The NBA and Hip-Hop Have Survived Each Other, For Better or Worse

The NBA and hip-hop have come a long way. Once upon a time, the league’s evolution fueled a dichotomy that elicited fear. Here was a black league keenly aware of its reliance on a predominantly white fan base. Outsiders deemed failure inevitable. Former Commissioner David Stern recounts, “People forget, but there were articles about ‘the dark clouds over the NBA.’ When I was Executive Vice President, (then-Commissioner) Larry (O’Brien) sent me up to a newspaper, and the television guy said, ‘You don’t get it, Stern. You guys are just not going to make it. This is a white country and you have a black sport.’”

On multiple levels, it’s an ignorant comment that history has eviscerated. The black sport is doing just fine, thank you. But ignorance isn’t as easy to manipulate or explain away. Still, there is a misunderstanding about what “black” represents which feeds into a fear of black people.

Hip-hop is an art form borne from the desire to speak out against racial inequality and social injustice. But. Give people an excuse to hate and they will.

In the late ‘90s, NBA players obliged, providing a fast track to hatred, by turning the strength and steadfastness at hip-hop’s core into immature, self-serving perversions. Take, for example, Allen Iverson’s homophobic and misogynistic “40 Bars” lyrics.

Get murdered in a second in the first degree/Come to me with faggot tendencies/You’ll be sleeping were the maggots be/Everybody stay fly get money kill and fuck bitches/I’m hitting anything in plain view for my riches/VA’s finest filling up ditches, when niggas turn to bitches

 Chris Ryan, editor of Grantland’s The Triangle wrote:

“The negative association peaks with Allen Iverson. He made an album, and it’s not regarded as being particularly good, but it was hard-core. And that was surprising, because all the dalliances athletes had with hip-hop before that had been cartoonish, or safe. Iverson was definitely looked down upon by the league, because they perceived athletes like him as threatening to the marketability of the league.”

And while Iverson threatened the marketability of the league, he also gave the streets a relatable icon.

LowKey, founder of and Beats 1 NYC Radio DJ, remains a consistent voice in hip-hop. Looking back, he believes A.I. personified the hip-hop generation. “When you take a success story from the hood, put him in a multibillion dollar corporation, try to keep him in a safe box but totally forget being a rebel is what got him in that position in the first place, you get Allen Iverson.”

Iverson personified hip-hop because he teetered on the same double-edged sword. One side representing worthy causes such as social mobility, self-expression, and racial solidarity juxtaposed in close proximity to vulgarity, violence, and social subversion. The disheartening part was the former often overshadowed the latter.

The NBA’s stance against hip-hop came to a head following the now-infamous 2004 brawl between the Pacers and Pistons, which overflowed into the stands, eventually involving fans.

In his 2013 article, From Kurtis Blow To Lil Wayne: The NBA’s Complicated History With Hip-Hop, James Montgomery describes the aftermath.

“The league’s worst nightmare had come true, and they cracked down hard, suspending four players indefinitely (calling their actions ‘repulsive’) and implementing a dress code that banned fashions most associated with hip-hop culture, including jeans, hats, large jewelry and Timberland-style boots. The implications were clear: the NBA would no longer stand idly by while hip-hop took over the league.”

Since then an intriguing reversal has taken place. The NBA and hip-hop now enjoy a largely symbiotic existence. But don’t be deceived, hip-hop’s NBA inclusion isn’t so much about acceptance and diversity (very marketable platforms) as it is about hip-hop’s transformation into a benign presence.

In 2014, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, popularly known as the drummer and co-front man for the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots, wrote a six-part essay on, detailing how hip-hop has failed black America. Thompson’s thesis says hip-hop’s popularization has made it irrelevant. Hip-hop, once a voice for black America, is now a shell of its former self.

“Black culture, which has a long tradition of struggling against (and at the same time, working in close collaboration with) the dominant white culture, has rounded the corner of the 21st century with what looks in one sense like an unequivocal victory. Young America now embraces hip-hop as the signal pop-music genre of its time. So why does that victory feel strange: not exactly hollow, but a little haunted?”

Questlove goes on to answer his own question, “The reason is simple. The reason is plain. Once hip-hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible. Once it’s everywhere, it is nowhere. Once all of black music is associated with hip-hop, then Those Who Wish to Squelch need only squelch one genre to effectively silence an entire cultural movement.”

How eerily similar this is to the NBA’s development. Black players historically struggling against, yet collaborating with, white executives and owners.

The black NBA players struggle used to resonate with black America, but that’s no longer the case. Yes, the NBA is still a black sport (74.3 percent black during the 2015-16 season according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport), but the landscape is drastically different. Instead of enslavement there’s a growing sense of empowerment. Instead of subjection, black players are experiencing autonomy.

For the top-tier NBA players especially, it’s a welcome change of scenery, largely due to LeBron James following a business model set in motion by hip-hop mogul, Jay-Z. However, the unintended consequence is an ever-widening gap between what it means to be a black NBA player versus a black American citizen. Allen Iverson relating to the hood is like LeBron James relating to a board room full of black executives. A.I.’s message was one of relatable struggle, while LeBron’s oozes collaboration and ownership (still a far-fetched fantasy for much of black America). Unequivocally, this changing of the guard has created a less-threatening environment for the NBA.

In the past, hip-hop held a knife to the NBA’s throat; now the two are bound by a common belief system: a greater separation between the haves and have nots. Questlove is quick to point out, though, that the haves have changed drastically over the past few decades.

“Back in 1986, the group standing on top of the rap heap was Run-DMC, and after rising to international prominence, they released a song about one of their prized possessions. That song, of course, was ‘My Adidas.’

My Ahhh-didas, walk through concert doors/And roam all over coliseum floors/I stepped on stage, at Live Aid/All the people gave, and the poor got paid

 It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that this is an especially benign form of consumerism. For starters, it’s not about the shoes themselves, in the main. It’s about the group’s experiences on the way to stardom: the audiences that came to see them, the shows they headlined. And fairly quickly, it’s not about them at all – it’s about Live Aid, a benefit concert focused on making sure that ‘the poor got paid.’”

Interestingly (as noted above), Jay-Z’s blueprint for success adopted by NBA players is a blueprint completely detached from black America’s reality. While Jay-Z and LeBron have gained V.I.P. access to any club of their choice, the rest of black America is still standing outside, waiting hopefully in line.

It’s a depressing truth .

Hip-hop has become complicit in the process by which winners are increasingly isolated from the populations they are supposed to inspire and engage – which are also, in theory, the populations that are supposed to furnish the next crop of winners. This isn’t a black thing or even a hip-hop thing exclusively. American politics functions the same way. But it’s a significant turnaround and comedown for a music that was, only a little while back, devoted to reflecting the experience of real people and, through that reflection, challenging the power structure that produces inequality and disenfranchisement.” (Ahmir Thompson)

In a very real sense, LeBron, Jay-Z, and other uber-successful black Americans associated with the NBA and hip-hop have joined the exact power structure that formerly held them back. Player-wise, LeBron has extended his reach beyond the basketball court with his multimedia platform “Uninterrupted”. Kobe Bryant’s post-basketball career includes forays into documentary film and business ventures such as BodyArmor, and Kevin Durant has taken it upon himself to begin his own private equity fund, The Durant Company.

Jay-Z has a minority ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets, Usher has followed suit with the Cavaliers, Will and Jada Smith with the Sixers, and Nelly with the Hornets. Additionally, Drake is the “global ambassador” for Canada’s only NBA team, the Toronto Raptors.

And, of course, this discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the G.O.A.T. As Jason Francis notes in his 2017 article, Why Did The NBA Flip-Flop On Hip-Hop?

“On the court, (Michael) Jordan’s whole essence was pure hip-hop. He was the ultimate in-your-face competitor. He wore gold chains during All-Star competitions and gave birth to much of the sneaker culture we know today with his signature footwear. MJ’s incredible performances inspired countless references throughout hip-hop.”

To this day, Jordan’s steady influence remains, as he now enjoys majority ownership of the Hornets while continuing to reap huge profits from his Air Jordan brand.

The problem is that the above examples are exceptions to the rule. The harsh reality is black America remains relentlessly marginalized, in serious need of voices capable of rising above the fray. But both hip-hop and the NBA have lost touch. A seemingly beautiful marriage celebrating diversity and acceptance is really a charade characterized by exclusivity and posturing to the nth degree. In turn, neither is capable of providing the vital assistance that is needed.

Black academic, Charles S. Johnson’s believed that the arts were important because black Americans were denied equal treatment in so many facets of life. Johnson, an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance, felt the arts could provide a foundation for resistance.  So many years later Questlove interprets the arts in general, and hip hop in particular as a foundation in which empathy is exchanged as currency. “[Hip-Hop] made an entire community visible, impossible to ignore, impossible to dehumanize.”

From threatening to tenuous, to symbiotic, the NBA’s relationship with hip-hop has stood the test of time. Thanks to hip-hop’s regression the NBA can feign progression.

Case in point, the league choosing Kendrick Lamar’s hit, “Humble” for its 2017 playoff promos. What a turnaround. But. The irony, however, is in Lamar’s lyrics.

Ayy, I remember syrup sandwiches and crime allowances/Finesse a nigga with some counterfeits, but now I’m countin’ this/Parmesan where my accountant lives; in fact, I’m downin’ this/D’USSÉ with my boo bae tastes like Kool-Aid for the analysts

 In actuality, the NBA and hip-hop are finessing black America with some counterfeits. At some point, black America certainly wouldn’t be remiss in responding:

You’re blinded by your golden light. Remember those of us in struggle.


photo via llananba