The Wall Street Journal reports that the hit HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones has given money to hip-hop and Latin-music artists to rap and sing about their television show. The artists include Big Boi, Common, Wale, and Daddy Yankee.
According to Nielsen, more than three in four people watching the show are white. Of all primetime HBO viewership, only 16.8% are black and 12.3% are Latino (It’s unclear how or where they determine data for Asian viewers, or why adding the 72.9% white viewership makes 102%), and even less for Thrones. The 10 songs in total about the series, based on the books by R. R. Martin, is part of a larger campaign to get more black and brown viewers to HBO, or as the Journal says, “urban audiences.” HBO declined to state how much money is involved with the free mixtape.
This marketing scheme isn’t completely unprecedented, many rap mixtapes are sponsored by more than whatever DJ is yelling his (or her, but almost always his) name over every track. Jay-Z made fans buy a $100-$700 Samsung phone to hear his album Magna Carta Holy Grail before it hit stores. Earlier this year, Chicago rapper Tree dropped an EP sponsored by Scion, the boxy Toyota-produced automobile company that was featured on the show Pimp My Ride when the original car was totaled. The energy drink Red Bull has sponsored enough music that they had to come up with the name Red Bull Music Academy. And even brands like Sprite have released rap mixtapes to promote their product to a targeted audience. However, those endeavors rarely, if ever, were exchanging money for content directions. It’s more for a logo on a free CD handed out at events featuring broke rappers.
In the past, artists have often recorded songs for charities or causes, like “We Are the World” or Michelle Obama’s Songs for a Healthier America. It’s one thing when a rapper or group makes a song or mixtape about a product or television show; Atlanta rapper Future put out a mixtape in 2011 called Dirty Sprite and Wale famously made two mixtapes about the ’90s sitcom Seinfeld. But to the best of my knowledge, neither rapper received corporate compensation for the product placement. For Common and Big Boi, who the Journal say are fans of the show, this might seem like a pretty cool opportunity. For Wale and others, who “aren’t regular watchers of the show,” this is a pretty corny cash grab.
It’s obvious that the finances are running dry in many traditional forms of music output, and artists struggling with money and popularity are looking at new ways to pay for their videos and studio time and what not. But getting paid to rap about a television series, especially one the artist isn’t already a fan of, seems uncomfortably shady. I can’t imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer giving money to 2Pac or even like Rass Kass to rap about the show, or if the 1987 Kevin Costner film The Untouchables had paid every rapper that referenced Elliot Ness in the following years. Common was quoted in the article comparing this to the Wu-Tang Clan referencing kung-fu movies in their lyrics, but I don’t think Ol’ Dirty Bastard ever got money from Gordon Liu.
This can definitely open up a few doors for struggling and successful rappers alike to make some money and have their music heard by people who might not otherwise, as well as soulless companies and television stations to find new black and brown consumers without actually making a product designed for them. Instead of giving a television show to a person of color, HBO can just throw some money at a few rappers and tell them to rap about their TV show with hardly any characters of color. But giving money to rappers as a marketing technique or willingly taking money to rap about something are not inherently bad things. The biggest thing left is whether the mixtape will actually be any good. Big Boi’s song on the mixtape apparently contains the repeatedly chanted chorus, “Dungeons, dragons, kings and queens!” Oh my.