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Postcards from the edge: I was in a cell phone commercial

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Thursday, Feb 12, 2009

The cell phone company found the biggest, blackest group of loud bling-wearing, “wife-beater and jeans” thugs in American hip-hop to rock the crowd in order to promote their brand. The largest man of the bunch both in terms of height and in terms of width, stood in back wearing dark sunglasses and a heavy hooded sweatshirt. He was the only one on stage without a microphone and had, what one of my favorite comedians calls, “the kind of muscle that you get from trying to keep a brutha off you” (Prison style)! Everyone else on stage showed-off muscular torsos and sagging jeans.


An imported popular, affordable vodka brand sponsored a special foreign guest DJ-event the only other time I had visited this discothèque. On that occasion, the bar only served that particular brand. Something similar was repeated during what turned out to be the taping for their commercial—apparently the cell phone and liquor companies were in collusion to win us all over. The limited drinks alongside the massive branded-posters all around the hallways and stage, and even seemed to float above the dance floor like its halo, implying a kind of divinity that the brand certainly lacked.


On the whole, however, this was a crafted marketing event. The Rs. 1500 ($30) cover charge included 500 rupees ($10) worth of drinks that sold for Rs. 150 ($3) and included Rs. 20 (40 cents) worth of liquor and Rs. 7 (14 cents) worth of juice. I suppose they charged for ice as well.


The crowd’s hands shot into the air the moment the group finally appeared on stage after several announced delays and stalling by an annoying squirt to whom I shall return to later. The crowd thrust their cellular phones high to capture the action live. Many mobiles had flashes adding a sense of bedazzlement and active participation coming from our side. I could see that others took video recordings that they reviewed, at times ignoring the live performance altogether; for them this even was more about their ability to boast later, than actually enjoy the present. This went on throughout the first three acts. When hip-hop was born, empty hands and firm fists flew into the air raising the roof, but this would have been too transgressive for the commercial state. Besides, one cannot commodity and export/import defiance and self-determination as easily as a DJ on stage with some fat tracks. Still, thanks to the hype-men, we sang: “The roof, the roof, the roof is one fire, we don’t need no water…” But the crowd didn’t know how the song ended unless and until they were told so.


The first two songs ended abruptly with the DJ spinning the sounds of a broken window or perhaps shattered goods. Then, each transition between songs was marked by the noise of crashing glass, as if we had witnessed some altercation or other illicit transgression. This sound repeated over and over, sold us the idea that we were amongst real bad boys, and that we were somehow a part of this dangerous cluster. I looked around, and as I noticed many teens from the local high school for expatriates, I imagined that this must have felt exhilarating to them. Here we were in an exclusive and expensive bar so far out of the city that the very ability to reach that space already implies a great amount of relative privilege in this city. Moreover, like most of the kids in attendance for the commercial, there were chauffeurs waiting outside to cart them between the high walls and security guards blocking the gates to their school, their homes, their friends’ homes, the places where they shop and spent leisure time, including and especially places like this club.


Enhacing the crowd’s criminal sensibilities, the end of the third song ended with the sounds of a machine guns—I dare not imagine the target, the victims, the criminals, the police, the criminal justice system. These were all the mad men who were seemingly convinced that violence was regular. They constitute one of many well-treaded institutions in America built around our propensity towards violence. The prison industrial complex is one of the fastest growing and privatized national industries, and is a direct descendant of the institution of slavery a transition that was so shady that we could just mark it with the sounds of shattered dreams- broken glass.


The cameramen on stage competed with the local announcer and his tiny digicam for the best shots of the rowdy group of men as they spit on the mic, criss-crossing the stage. The cheering crowd seemed to be their main focus, and one wonders what becomes of this footage—market research? Propaganda? Convincingly, there were several redundant TV networks standing by to capture each bit of the action.


Gangbanging the crowd


The crowd roared quite a bit that night. Certainly, there were those who welcomed the beats with a response when any new, deep bass came through the blisteringly loud speakers. The speakers were set so loud as to literally penetrate our muscles and bones even as densely packed as we were, pressing forward towards the stage.  I went with a mixed group of friends, so the males in our bunch spent most of the night as human shields for the women in our group because the crowd’s density provided ample opportunity for the sort of public fondling of women that is quite common here in India- that which drives women to constantly strategize about how to deal with crammed busses where women and girls have been fingered by hapless men who believe the anonymity of the crowd grants them permission to behave in ways that they probably would not their mothers, wives and sisters to have to suffer. What’s more, the hype-man* made sure that the crowd cheered after the DJ spun each song. The hype-men also teased the crowd who grew agitated waiting for the real thugs to arrive. After one hype-man had announced for the third time that the group would arrive in another 15 minutes some folks even started to shout, and a beat began to emerge from the ground as they stomped in unison. Good job; we were sufficiently hyped up.


After each song the hype-man would come on stage and ask the crowd to, “give it up for the DJ,” or “give it up for that dope beat,” and finally, “give it up for the sponsors,” to which many reluctantly complied. As a final point, the hype-man announced: “There are too many white people in here!” I suppose that he bonded with hip-hop culture through a mutual dispassion for ‘the man’. If new comers to America can align themselves with the culture of dominance, power and the false sense of meritocracy through adopting the dominant culture’s stance of racial superiority, then certainly a hatred of ‘the man’ marks one as a radical, right? Thanks to this cell-phone company the hype-man has taken full root in India. I caution you to consider what it is that they are selling. I caution us all to (re)consider what it is we choose to buy- and why.


* A hype man is a hip-hop performer responsible for backup rapping and singing, and increasing an audience’s excitement with call-and-response chants. A notable hype man is Flavor Flav from Public Enemy.

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