For those who have ever wondered why rappers like Jay-Z and P.Diddy favor “blingy” jewelry like massive gold chains and diamond-encrusted rings, Lyneise Williams GRD ’04 may have an answer.
On Tuesday, Williams, a professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke to a crowd of about 40 at the Yale University Art Gallery on her academic research on hip-hop jewelry as a manifestation of cultural identity. The ways in which hip-hop artists dress often reflect their desire to be respected in the hip-hop community and in the larger music industry, Williams said.
Jewelry, in particular, allowed hip-hop musicians to construct their sartorial identities.
“I believe jewelry is a favorite [way] for musicians to visually play out the concepts of respect and respectability,” Williams said. She added that the heavy gold chains that hip-hop musicians and rappers began to wear in the 1980s became symbols of boldness, self-possession, masculinity and abundance.
Hip-hop has historically been isolated from the rest of the music industry for its perceived association with criminal activity, she said. Dressing in an “extravagant and flamboyant” way, Williams said, allowed hip-hop artists to become more visible and gain a voice in the music industry.
“Respect is a significant aspect of hip-hop culture,” Williams said.
The extravagance of jewelry, she said, symbolizes a desire to defy life’s adversities and emphasizes personal qualities such as durability, resistance and the ability to bounce back. These characteristics, she said, speak to many hip-hop musicians’ past lives as hustlers.
But when hip-hop music broke into the mainstream, musicians not only hung on to the jewelry that made them a visible part of the industry — but they also piled on even more rings and chains, Williams said.
“The gold chains became even bigger,” Williams said. “This increase in size suggests increasing dominance in the music industry and a greater ambition in hip-hop musicians [to pursue that dominance].”
Four attendees interviewed said that they appreciated Williams’ analysis of the connection between fashion and personal identity.
“It was very interesting how Professor Williams connected culture and jewelry as a manifestation of culture,” said Jenny Byers, a fellow at the Yale University Art Gallery. “And she can speak about hip-hop jewelry like no one else.”
Williams is currently coordinating an exhibition on hip-hop jewelry at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.