Who ‘shopped Kanye West?
The “Birmingham” shirt ‘Ye isn’t wearing in the above photo is sold by Big City Brand, who shared the fake version on Facebook along with a pitch to buy the shirt:
"That dope shirt" is a plain black tee, actually, as a reverse image search makes clear. You can get a plain black tee at Target, too.
Big City Brand’s response to getting called out on using photo manipulation to make it appear that Kanye West wore their “Birmingham” shirt? A winking emoticon. Seriously.
The post where the wink appears is public, provided they don’t delete it.
I’m no lawyer, but I believe “Unlawful Use of Name or Likeness" is still grounds for a lawsuit, so I’m not sure a winking smiley is exactly the right response, here.
Who Are These Guys and/or Gals, Anyway?
I won’t link to the apparel sales site because I’m criticizing them, not trying to get them more Web traffic, but Big City Brand is an apparel offshoot of Big Communications, a Birmingham-based communications company. (This can be confirmed through Big City Brand’s “About” page, which reads, in part, “…each (product) is a reflection of the passion that Big Communications has and shares for the city we all call home.” Big Communications’ mailing address and Big City Brand’s are identical, further confirming the match.
On Facebook, here’s how Big Communications self-describes:
At Big, we’re pretty easy to define. We’re a creative communications company that gets out of bed every morning to solve problems for the brands we serve. Whether through media, public relations, creative or something else altogether, we take the seemingly complex and make it surprisingly simple.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if you’d want your brand’s problems solved by posting faked photos and winking about it when called out. I mean, that obviously works for some brands, and “overtly offensive bullshit” is a pretty successful attention-getting tactic (again, hence the lack of links to their site in this post). Maybe we’ve found the perfect new agency for Miley Cyrus and Kenneth Cole?
However, with that being said, I’m still firmly on the side of “this is extremely distasteful and reflects very poorly on the business.” Here’s why.
Kanye, Fashion, Marketing,and Casual Exploitation of Black Bodies
This isn’t the first time a marketer has neglected a famous Black person’s right to control the use of her or his own image. The unauthorized use of Barack Obama’s likeness to sell a jacket comes to mind. Although President Obama wore the item in real life, no previous president’s likeness was used without permission in commercial advertising. A more recent, horrifying example is the unauthorized abuse by Peggy Noland of Oprah’s screaming, faux-nude image (albeit disguised as “art”).
When considering the unauthorized use of Yeezus’s likeness, specifically, to sell “Birmingham” tees, one must recall Kanye West’s vocal stance on the fashion industry’s use of famous Black bodies to sell product while remaining hostile to Black creatives.
'Ye talked about fashion and race on BBC:
That’s how y’all look. ‘It’s been eight years, and he still sittin’ there on that runway.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes. I am. And there’s still not a black person at the end of that runway!’ And I’m gonna sit here on this runway until I’m at the end of it. Because that’s that thing that people slave over. That’s that thing that people are slaves to. That’s that thing that I’m a slave to. That’s passion.
And in this corner there’s Big City Brand, happily using Kanye’s image to advertise a product he didn’t endorse or wear. Big Communications is not a minority-headed or woman-headed company; in fact, they seem to have only one employee who is Black*, although 73.4% of Birmingham, AL residents identify as African-American.
Look, I’m not calling anyone any names here, and I’m not assigning intent. It’s remotely possible that a fan did the Photoshopping, shared it with Big City Brand, and BCB merely failed to do basic, minimal fact-checking (if you want to learn how to fact-check photos, I have a recorded Google Hangout with NABJ for ya) before sharing the pic along with a link to their product site. It’s even remotely possible that while “winking” about the fake publicly, they scolded the person responsible for posting it.
And it’s not just possible that they didn’t intend to prove Kanye’s point about exploitation of Black celebrities by exploiting him, it’s probable. Most people simply don’t have overtly malicious intentions.
But, when this kind of thing happens, you have to call it out, because it doesn’t take malicious intent to contribute to systemic discrimination. This isn’t a fuck-you post like a previous one, and this isn’t meant to hurt any individual at Big Communications. But it is meant to live up to what Joe Osmundson, responding to moving words by Malcolm X, asked of White people in a beautiful essay (cached link, site is currently down):
While I believe that white people do have a role to play in the fight for racial justice, simply unpacking our invisible backpacks of privilege is necessary but not sufficient. White guilt isn’t changing shit. Doing the work to actually see race is the first step. The second step, the harder step, is to stop telling ourselves the lies that perpetuate bias and to stop participating in the structures that codify racism, and to implore other people to do the same.
A structure that codifies racism is at work in the casual exploitation of a Black celebrity’s image to sell clothing, while ignoring his recent, personal statements regarding racism in fashion. And I implore Big City Brand/Big Communications to knock that shit off. The faked photo alone would be unethical, but placed in a broader social context it’s doubly so, and doubly troubling. Corporate social media is an industry I’m a part of. I’m deeply disappointed to see someone in my field make this unsavory choice.
*(Caveat: Racial identity is not a matter of appearance and I may well be incorrect in my assessment of various black-and-white headshots of Big Communications employees; everyone I identified as “White” might well be multiracial or otherwise non-White identifying. However, the superficial appearance is not that of a company which matches Birmingham’s overall ethnic makeup.)