Music, Memes, and Money

How the viral age has allowed for profit through polarization

By Jason Turk, Staff Writer

Seeing the hip-hop artist Soulja Boy trending on Twitter in early January was a surreal start to 2019. He had disappeared from the collective consciousness after his last hit on the Billboard charts in 2010, “Pretty Boy Swag.”.

From claiming he was the driving inspiration for acts like Kanye West and Drake, to selling somewhat suspicious “SouljaGame” consoles, Soulja Boy made his return to the public eye by turning a lot of heads. With his unexpected resurgence, people questioned: Why would he make his return to fame now?

The answer to this question is seen in the publicity around numerous artists in the past few years, the tactic of cashing in on their contentious and larger than life personalities. With the current clickbait culture of the internet, the path to viral fame has been established, and it’s lined with controversy.

For example, New York rapper Tekashi “6ix9ine.” One glance at him you get a fairly accurate idea of his persona. At 22 years old, Tekashi wears gaudy jewelry, flashes rainbow colored hair and most notably, bears a palm-sized ‘69’ tattoo right on his forehead. His music largely revolves around him rapping loudly about his violent gang affiliations and sexual endeavors over aggressive beats. However, it was not Tekashi’s music that shot him to stardom.

The path to viral fame has been established, and it’s lined with controversy.

What attracted fans to Tekashi in the first place was the obnoxious aesthetic he proudly pioneered, but the lasting appeal was the spectacle of his self-initiated controversies.

His first major controversy was a despicable video of him performing sexual acts with a minor which was expected to lead to a swift downfall. Instead, Tekashi warped the controversy into momentum for his personal brand: Proclaiming his innocence, arguing that the world was out to get him, and ultimately sowing the seeds of a surprisingly popular, “Free 6ix9ine” movement. After this publicity stunt, Tekashi continued playing up his eccentric and violent persona by engaging in childish feuds with his peers, openly promoting his gang ties and turning any critique against him into a meme.

For better or worse, Tekashi’s antics caught up to him and he is now awaiting a September trial for racketeering charges. It could very well could put him behind bars for anywhere from 20 to 40 years, according to Complex magazine. This arrest, however, only seemed to boost his profile, and bumped his debut album to number two on the U.S billboard charts. Tekashi seems to prove that any press is good press.

There’s a precedent for popularity in hip-hop, and in this internet age, that precedent requires polarization.

Tekashi isn’t the only rapper from recent memory to sell product through strong branding. Danielle Bregoli, a teenager known for an appearance on Dr. Phil in which she infamously claimed that the audience could “Cash me outside,” has grown into a legitimately successful hip-hop artist after capitalizing on that meme.

Bregoli, in tandem with the likes of Tekashi and Soulja Boy, has tapped into the viral nature of today’s age. Before the digitalization of music, artists relied on radio plays and physical album sales for their success. With streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music the music from these new personalities are a simple search and click away, whether you like them or not. That’s why music sales for artists making unpleasant headlines tend to soar upwards.

It’d be unfair to say that rappers are the only ones pushing their product through publicity. Outside of hip-hop, there’s also been acts like Alex Jones and Tomi Lahren who’ve found themselves fan bases through pushing polarizing political content. Soulja Boy, Tekashi, and Bregoli are not the first ones to turn widespread disdain into careers, and they certainly won’t be the last. There’s a precedent for popularity in hip-hop, and in this internet age, that precedent requires polarization.