Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New Age Folk Tales: A$AP Rocky, Addidas, and the NBA

A$AP Rocky narrates ballers balling for an Adidas commercial

By Kenton Rambsy

In 1880, Joel Chandler Harris published Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, a compilation of 34 plantation fables recently that were initially published in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. Uncle Remus, the title character and fictional narrator, served as the buffer between the readers and text, as he relayed stories, using Southern Black Vernacular, about the adventures of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and other popular characters in African American folklore. Uncle Remus became a crucial part of these stories as he described how Br’er Rabbit would often times outwit his opponents to enact revenge upon them or for his own amusement. As the narrator, Uncle Remus, set the pace of the story, emphasized the significance of the plot, and gave voice to the legends in Black culture.

Harris’s published collections have a strong bearing on how we make sense of the American short story cycle. His short stories with minimal characters, singular plot, and quick paced action and resolutions borrows from folk traditions as he fused cultural proverbs, music, oral history, and jokes of African American culture into these brief narratives.

Watching A$AP Rocky narrate the “Quick Ain’t Fair” commercial made me realize how he is narrating a modern-day short story for viewers. People are perhaps inclined to view the Adidas’s commercial more as a spoken word or rap free-style performance, but my view leads me to believe A$AP is telling a short story—a modern day folktale, even.

The commercial combines rap/poetry, pop culture references, and vivid images similar to the Harris who transcribed the Uncle Remus stories. A$AP, in a sense, is immortalizing John Wall, Damian Lillard, and Jrue Holiday as he describes their athletic prowess, exceptional speed on the basketball court, and success in the NBA. Not set in a specific year or geographic location, A$AP opens, in typical folktale fashion, noting, “There was a family of quicks on my block, a family we all knew.” Further along, A$AP adds, “People keep asking you what’s up in that shoe, First draft pick, rookie of the year, all star games too” adding to the prominent stature of these players and mystery surrounding their skills, especially their quickness.

As the commercial progresses, images of a larger-than-life Adidas’s shoe that is actually a gymnasium, fast-paced back and forth action of the pick-up game, and what is presumably images of an urban neighborhood are intersected with flashes of A$AP as he narrates the action. A$AP’s presence in the commercial is reminiscent of short stories as the narrator typically inserts himself in the story to clarify the significance of events in a given story or provide information to the reader/viewer that neatly ties the assorted events of a story together. A$AP ends the modern-day legend reminding viewers, “And when you crazy quick, man quick ain’t fair.”

My interest in this commercial stems from how many short stories we encounter on a daily basis even if we do not consider them as such. Even more telling is how we process information on TV and social networking sites with narrators such as A$AP using hip-hop vernacular to tie together (and moderate) the commercialized and product-driven yet artistic short story about black men, basketball, and fashion. As many compare rap music to poetry, maybe we can even start drawing comparisons between short stories and folktales and pinpoint the similarities between the genres.

From RapGenius to Cultural Historian to Marketing Analyzer?

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