As a black hip-hop fan, gazing across the landscape of corporate America can be disorienting.
In the 1990s, juggernaut brands like Sprite and Tommy Hilfiger used rappers Q-Tip and Spinderella to boost sales. Through the 2000s, outlets like Urban Outfitters peddled rap iconography from “Ghettopoly” to bamboo earrings. And last year, as hip-hop surpassed rock as the most popular American music genre, even bougie brands like Tiffany profited off the art. Where does one draw the line between where cultural appreciation ends and cultural appropriation begins?
For many, it is hard to separate the practice of cultural exchange from extraction. One clue is the vacuum hose that can usually be heard when a company rips an art form out of a community and resells it without investing in the community that produced the artists. And all too often, when I see retailers use hip hop, I hear a sucking sound.
One need not look further than the salad shop, Sweetgreen, to spot a siphon. Founded in 2007 by three Georgetown students, the restaurant began as a scrappy start-up serving “simple, seasonal, healthy food.” Sweetgreen came along right as the emphasis on health and fast-casual marketing was beginning to trend, and the chain seemed to capture the zeitgeist. The founders were fluent in the kind of savvy, millennial, social-impact language that turned investors’ eyes googly, and the company grew quickly. In those heady days, I thought that a restaurant like that, with potential to scale, might be able to serve the black neighborhoods that sorely needed less greasy options. I was young and dumb.
I first found out about Sweetgreen in 2014, when I moved to Washington, DC. Back then, like everyone else in the company’s hometown, I quickly fell in love with the chain. Fresh from the Atlanta suburbs, I was accustomed to the sleepy, cookie-cutter layouts of Waffle House, Wendy’s, and American Deli. Sweetgreen was something completely new.
There were no heat lamps or hidden kitchens. Everything was clean and airy. The interior looked as if someone had power-washed a Subway and melded it with an Apple Store. Employees sported bandanas and looked legitimately happy to be working there. Their metal bowls chimed as various assortments of apples and avocados whirled around. And the salads, with rows and rows of mesclun, arugula, spinach, kale, romaine—the salads were fresh as hell. But their branding was even fresher.
Since as far back as 2008, when Sweetgreen was little more than a “salad and frozen yogurt concept,” the company has been using hip hop as a tool to introduce itself to customers. On its WordPress blog, it curated old-school vs. new-school rap playlists featuring Nas and Common. It posted inspirational quotes from Jay-Z and Public Enemy on Tumblr. It repurposed hip-hop phrases into catchy taglines like “make it grain” and “drop a beet.” But by 2015, it ascended to new hip-hop heights when it secured Kendrick Lamar to headline its annual music festival. This was just as the cultural cool of Kung-Fu Kenny was beginning to crest—after he released the critically acclaimed Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but before he had collected a Grammy for his albums. And, just as Lamar was capturing the rap game, Sweetgreen was cashing in on his name.
Playing on Kendrick’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Sweetgreen plastered “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe” on salad titles, gift cards, T-shirts, tote bags, and on any other piece of plastic or cloth that could be labeled, stitched, screened, printed, or pressed. At one point, one of the co-founders even made a butchered attempt at performing a Kendrick verse at one of the rapper’s concerts. The full-court-press rap marketing campaign birthed a flurry of Instagram fan posts, positive press from publications like Pitchfork and Billboard, and a blueprint for an aggressive hip-hop-themed marketing model the company would follow for years to come.
In 2016, I moved to New York for grad school. After only a few months in the Big Apple, I grew tired of the local food staples of $1 pizza and bodega bagels. Feeling grayer than a Manhattan sidewalk, I heard my mother’s voice in the back of my head (and on the phone) telling me to eat something green. One day between classes, I walked into a Sweetgreen near campus, and that’s when I saw how the seeds of “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe” had grown into a full-on commercial farm of hip-hop branding.
The company was then running a “Big Pun” competition where customers could win prizes for naming salads with rap-inspired names like the Rihanna-themed “Peach Better Have My Honey,” the Rick Ross à la mode “Everyday I’m Brusselin’,” or the Beyoncé tribute “Becky With the Good Pear.” But it didn’t stop there, as the company’s ability to produce rap marketing soon surpassed even Kanye’s ability to puke rants.
Following Yeezy’s footsteps, the company sold “I Made That Peach Famous” gift cards in time for Christmas of 2016, along with Weeknd-themed holiday cards printed with “I can’t feel my face when I eat tofu, but I love it.” In the winter of 2017 it flipped Beyoncé lyrics to promote its new hot sauce. By fall of that same year, it hoisted the Drake-inspired “Started from the farm, now we’re here” billboard on Sunset Boulevard. And from 2018’s “Sweetgreen loves Diddy” video on Instagram to the quote tweet asking Cardi B to slide in its DMs, to branding its salads as “bae” in e-mails, the company has displayed a shameless voraciousness for hip-hop culture in its quest to be the “coolest food” company.
So by last fall, when Sweetgreen giddily e-mailed me about its new menu, writing that it was “in our feelings,” I was already thoroughly in my own.
This year started on the same note—with a 2019 New Year’s–resolution video featuring Anderson .Paak eating and smoking “sweetgreen.”And in stores, the company still sells its “Ca$hew Money” gift cards, which never fail to remind me of the words of the rapper with whom the card’s name is most closely associated, Lil Wayne. His verse on “Hollywood Divorce” is a jeremiad against cultural appropriation:
Yea, and I don’t have to go to Hollywood
’Cause Hollywood come through my neighborhood with cameras on
I really think they’re stealing from us like a sample song
Stealing from us. Wayne’s words cut to the core of how corporations harvest black culture, black lyrics, and black bodies. So often, the sensation of theft occurs because the communities—and sometimes even the artists—receive so little in return for what they contribute to these corporations. It’s an old refrain, remastered for the hip-hop era by companies like Sweetgreen. Because while it’s abundantly clear that the restaurant values rappers like Big Pun and Cardi B as a tool for selling its products, it does not appear to see their black and brown Bronx neighborhoods as sites for that business.
After I noticed the brand’s hip-hop fixation, I decided to look to see if it was located in minority communities. This was a mission that almost gave me an astigmatism. I looked at stores and maps of New York, Philly, Boston, and elsewhere to little avail. Eventually, I compiled a spreadsheet of all the stores’ locations with the corresponding racial and economic census data of the neighborhood the store was located in, and the results were clear: To me, the stats conjured images of redlining maps from the 1950s.
Here, in New York City—hip hop’s birthplace—the company operates over 20 restaurants. A map of the locations shows the outlets clustered in Lower and Midtown Manhattan, with a few stores venturing into gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Dumbo. In the city’s black and brown neighborhoods, however, the salad eatery is nowhere to be found.
Likewise, in the store’s hometown, Washington, DC, the chain operates 12 locations—none of which are in the city’s predominantly black Wards 7 and 8, home to 160,000 residents and one-fifth of the city’s population. Maps of the restaurant’s locations in Boston and Chicago reveal similar location patterns.
In fact, at the end of 2018, 95 percent of Sweetgreen’s 89 nationwide locations were located in predominantly white ZIP Codes, with an average (median) income of $97,129.15. This segregation is no small feat, given that the store operates in large urban areas from Boston to Los Angeles, cities with historical and huge black communities.
These minority areas, which have produced so much of the imagery that helped Sweetgreen become what GQ called the “mecca of hip salads,” are often in the largest need of fresh food. Experts say the systemic disregard of these areas by grocery stores and healthy restaurants has led to acres of urban food deserts—and swamps. These are areas with a dearth of healthy options and an abundance of unhealthy ones. Writing in the Journal of Urban Health, researchers found that the absence of quality stores in black areas likely decreases local residents’ health—a disparity that restaurants like Sweetgreen could address.
Indeed, Sweetgreen frames itself as a chain with a social conscience—the kind of place that offers free food to furloughed federal employees during a government shutdown. In 2018, the founders themselves declared that they “passionately believe that real food should be convenient and accessible to everyone,” while the company’s current tagline reads “building healthier communities by connecting people to real food.” And, as a visit to its website reveals, the company clearly understands the problem of food deserts. There, under a section slugged “impact,” Sweetgreen fans can learn all about the company’s “Sweetgreen in schools” program, which makes “healthier food accessible for our nation’s kids,” as well as worthy one-off projects like its transformation of a South LA minimart into a health-food emporium. “A food system is not sustainable if it’s not accessible,” the text for this section reads. “Our work is rooted in a passion for making real food convenient and craveable for all.”
And yet, because of the racialized pattern of store locations, many urban minority neighborhoods never get to enjoy this convenience. Or they enjoy it only as an act of charity—a notable act of charity, but one that pales in comparison to the size of the company, as the number of people who gained access to healthy food through Sweetgreen’s 2018 impact programs is less than 1 percent of the more than 1 million customers that use the Sweetgreen app.
Despite a number of attempts to reach out to the company, Sweetgreen did not respond to requests for comment.
To be clear, the failure to serve urban communities of color extends far beyond Sweetgreen. Many retailers choose not to set up shop in minority neighborhoods. The era of legally enforced redlining is over, but after generations of divesting from black neighborhoods, retailer’s racism runs on autopilot. This is what scholars call laissez-faire racism, a type of discrimination that depends not on the law, but rather “relies on the market and informal racial bias to recreate, and in some instances sharply worsen, structured racial inequality.” And every day, when retailers choose not to locate in black neighborhoods, they recreate the structured inequality of redlining.
Even after joining Michelle Obama in a 2011 pledge to open or expand 1,500 stores in underserved communities, retailers like Walmart and Save-A-Lot also continued, as recently as 2015, to dodge minority areas ripe for commercial investment. Such retailers, which leap at White House press events and then fail to deliver for marginalized communities, are part of a new generation of shifty “socially conscious” enterprise. Many of these companies have “little interest in working towards collective political change,” notes University of Baltimore historian Joshua Clark Davis. “[They] have appropriated the language of conscious capitalism, social enterprise, and mission driven business but…without questioning or challenging established economic, social, and racial power relations.”
Yet, even against the long bigoted backdrop of US retail racism, there is still, perhaps, a warped kind of progress. While the racial power relations of today’s retail economy still follow the segregationist investing patterns set in the 1940s and ’50s, companies regularly acknowledge the cultural importance of the communities they avoid. That is, if the last several decades have been notable for the continual corporate neglect of black communities, they have also been defined by the rise of corporate acceptance of black art—especially hip hop.
Growing up at the intersection of these two trends leaves me in a daze. The arc of my life has traced rappers like NWA’s ascent from criminalized counterculture to praised commercial art. I remember this older age. When anti-rap tirades from Bill O’Reilly and Bill Cosby took the day, when I was told that rap music would make me angry, when my teachers accused my classmates of “gang-related activity” for wearing white T-shirts after Dem Franchize Boyz released “White Tee.”
But we live in a new era. The waves of Drake and Nicki, Wayne and Beyoncé and so many others have turned the cultural tides. Hip-hop artists now perform and debate at the White House. They recite polemics at the Academy Awards. They win Pulitzers. Today, the transformation is so dramatic that residents in areas like Compton can even see their hometown hero Kendrick Lamar honored by wealthy, venerable start-ups like Sweetgreen with a personally branded salad. They just won’t find it anywhere near their neighborhood.