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Arts & Culture

All American Boy Band

With yellow labels of N-GGER, RAY, WAKANDA, F-GGOT, FIEND, and NOTHING emblazoned on their bullet proof vests, jumping boys litter the stage. The show feels less like a concert, and more like a confessional. Kevin Abstract’s face is sharpened by the raw lyrics, Matt Champion punches the air, and Ameer’s legs lift into an L-shape, none of them pausing from singing. This is Brockhampton. 

Their rag-tag, underdog boy band exploded into popularity in the indie hip hop scene in 2016. Years ago in Corpus Christi, fourteen year old Kevin Abstract typed out the words: “Anybody wanna make a band?” He was alone when he sent the message into the Kanye fan forum. Abstract had started a band with a few boys from his school, and he was looking to add to their numbers. As people answered his call, the group collectivized into Brockhampton. 

Their most recent album, Ginger, punctuates the arc of their musical journey with the newfound crispness of professionalism. Where All American Trash had the warmth and sentimentality of a childhood best friend serenading you, Ginger’s intricate layering—stripped of unnecessary elements—showcases Brockhampton’s vocal talents.  

In the face of wavering race relations in America, the eclectic group of gay, black, Texan boys in Brockhampton is a rare find. For a group with such strong social and political implications, it’s interesting that one of the most important issues to the band is to be properly categorized as a “boy band.” Brockhampton’s insistence on occupying space in the “boy band” label ruptures all conventions and offers one possible strategy of synthesizing lived experiences into empowerment. 

The Boy Band Assembly Line  

Boy band means more than just “a musical group made up of young men.” It’s a brand. They were created by pop music moguls to be the “perfect” artist, and the machinic inner workings have been perfected through the decades. The actual defining characteristics of a boy band are derived from the process of assembling them. 

No well-known boy band of the past century has been organically formed. The corporate hand moved through each one with a fine-toothed comb, pruning each band to be perfectly marketable. The Beatles began as John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s hometown band before their producer replaced the other members. NSYNC originated when Lou Pearlman asked Chris Kirkpatrick to recruit him another chart-topping group. One Direction started as five rejected solo auditions on the X-Factor before Simon Cowell had them compete as a group act. 

The careful curation of members is crucial to create a market-approved image. The members become highly stylized and scripted, going through countless hours of media training to develop distinctive personalities. Each of the boys has a “character” meant to appeal to a young, predominantly female pre-teen and teenage audience, from the “boy next door” to “bad boy.” Their images are completed with synchronized dances in matching outfits. Nothing in their public appearance is left up to chance, everything had to be carefully media tested.

Boy band managers are there to smooth over any cracks in the facade. Management doesn’t just control the parts of their images relevant to their music—they control everything. The sterile, carefully controlled corporate arena does everything from planting fake stories to keeping member’s names in the headlines to generating the right press by leaking rumors about their personal lives. 

However, One Direction was marketed as the boy band that “broke” all the boy band rules. They didn’t have matching outfits, or choreographed dances, and they presented themselves candidly to their audience. They recorded video diaries during the X-Factor, five teenage boys in hoodies and sweatpants smushed into a tiny staircase, talking about nonsense to the camera. Their interviews were over-the-top fun where they messed with each other and effortlessly emmanated brotherly energy. Leaked emails between Modest! Management and Sony revealed that this “unscripted” appearance was precisely their marketing scheme. 

This polished image created by managers ensured that boy bands would have strong associations with being parent-approved, vanilla, and white. Members never take stances on political or social issues, sticking to the frivolity of good looks and red carpet appearances. Most boy bands have been made up entirely of hand-selected white boys who can maintain this image of the clean-cut relatable teenager, and the bands dissolve after the boys begin to age out. One Direction’s bending of the other rules contributed to their success, but they still fit comfortably into the boy band box.  

Brockhampton has none of these qualities. They are the exact opposite of vanilla, white, and corporate-curated. Yet, they still refer to themselves as “the best boy band since One Direction,” eagerly labelling themselves as the “southside One Direction.” References to Harry Styles and Zayn Malik are made throughout their songs, and their page advertises that “One Direction died so Brockhampton could live.” All of their members insist that Brockhampton should be referred to as a boy band rather than a “rap collective” like their predecessors Odd Future and Wu Tang Clan. Merlyn Wood bluntly tells reporters that “we’re a boy band because we say we’re boy band.” 

Too Rap for Boy Bands, Too Boy Band for Rap 

Brockhampton’s insistence on boy band status combined with the group’s history creates an interesting juxtaposition. They produced their first album in a house where they had many disagreements, could barely afford rent, and members had to work nine-to-five jobs. Ironically, they called this first house the Factory. Whether or not that’s a nod to the factory-like conditions that churn out boy bands is unknown. All American Trash was made up of pure exhaustion and willpower. The band did everything on their own, from graphic design to production. Their organic, self-made start diametrically opposes the formulaic construction of other boy bands. 

Brockhampton’s presence in the media is also completely different from previous boy bands. Taboo subjects were off limits to other boy bands so that they could maintain pristine images, but Brockhampton openly raps about struggles with sexuality, depression, and drug addictions, emphasizing their own experiences. Like One Direction, their appeal is in their frankness. But a variety of reasons contribute to the contrast between Brockhampton’s bluntness and One Direction’s orchestrated authenticity. For one, Brockhampton’s management is a husband/wife duo who care more about the boys than their profits. One Direction’s management was entirely bureaucrats from the large Modest! Management company. Brockhampton has never been part of the publicity stunts of traditional boy bands because they are just writing songs to try to “spill their emotions to the world, for everyone to love, ache, and hurt as they did.” Their marketing is secondary to their music. 

They didn’t rely on traditional advertisements or sponsorships for marketing. Instead, Brockhampton leaned into their internet appeal. Where One Direction distanced themselves from their fans online, Brockhampton actively encourages them. Funnily enough, Abstract wants to turn Brockhampton into a media company called Question Everything, reversing the power dynamics. Where boy bands were traditionally controlled by large corporations, Abstract is turning the boy band into the corporation. 

The way that Brockhampton and One Direction have handled scandals further illustrates the divide. A leaked video of Zayn and Louis smoking weed caused uproar because it ruined management’s carefully built brand. Although this information made many fans upset, instead of addressing the issue, their publicists kept silent to let the issue blow over. Conversely, when Ameer was accused of sexual harassment, members immediately spoke out and kicked him out of the band. 

Additionally, Brockhampton has reappropriated many traditional boy band tropes. They wore coordinated orange jumpsuits and blue face paint at Camp Flog Gnaw and they all had bulletproof vests at Coachella. But both these choices represented more than just a uniform, they forwarded strong social stances. Rather than matching for the aesthetics, their outfits protested police brutality and gun violence. They symbolized collective organization against political issues. 

Not only are they breaking from boy band tradition, they are also refusing classic rap tropes. Their lyrics contain no hints of misogyny, toxic masculinity, or homophobia and take on the opposite project of normalizing mental health discussions and emotional vulnerability. Brockhampton also openly admits to enjoying One Direction and NSYNC. Being a rap group that admits to listening to bubblegum pop groups, disrupts the notion of the rapper as a hyper masculine, untouchable, intimidating force of nature. Their lyrics refuse the hypermasculinity pushed onto so many other rappers. JUNKY reveals “where I come from n-ggas get called ‘f-ggot’ and killed… and they can come and cut my hand off and my legs off and I’ma still be a boss.” It echoes the questions other people have about the band like “why you alway rap about bein’ gay?/’Cause not enough n-ggas rappin’ be gay.” Then they pose their own questions of “closet n-ggas, masc-type/Why don’t you take that mask off?” 

Why it Matters 

Caribbean philosopher Edouard Glissant proposed a theory of power that affirmed a poetics of difference over similarity. His works centered around how individuals create meaningful relationships with trauma and each other. Glissant forwarded that trauma could create new relationships full of potentiality. He provided evidence from his home, where the local Caribbean language clashed with French and formed a completely new creolized language. Therefore, Glissant’s “creolisation” is a disruption of the “master’s dialect” and underlying it was a certain opacity. Opacity is the unknowable part of each person’s experiences, that binds us together as a community rather than dividing us. He emphasized that art was especially important for creating a diverse, supportive community.

This theory explains both why Brockhampton is a unifying force and why their art matters for a larger project. Brockhampton’s insistence on being called a boy band represents Glissant’s creolisation. They ruptured the white concept of boy bands, the same way the Caribbean language refused to dissolve in the face of French colonization. Brockhampton inserts itself into boy band history, radically shifting the brand by being everything it’s not. They stripped the definition of boy band down to its core and rebuilt. The same way that the Caribbean language combined with French to form something new, Brockhampton clashed with traditional boy bands and fundamentally reformed the genre. 

Furthermore, Brockhampton’s songs narrate the black experience in America, which is opaque to their non-black fans but familiar for their other fans. Their songs create community along this praxis, allowing others to gain insight into something they can never experience. Glissant isolates that “this is why we stay with poetry” because despite all of the “torture and massacre to be conquered… there is still something we now share: this murmur.” He thought that art had the “element of the marvelous” where it could “create fantasy from a…wretched, reality.” 

Brockhampton transformed a difficult lived experience into one of empowerment and advocacy. They don’t dwell on the hopelessness of hardships, but affirm that they are here to stay, despite the opposing forces. In a society structured by power relations, Brockhampton represents a lived-in survival strategy. They use art to reconcile the disconnect between their experiences of being queer, black, and living in America at this moment in history.

Brockhampton matters. They give their fanbase, largely made up of kids of color and who are LGBTQ+ identifying, a voice in mainstream media. They unapologetically affirm that they belong in the hallowed boy band halls, and carve out space for their fans, too. So where do they stand? Not quite a rap collective, subverting boy band norms, and creating a synthesis of rap with R&B—their strange combination of qualities seems to occupy a liminal space. They know “nobody would call [them] a boy band unless [they] call [themselves] a boy band.” Retaking politically charged terms and transforming them into a new brand, Brockhampton is the “All-American boy band.” 

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