Vic Mensa’s black skinhead look is a reminder of the subculture’s true origins.
Black skinhead. Aside from being the name of a 2013 Kanye West song, the phrase has been perceived as oxymoronic. A pairing of words that arguably don’t belong together, considering the latter’s association with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
This association wasn’t always like this. The skinhead subculture was born out of racial unity, a term used to describe a group of people brought together by fashion and music in London, England in the 1960s. But the subculture transformed into something entirely different following its inception, so much so that the skinhead aesthetic — short hair, boots, a white t-shirt, jeans, and suspenders — became synonymous with white nationalist values.
Vic Mensa hit the stage in New York last night with a fresh cut after removing his dreads pic.twitter.com/fVYUzb190e
— XXL Magazine (@XXL) June 3, 2018
Recently, a picture of Vic Mensa performing live at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom began to circulate on Twitter, with a number of fans comparing his appearance to American History X‘s Derek Vinyard (famously portrayed by Edward Norton). In the film, Norton is a neo-Nazi skinhead whose violent acts against black people land him in prison and contribute to his younger brother’s death.
Nah mensa hit the stage and look like Derek from American history x pic.twitter.com/FrKK6AjtBV
— Darrius (@Darrius_Lamarr) June 4, 2018
The black skinhead aesthetic isn’t new for Mensa. Last year, he practically wore the same wardrobe seen in the photo for his “OMG” video. There’s also an old Instagram post from the video shoot captioned with “Black Skinhead.” However, the comparisons to Norton came with this picture, most likely because of Mensa’s newfound build and bald head.
But it’s fascinating to note just how synonymous the aesthetic and the term skinhead has become with white supremacy, considering both have its origins in black culture.
The skinhead subculture was originally tied to working-class youths in London, England in the 1960s. Considered the first wave, this iteration of the movement was an offshoot of another youth subculture called mod. Skinheads were categorized as such because of their close-cropped or bald heads, but their fashion was inspired by mod as well as the Jamaican rude boy subculture.
Jamaica has a storied history with the United Kingdom, the island country serving as a British colony between 1655 and 1962. Following World War II, a mass migration of Jamaicans to the UK occurred, with many of them filling up vacant jobs throughout the country. Along with sharing the same jobs with British people, Jamaican immigrants also inhabited the same working-class and poor neighborhoods as them. Being in such close proximity to each other the rude boy and skinhead youth subcultures were bound to converge.
Black Jamaicans brought with them music such as dub, ska, rocksteady, and reggae, as well as fashion items such as striped suits, thin ties, and pork pie or Trilby hats — both of which were a part of the rude boy subculture that rose to prominence in Kingston, Jamaica, in the early 1960s. A name used to describe rebellious and violent youth frustrated with poverty and inequality throughout Jamaican shantytowns, rude boys became an integral part of the skinhead subculture.
The look of the skinhead was as cool as it was intimidating. The work boots, straight-leg jeans, trousers, suspenders, and button-down shirts a practical clothing style that reflected their economic circumstance.
“The clean-cut, neatly pressed delinquent look owed at least as much to the rude boys as it did to the formalized and very hard stereotypes of the white lumpen males,” Dick Hebdige wrote in his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style. “… through consorting with the West Indians at the local youth clubs and on the street corners, by copying their mannerisms, adopting their curses, dancing to their music…”
In his 2016 BBC Documentary The Story of Skinhead, Don Letts — a black Jamaican — explored the relationship between the two, with skinheads acknowledging how influential the rude boys subculture was.
“It was unique and it was a bond we had with our black friends,” Tony Haddow said. “It was something we could all share in. I mean even what we were wearing — the trousers up high and things like that — that all came from Jamaica I would say rather than the state.”
As the skinhead subculture rose to prominence, Jamaican artists created a new genre dedicated solely to the group — skinhead reggae. Desmond Dekker, the Skatalites, Symarip — these artists and bands catered to the British and Jamaican skinhead alliance. However, with skinhead’s rise came its commodification. The subculture was mutating into a trend as well as a tactic to enlist white youth into far-right political groups.
Throughout the 1970s, groups such as the National Front and the British Movement took advantage of disaffected youth, using them to promote their fascist ideology.
“We were trying to think about race wars,” Joseph Pearce, a former National Front member, said in The Story of Skinhead. “Our job was to basically disrupt the multicultural society, the multi-racial society, and make it unworkable.”
“[Our goal was to] make the various different groups hate each other to such a degree that they couldn’t live together,” Pearce added. “And when they couldn’t live together you end up with that ghettoized, radicalized society from which we hoped to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.”
The politicization of the skinhead subculture as well as its adoption in the burgeoning punk scene distorted it from its roots even further. By the late 1970s, the general public had come to view the skinhead subculture as how it’s perceived today across the world — a group that promotes racism and neo-Nazism.
Although this doesn’t seem to be Mensa’s intent to shed light on the origins of the skinhead subculture, it’s a way to highlight how this group’s multicultural roots were appropriated into something entirely different. Aside from the viral wardrobe, the artist wore another outfit reminiscent of the subculture’s early beginnings.
The striped outfit, the tie — the button on his right is even a direct nod to the rude boy subculture’s influence on the skinhead aesthetic, with the item reading “Rude Boy” in all caps.
Mensa has always utilized punk signifiers throughout his career. However, it’s this most recent iteration that has gained the most attention because of its association with skinhead subculture. But it’s important to note that what Mensa might be doing — whether intentional or not — is a form of reclaiming. A reminder — and introduction — to an aesthetic that didn’t originally belong to violent white nationalists, but working-class British and Jamaican people celebrating each other’s culture.