The Internet is, among many things, the new cultural frontier. Its egalitarian nature–letting anyone with access create, promote, and consume content–allows for new audiences of millions of people to be exposed to cultural movements and developments that would otherwise remain niche and obscure. The list of cultural sensations that have been subjects of the Internet’s propensity to proliferate, colloquially understood as “memes,” ranges from serious activism (Black Lives Matter) to meaningless timekillers (The color ambiguous dress). The ubiquitous presence of the Internet in our understanding and consumption of culture makes it no surprise that these memes have effects beyond their online existence.
Music and memes these days are inseparable. The two are in a symbiotic relationship in which memes help generate attention for imminently popular songs and the music creates content for jokes that rapidly disperse over the Internet. Hip-hop music especially exemplifies this codependence. Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” was the soundtrack to the viral Mannequin Challenge, which started as an inside joke among high school students on Twitter and eventually caught on with prominent public figures. Ellen Degeneres, Michelle Obama, Saturday Night Live, and numerous professional sports teams have produced their own versions of the challenge, each with the hip-hop duo’s anthemic track in the background, skyrocketing the group’s fame. Another hip-hop group, the Atlanta trap trio Migos, saw the opening lines to its hit song “Bad and Boujee” quoted and interpolated across the Internet, catapulting the song to the number one spot on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart (the song has well over 350 million plays on Spotify) and the group to international stardom. Often, the relationship between music and memes is constructive, but it can veer into insidious opportunities for racism through a problematic obsession with the culture of underprivileged blacks.
The previous examples are playfully innocuous and pay homage to the original artists, but some music-based memes lose the deeper context in which a particular song’s quirk is based. Particularly, the recent trend of replacing certain consonants with the red “B” emoji (🅱️) has become a staple of Internet meme culture. It follows the fad of “ghetto memes,” and the style of Black Twitter, an online cultural identity described by writer Michelle Taylor (a.k.a. Feminista Jones) as “a collective of active, primarily African-American Twitter users who have created a virtual community … [and are] proving adept at bringing about a wide range of sociopolitical changes.” Indeed the B emoji meme has sociopolitical roots, stemming from the rivalry between the Los Angeles Blood and Crip street gangs. Specifically, the trend of using the letter B in place of other consonants comes from the Blood’s tradition of replacing the letter C–the first letter of the Blood’s rival–with B, essentially removing any association with the Crips from the gang’s lexicon.
This practice appears in hip-hop. Compton rapper YG parades the use of the Blood’s alphabet throughout his discography on songs like “Bicken Back Being Bool” and “Bool, Balm & Bollective” off his 2016 album Still Brazy. In these songs, YG makes his affiliation with the Bloods explicit; on “Bicken,” he raps, “I’m a real Bompton n***a with a motherfuckin’ attitude / Walk up in the spot, you would think that a n***a mad at you.” YG has nothing but pride for his upbringing on the L.A. streets, even calling out rappers who put on gangster personas without ever actually experiencing the lifestyle.
However, there is more to YG’s music and identity than his flaunting of the Compton gang life. Being a gangster means more than the stereotypically assumed propensity for violence and crime. Rather, gangs are the results of larger societal and systemic problems that face underprivileged minorities. YG, despite his flamboyance, understands this deeply. His penultimate track on Still Brazy, “Blacks & Browns,” directly confronts the broader social consequences of gang violence (“I’m a n***a and I can’t go outside / We looking bad on the news, black-on-black homicide”) while also serving as a call to action against oppression (“We need to come together, fuck they system / Tired of being a victim, tired of racism / So I’mma spit this ism ’til this shit stop / Cause this that ‘n***a, we all we got!’”). The final track on the album, “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” lambasts anti-black police brutality and the way systems of oppression in society have been set up against minorities (“Black males in a hoodie–that’s a target to them / They say he oversized and choked him out–that was harmless to them”). The album ends with YG enumerating the names and ages of several black teenagers whose lives were taken unjustly by the police, yet its final words harken back to YG’s decision to live on the streets.
Despite his efforts, perhaps it is too late for YG to be the spokesman for these issues facing the underprivileged in America. His legacy in pop culture has been decided by meme nerds on the Internet who find a funny joke in YG’s diction, ignorant of the baggage behind it. Even YG himself understands how he has been misconstrued by those who are not fully aware of what his background entails, as he explained in an interview with Complex Magazine,
“You got the fans that’s not out here, they’re up in their house watching this shit online, and it looks like it’s cool cause it’s dangerous. The most dangerous shit be the shit that everybody wanna be a part of—from a distance, though. So for those people at the crib, the little white kids, the young motherfuckers, that be playing with this shit, throwing up Bs and wearing red and playing with it? I don’t feel no type of way about that, because I can’t—I’m the reason why they’re doing it.”
YG’s music, songs that detail what it means to be a gangster and what it is like to be consumed by a dangerous lifestyle produced by poverty and oppression, has been distilled to a meme.
The cultural and social iconography behind YG’s music has been made irrelevant by viral meme consumption culture. The extent to which this meme has been extrapolated across the Internet is absurd. The Washington Post’s article, “Why is millennial humor so weird,” explores the bizarre taste of millennial comedy in recent online trends. In it, the author interviews Adam Downer, an editor for the online encyclopedia Know Your Meme. The author writes,
“The strangest meme he ever worked on, Downer says, was a bizarre mind-virus called ‘Hey Beter.’ The meme consists of four panels, the first including the phrase ‘Hey Beter,’ a riff on ‘Hey Peter,’ referring to the main character of the comedy cartoon series Family Guy. What comes next seems to make even less sense: In one iteration, the Sesame Street character Elmo (wearing a ‘suck my a**’ T-shirt) calls out to Peter, then asks him to spell ‘whomst’ve,’ then blasts him with blue lasers. In the final panel, readers are advised to ‘follow for a free iPhone 5.’ (There is no prize.) ‘That one was inexplicably popular,’ Downer told me. ‘I think it got popular because it was this giant emptiness of meaning. It was this giant race to the bottom of irony.’”
The image is truly senseless. It is impossible to make out what the jokes in it are references of without already being deeply ingrained in Internet meme culture. Above all, the tagline of the meme, “Hey Beter,” is clearly an interpolation of the Blood’s alphabet, and its origins in gang violence and thus poverty and oppression have been made into gibberish. Meme culture has contorted the Blood’s use of the letter B into a frivolous joke that washes away its broader social context.
To understand how the appropriation of the Blood’s use of “B” has become the nonsensical trademark of meme culture it is today, it is important to recognize who the people are behind the screens. While black users on social media are responsible for creating a lot of meme content that eventually becomes the most popular online trends, as The Daily Dot explains in its analysis of the B phenomenon, “The humor of posts rooted in black culture sometimes translates awkwardly when white meme nerds begin co-opting it. That’s basically what seems to have happened with the use of ‘B’ in memes.” Black people are often the target of online humor, usually at their expense. In meme culture, black people are frequently depicted as destructive racial stereotypes–such as “ratchet” and “ghetto”–to elicit a joke. This is most notably seen in the wave of memes a few years ago centered around Daquan, a flagrantly problematic archetypal black character whose “hood” behavior appeals to white people in the way the gangster themes in YG’s music does. The stereotypical violence, drug use, and anomie of gangs in these memes appeal to white romanticized notions of what it is like to live on the streets, disregarding their creation by entrenched racism and oppression. Frequently in meme culture, black people are demeaningly caricatured for white people’s entertainment.
With YG’s music, his gangster flourish overshadows his awareness of the oppressive powers responsible for his life in the streets. Blown out of proportion by America’s fascination with the lifestyle of underprivileged blacks, the B emoji meme in its viral absurd application denigrates the violence, poverty, and societal injustice faced by the communities from which the trend originates–communities that YG tries to elevate through his music. While memes in the past have been criticized for their problematic connotations–Harambe, Pepe the Frog–their affiliations with racism and fascism respectively were thrust upon them rather than being intrinsically responsible for their rise. The popularity of the B emoji meme, however, stems from mainstream America’s obsession with underprivileged blacks struggling with poverty and gang violence. Through the rose-tinted frames of privilege, the Internet found a joke in YG’s gratuitous application of the Blood’s alphabet.