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Why Middle-class Kids Are Dressing Like LA 'Gang Bangers'

04/09/2015 13:08 BST | Updated 02/09/2016 10:59 BST

Four years after the fear and fury over the UK riots, and some months after the much hyped displeasure about Britain's top grime MCs performing with Kanye West at the Brit awards, Britain's high street shops are marketing the style of 1990s Los Angeles 'gang bangers' as the latest fashion.

This was before Straight Outta Compton was troubling the top of the box office or Dr Dre's album dropped. Instead it's a realisation of one of the most perplexing contradictions that exists in contemporary society.

This fear/fascination relationship with the urban poor is the central theme of my new book Understanding Street Culture: Poverty, crime, youth and cool. As politicians condemn 'gang crime', the cultural industries are busy harvesting street styles to sell everything from cars to kicks.

So why is it now that the visibility of street culture has come to dominate public agendas (of control and consumption)?

Like so much else, it's about following the money, or more specifically global economics. Economic exclusion is increasing. Not so long ago, the urban working-class could count on readily available, decently paid employment. However, the new normal for this socio-economic group is low pay and no security, with predictably depressing results.

Unsurprisingly, sections of this group want something else. Certain small groups within this worldwide class, punting for a life of entrepreneurialism and consumerism, instead forge an existence of committing crime to chase their dreams. Meanwhile, everything about them, from hairstyles, to fashion, to posture: how they walk and talk, is watched carefully by the cultural industries.

Whilst urban poverty has its links to problems of crime and violence, it simultaneously produces a style that many are keen to imitate. The being, behaviour and beliefs of the urban poor: street culture; continues to generate fear and fascination like few other social phenomena.

Where everything remotely 'cool' is relentlessly harnessed as design inspiration or marketing strategy, there is a need for ever more novel and authentic source material. Enter urban poverty. Where once a middle-class kid from the home counties might have baulked at dressing like an LA gang banger, now the high street provides them with the clothes to do it. Economics strikes again.

Street culture is not, however, just about economics. It also concerns the universal human drive to feel complete, valued and accepted. These sorts of feelings are not generously made available to those living in urban poverty and often individuals must strive to achieve them.

Here, a street cultural lifestyle (however criminal or otherwise) offers the opportunity to do this. It's not hard to understand why it would feel more exciting to strive for personal wealth and consumerist distinction, rather than clocking in and out of poorly paid manual drudgery which does not even pay for a lifestyle that might mitigate feelings of worthlessness.

At the level of beliefs and emotions, however, the middle-class included have a more complex relationship to street culture. Whilst young status and sensation seekers might value its cool, the conservative are considerably more concerned with the threat it represents.

As my late colleague Jock Young so eruditely concluded, where insecurity and lower pay is now also the realm of the middle-classes, fear of 'the other' becomes a rare stable touchstone. What they perceive to be the undeserving poor become a whipping boy for all the fears the middle-classes now endure. Couldn't they have chosen a more appropriate target?

Ironically, an obsession with the criminal elements of street culture blinds us to aspects of it that are so similar to the dominant culture of the rich. Does the 50Cent mantra of 'get rich or die trying' not also apply to the financial markets?

An overall concern with reputation (respect), conspicuous consumption (looking right) and entrepreneurialism (hustling/taking care of business) not to mention survival, are not just notable aspects of street culture, but can be seen to have clear parallels in 'mainstream' culture.

The germane question to ask is around how the urban poor are treated by agents of politics and crime control: are they to be seen as troublesome and in need of discipline or will it be recognised that they have mainstream hopes and dreams that are dashed by the lack of genuine opportunities available?

It remains possible to pay tribute to the talent and energy of the urban poor in a less exploitative way than marketing and cultural production, by offering meaningful opportunities for the poor to become included in mainstream socio-economic life.

The danger of consigning more and more people to the blunt end of greater inequality is that there will be illicit opportunities for these talents and energies to realise financial gain.