The History of “Bling”

Photo: iStockphoto

An Atlanta Post article by  R. Asmerom traces the cultural and historical origins of “bling” in the African-American community  – all the way back to Africa.  “Certain areas of West Africa have been known historically for gold mining, which was an enormously important component in some of the most sophisticated and complex commerce networks the world has ever known, networks that included huge portions of West Africa and extended across the Sahara,” says art historian Patrick McNaughton.  “Accounts of two famous and very large empires — Ghana and Mali — indicate that finely worked gold ornamentation played a large role at court.  The same is true for contemporary leaders in Akan culture groups, within the nation of Ghana.”  Dr. Alma Gottlieb, a professor of anthropology and African Studies, points out that bling sends a different signal now that we have the technology to make cheap copies: “[W]e can now make inexpensive copies of these items. It becomes potentially an avenue of appearing to engage in upward mobility through fashion, even if you’re not moving up in the class hierarchy, you can look the part.”

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  1. The Voice of Reason says:

    They may think that they look classy, or are moving up in the world, but in reality it looks very tawdry and hackneyed. I’ve known some very conservative and intellectual African Americans in my lifetime, but those who choose to wear “bling-bling” set their people back hundreds of years.

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  2. John F says:

    Oh look, conspicuous consumption in an attempt to attract mates. Old news. Nothing to see here, move along.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    Okay, this is the April Fools Joke right?

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  4. dirtydudley says:

    Tying the exaltation of material wealth via jewel displays is a human trait. European kings and popes don’t wear steel or lead on their head. Native Americans put turquoise into their teeth. Pendants, broaches, rings and earrings are common to all of humanity, so I guess in the sense that humans evolved in Africa, it is an African trait. Correlating the behavior of descendants of slaves to Ghanan and Malian customs to describe an American music-industry fabricated paradigm is unwise. Then reporting it on this site, as if it doesn’t mark African Americans as “other” is insulting. The article is presented as an explanation of why black people behave “differently” from everyfrickenbody else on this point. As if some Greeks, Jews, Italians, Britons, Latinos or Persians don’t prominently display wealth via jewelry.

    I think the bias of this post comes from the author writing from the standpoint of equating a media-inspired definition of “Blackness” to being a real African American. The Atlanta post did a much better job in remaining even handed on this question.
    The question should be this, “Why has it become industry standard for hip hop stars to display wealth and jewels in their media personas?
    –Eye appeal, easy symbolism, demonstration of success/skill, following the trend.
    And why do we accept rap stars as representing the entire group?
    –Racism
    Why don’t we ask if the long hair of heavy metal rockers ties them the ancient celts?
    –it is a stupid question. If freakonomics was fair to stupid-ideas across the board, Why don’t they get some Phd in Celtic studies tell us about hair styles of ancient Ireland.

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    • BSK says:

      Thank you for this comment. It sums up my objections nicely, though I don’t know that I would have been so kind about it. Freakonomics and “not being racist” don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.

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      • dirtydudley says:

        I cut a lot of the anger out, as it would alienate an audience that might be prone to agree with your ideas but not your rage.

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  5. Shane says:

    Some of this music sounds like advertising for kinds of “bling”. I wondered if rappers were actually getting paid by jewelry companies to promote these products. From Nelly’s “Grillz”:

    “Got thirty down at the bottom, thirty mo at the top
    All invisible set in little ice cube blocks
    If I could call it a drink, call it a smile on da rocks
    If I could call out a price, let’s say, I call out a lot
    I got like platinum and white gold, traditional gold
    I’m changin’ grillz everyday, like Jay change clothes”

    It’s like a jingle for a commercial! I’m not very knowledgeable about hip hop (so die hard fans can kick my ass on this), but compare that blinged-up Nelly stuff with Das Efx back in 1993. Their video for “They Want EFX” shows the rappers in simple khaki and black, trudging through the sewers in black boots. The image is grimy, dark, utterly different from the bling stuff (and, I reckon, infinitely cooler).

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  6. Shane says:

    Also, I noticed that this kind of conspicuous consumption is sometimes common among non-black poorer communities. I’ve seen white working class Dublin men wearing gold chains and earrings, unusual among the wealthier classes.

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    • Familyguy says:

      But no one is wondering if white, jewel-wearing people in America got it from Dubliners…which is roughly parallel to what freakonomics has put their stamp on here.
      EDITORIAL PROCESS: Read an article from the Atlanta Post,
      See that the subject describing behavior of African Americans was broached, a contentious headline is a good one
      A black guy wrote it, it must all be true for all blacks.
      Get a quote from one more expert that supports the notion
      Run with it.

      The behavior of American blacks is always trying to be tied to the CONTINENT (with over 1000 languages and cultures) of Africa rather than to the African AMERICAN experience. No one ties behavior of trailer park dwelling white folk to caravans of the Visigoths or roman military frontiersmen.

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  7. Energeticdave says:

    Not that I wrote this article, but I’m so sorry the commenters feel so offended. To me it seems like a researched article with an attempt to be objective and come up with an answer. If it’s research turns out to be wrong, I would hardly call that racist. If it happens to be traced back all the way to native Africa and that falls into a stereotype that people are unhappy with, again not racist. It is a single view that was attempting to answer a question.

    None of the commenters have offered a reasonable alternative – I’d love to hear one. Hip hoppers wear it? And it’s a “trend”? Great- so where did that trend come from?

    The question wasn’t about white people’s long hair or jewellery and if it was, and the answers did lead back to the places some of you suggest, I certainly wouldn’t be offended. I reads the question so in interested in the answer.

    Sounds like the commenters were more unhappy with the amount if racism in the question rather than the answer.

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