip hop representation, but racial demographics that affect how Emerson’s music publications face a genre that was birthed from black culture. Racially, Emerson is comprised of 58% white students, as compared to a tiny 4% of students reporting as African American. Hartenstein was aware of this and made some immediate changes to the writing staff when they had come on as director of Milkcrate. 

“The problem is most people who want to write about hip hop at Emerson are white guys,” said Hartenstein. “When I joined Milkcrate, we had a lot of white guys who wrote about rap, and I feel like they missed that sometimes. [They] didn’t have the self-awareness, and they were dominating the conversation. So, when I became director, I was like, ‘abolish white guys who write about rap”, and I realize now that that might have been a problem because for a while, we didn’t have anyone who wrote about rap.”

Five Cent Sound had similar issues regarding their writers and how they represented cultures or genres they weren’t a part of. 

“We ran into some problems when I was assistant [editor] about race representation within our writing, and the way that genres were depicted,” Onnembo revealed. “In that moment, a big consensus was that we cant judge this because we’re all white. This doesn’t affect us, we have no kind of say or insight into the ways that this could be offensive or not. I never wanted that situation to happen again.”

This experience led Onnembo to quickly enact and create the position of Diversity and Inclusion editors within Five Cent Sound. 

“When an editorial board isn’t diverse, whether its in race or genres and listening experiences, its going through a really narrow stream where there isn’t a lot of room for creativity or a well-rounded perspective,” said Onnembo. “[Diversity and Inclusion editors] help pick the articles that are within the print publication and they’re a part of the editing process. They look at the articles and they assess what could potentially be harmful or what is inaccurately represented, but ways to uplift other artists and genres that might not already be included in the piece.”

Hip hop isn’t completely absent at Emerson however. Milkcrate “Staff Pix” playlists often have alternative hip hop songs in them, and if you walk onto the school’s basketball court, there’s no doubt you’ll hear Travis Scott or Future over the gym’s speakers while students work out. Why doesn’t that translate into the school’s culture curators?

“Even though white students at Emerson can choose to be around whomever they want, they almost always make the conscious choice to surround themselves with other white people and, in turn, this is what contributes to a lot of the social disparities on our campus,” said Thompson. 

Thompson also isn’t surprised as the lack of representation in Five Cent Sound and Milkcrate’s coverage, attributing it to Emerson’s non-Black majority.

“Ultimately, from a perspective of wanting more inclusivity in music publications on campus, this is obviously a bit concerning, even if it’s not a listened-to genre on campus,” said Thompson. “Everyone knows a Kanye song, everyone has streamed Flower Boy or Igor — if the non-Black students here value artists like Tyler [the Creator], Baby Keem, Nicki Minaj, or any other well-known rap artist, they can – and should – certainly find a way to integrate that respect into their student-run platforms.”

Overall, both editors are aware of their lack of not only hip-hop representation, but also the representation of non-white artists, and are working to do better in that regard.

“It really goes to show how much the white perspective and narrative is uplifted and prioritized, and that becomes the default,” says Onnembo. “I think that it is really important to embrace and represent a lot of diversity in genres, but whiteness isn’t one of them. That doesn’t need to happen.”

Thompson notes Five Cent Sound’s inclusion of Diversity editors, and feels that it is a small step towards forming a space not just more music fans, but for students of color as well. 

“I do think that all music-oriented publications should prioritize putting POC in leadership positions,” said Thompson. “I was 1 out 3 Black students on the FCS staff and the first step towards fostering comfort and community is to let SOC know that they’re wanted/valued.”

Emerson’s music publications may not be where they want to be, but they feel that they’re trending in the right direction. Between hiring Diversity editors and making sure white writers aren’t dominating a conversation about non-white art, there seems to be small progress on more inclusive music curation at Emerson. 

“I look at FCS and we’re a team of 100 people, and at least 40 writers, so it’s a struggle to get people to write sometimes,” said Onnembo, “but I think just looking at the posts that are on our blog and the amount of content we are producing, there needs to be a bigger effort and there needs to be more things done on our end to make sure that we’re focusing specifically on hip hop and that we’re going into other genres. It’s just something that we need to do a better job of, simply.”


How Jordans (and Other Sneakers) Became as Explosive as their Namesake: Dissecting the Way Sneaker Culture Has Invaded the Mainstream

by Niklas Walker

Since it’s induction, the internet has become the world’s breeding grounds for niche subcultures and hobbies. These subcultures, at once tied down to local interest and word of mouth, can now explode at an unprecedented rate thanks to the worldwide connective tissue that is the internet. 

Sneaker culture, something that has been considered fairly niche since the culture’s inception in the 80s and 90s, have become one of those ever-growing communities that owe said growth to the internet. Online communities flourished after the sneaker culture explosion in the mid 2010s. The /r/sneakers Reddit community has gained two million subscribers since 2017, compared to a measly 120,000 subscriber increase between its inception in 2012 and 2017. Facebook groups revolving around sneaker releases grew exponentially in size, and “archive” Instagram accounts dedicated to posting photos of sneakers and fashionable clothing are mainstays on social media. 

Sneaker culture has seen an enormous explosion in popularity, and now more than ever all kinds of people are hyper fixated on what gets onto their feet, not just longtime sneakerheads. Nowadays, even on massive social media sites like Instagram and TikTok, you’ll see 20-something influencers wearing the signature sneaker of an athlete they’ve never seen play. It speaks to the influence and longevity of one of Nike’s most lucrative brands, but it also raises the question: how did such a niche interest explode into one of the most mainstream expressions of fashion in the 2010s? 

Before we can talk about the sneaker explosion of the last half-decade or so, it’s important to set context. The birth of sneaker collecting and “sneakerhead” culture really started in the 1980s thanks to the rise of the previously mentioned Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan’s signature shoe with Nike – the Air Jordan 1 – was released to the public in 1985, and thanks to Jordan’s living legend status among practically the entire United States, sold out quickly.

“He was an icon”, said Kevin Sean, who is native to Wilmington, North Carolina: the hometown of Jordan himself. “Everyone wanted to be like him, and everyone wanted those shoes.” 

While Jordan’s influence was no doubt felt in his hometown, the hype was felt throughout the entire country. A Newsweek article from 1985 encapsulates the chaos at a Nike store in Los Angeles, reading “the shoe took off almost as fast as the electrifying Chicago Bulls hotshot himself”. 

Once sneakers were established as a cornerstone of fashion and culture in the 80s, the subculture stayed somewhat dormant until the early 2010s. Places like Los Angeles and New York, however, have always had an extremely strong sneaker community.  Gianna Di Cristo, born in Queens and currently residing in Brooklyn, remembers how important sneakers were to her social status in middle school. 

“I used to beg my mom for Jordans when I was younger”, she said. “It was so important to have nice shoes because it meant that you were in touch. You knew what was cool.”

Sneaker culture quickly left dormancy during the mid 2010s, and especially after the release of Kanye West’s Yeezy line with Adidas. West’s sneakers were considered revolutionary in crossing the bridge between athletic sneaker design and casual fashion. The original Adidas Yeezy Boost 750, the first release in the line, was limited to 9000 pairs and sold out in ten minutes. 

Despite their limited nature, sneakers have long since become mainstays in fashion, and in turn, offer a special form of personal expression. The culture – since 2016, at least – has made it to the mainstream.

“The fact is that sneakers are mainstream to the point where I can’t go a day without seeing a retro Jordan or a Yeezy,” said Di Cristo. 

That fact is generally attributed to the way sneakers have permeated other aspects of pop culture, leading to fans of artists, designers, and more to leak into the space of sneaker culture. Artist collaborations, as previously mentioned, are incredibly important in this growth. Nike’s collaborations with public figures like Travis Scott, Drake, Billie Eillish (musicians), Virgil Abloh, Tom Sachs (artists/designers), Nigel Sylvester, and Lebron James (athletes) make sneakers an all-encompassing piece of “merch”, if you will. For many, purchasing these sneakers offers consumers an extension of their fandom, allowing fans to wear a physical manifestation of their interests, whether it be hip-hop, high fashion, or professional sports. 

This can cause a rift between self-identified sneakerheads like Di Cristo and those who may only purchase shoes based on trend-hopping or brand association. Sneakers are undoubtedly rooted in black culture, spearheaded by black icons like Michael Jordan. On the other hand, there’s deep rooted history in every sneaker model, whether it’s the exact color Jordan won his first championship in, or the tried-and-true New York City classic Air Force One. According to 2019 market analysis by StockX, the leading sneaker reselling site, 33% of Gen Z (1997-2012) men identify as a sneakerhead, a generation that wouldn’t even have memories of Michael Jordan playing basketball. For many, seeing basketball shoes and other sneakers worn casually by people who may have found those same shoes less than desirable, or even “ghetto” five to eight years ago can seem like a form of appropriation. 

“I feel like some people aren’t honoring where that culture came from when they wear Jordans with skirts and cropped dress pants,” said Di Cristo. 

The explosion of sneaker culture opens a thought-provoking discussion when it comes to fashion trends and appropriation, especially when the explosion of a trend can make things harder for regular consumers. Thanks to the newfound demand surrounding sneakers, a subculture of sneaker resellers has been created who exist solely to buy up existing sneaker supply and resell them for a massively inflated price.

A large force in the reselling market, StockX, reported a $2.8 billion valuation in 2020, with over 200 million global visitors. Not only that, but as of 2020, StockX is a top-ten preferred footwear brand among male teens, despite never producing footwear to begin with. On StockX, previously mentioned artist collaborations like the Travis Scott Air Jordan 1 can sell for a whopping $1600, a price premium of 957% compared to its retail price of $175.

Resellers often use predatory methods of purchasing shoes in bulk, like bots that purchase sneakers from storefronts at light speeds constantly until stock runs out. These predatory practices keep real consumers from purchasing sneakers, ostracizing those who love the culture they take part in. It’s easy to blame people who are new to sneaker culture for reselling, as it’s the increasing demand of a limited run of sneakers that adds to the perceived value of the pair. When more people want a pair of sneakers, the prices will increase, much like a real stock market. 

Suddenly, sneakers have become a hobby for only those in the upper class. In the same 2019 market analysis, StockX noted that they had become a top ten website among upper-income Gen Z men. 

“I think when trust fund babies wear [expensive resold sneakers],” said Di Cristo, “they wear them because they’re showing off that they can, not because they understand style or sneakers. It’s a financial flex. They don’t have style; they just have money.” 

The exponential growth of sneaker culture may have led to some negative aspects within the community, but there’s no doubt the sudden popularity has garnered positive attention as well. The saturation of Nike and Adidas has sent many sneakerheads looking for new brands to represent, and new ideas to put their money towards. Brands like New Balance and Puma have reclaimed top spots in the sneaker market thanks to their ability to produce fresh ideas for those avoiding the tired silhouette of the Air Jordan 1 and Yeezy 350. Collaborations and endorsements have also helped garner a larger audience for these smaller brands, like NBA champion Kawhi Leonard with New Balance and J. Cole with Puma, creating fierce competition for top dogs Nike and Adidas. 

According to StockX, the primary sneaker market (primary sellers like Nike-direct, or boutiques) is a $100 billion industry, and it’s still growing to this day. Sneaker culture is undeniably mainstream, with influencers of all ages wearing Jordans and Yeezys. What once was a close-knit community has exploded into a full-on global phenomenon, building on every facet of pop culture. Tiny lines at mall Foot Lockers have become riots at sneaker boutiques. Artist co-signs like Run DMC and their song “My Adidas” have grown into full on brand collaborations with the world’s biggest celebrities. 

All that history sits on a combination of rubber, leather, and mesh. Will sneakers end up like skinny jeans, and fall from grace after holding a seat on top of the global culture? Some argue the recent influx of new consumers has already doomed the culture’s relevance bubble to pop. Whether sneakers maintain the relevancy that they do now, it’s certain that the subculture will leave an impact on fashion and consumer culture forever. 

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