Even more than the misappropriation of the word “nigga” as a term of endearment, the cultural phenomenon of sagging pants speaks exclusively to the institutionalized brainwashing of black America.
If hip-hop is the voice of a generation, ass-sagging pants is the uniform. And both are rooted in a rebellion so entrenched that many black men proudly regurgitate, through words and attire, the tell-tale sign of psychological ownership. If we could delve beneath the often exploitative lyrics of poverty, violence, drug consumption and slangin’, we might recognize that the price tags on our youth’s sagging jeans are nothing more than potential inmate numbers in disguise.
“In prison you aren’t allowed to wear belts to prevent self-hanging or the hanging of others,” Judge Greg Mathis said in a 2007 interview for Jetmagazine. “They take the belt and sometimes your pants hang down. … Many cultures of the prison have overflowed into the community unfortunately,” continued Mathis, who spent time in Detroit’s Wayne County Jail as a youth. “Those who pulled their pants down the lowest and showed their behind a little more raw, that was an invitation. [The youth] don’t know this part about it.”
Homophobic – and unsubstantiated — scare tactics aside, Judge Mathis’ panoramic perspective as former gangbanger turned judge and prison advocate, suggests that the sagging trend is nothing more than a prison uniform encapsulating the wreckage of our communities. In urban war-zones of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as black men returned from lengthy crack-induced prison-bids, sagging pants were being worn on street corners simmering with freestyle cyphers and riddled with dirty needles. The beltless, low-riding style worn by “thugs” and “hustlers” became the symbolism of manhood, victimhood and the “hood” all in the same 16 bars.
Today, the trend continues in cities all over America, but especially shows no signs of slowing in New York City. Critically acclaimed hip-hop artist Sha Stimuli, who hails from Brooklyn and is the younger brother of famed New York producer Lord Digga, admits to following the trend as a teenager, but strictly for superficial reasons. Today’s youth, he observes, are seeking validation.
“I sagged a little bit in high school but it wasn’t a conscious effort made to do it,” he wrote in an email. “Nowadays it looks really bad when youngsters sag so low that they can’t walk straight. I empathize with wanting to be cool, but when I see Lil Wayne on award shows displaying his underwear — and countless other rappers doing the same thing — it’s sad to know that a whole generation is following.”
Destiny Entertainment CEO Safari Clarke, also known by his stage name Black Santa, says that he’s aware of the style’s prison origins, but that all “sags” are not the same. “I might sag, but I never let my underwear show,” he said. “To most it’s just fashion, but it originated from jail.” Even with this knowledge, Clarke says that his version of the trend is acceptable. “My sagging is not considered sagging because I don’t let my pants hang low,” he continues. “I do it because it’s just a [little] more comfortable. But I don’t approve of any boy or man wearing pants that hang off their asses.”
So is there an actual hierarchy to the trend, a degree of sag that makes it appropriate? Or has it merely assimilated into mainstream culture to the extent that even those with knowledge of its origins fail to see the clear relationship?
Ivory Toldson, associate professor at Howard University School of Education, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education, disagrees with Judge Mathis’ analysis and questions the widely believed origins of the sagging trend. “I have a little skepticism about whether or not it originated in prison,” says Toldson. “I’ve worked in prisons and, at least in the ones where I’ve worked, there were prison uniforms with elastic waistbands. It would be a violation to wear pants that low, so I can never say definitely that it comes from prison culture. As a researcher, I’ve also never seen any ethnographic studies. It seems like it hits home for adults, not kids, who don’t like that kind of look.”
So where did it originate, if not in prison?
“I’m 39 years old and boys sagged when I was in high school,” Toldson says. “Drug dealers were the most popular people at my public school in the ‘80s and your attire easily made you a ‘mark.’ We all know that ‘nerds’ are known for wearing their pants high, even above the waist, so the counter of that would be to wear pants as low as you can.”
Toldson went on to say that there are varying degrees of the sag look, which he himself is accustomed to wearing. “As a college professor now, my sag will not be that far below my waist,” Toldson says. “I know college kids who sag a little further down than me. Then you have the fringes who wear it almost to the ground. These are the young men with the ‘give a f*ck attitude.’ They don’t care about us anyway, because they don’t think we care. They have issues with their families, in their communities and it’s the middle finger to us all.”
What we mostly see, is that “give a f*ck attitude,” with young black boys wearing their pants well below the waist as some misguided symbol of strength and power — despite the constant need to pull them up. Sagging has become a complex iconography for a generation struggling to regain its footing in a society designed for them to fail.
It is absurd that the very same system that provides drugs and guns criminalizes both the perpetrators and the victims, provides the sagging pants that have come to define a generation, also has the cajones to then try to implement laws requiring people who “sag” to pay fines, or risk returning to the very same prison complexes where the “trend” began. From Chicago, Illinois and Albany, Georgia, to cities in North Carolina, Texas and Florida, citizens concerned with sagging pants bringing down their value have pushed for ordinances to curtail the trend. Thousands of dollars have been collected in fines and some judges have begun to hold young men in contempt of court, and even jailing them for wearing their pants too low. Toldson views this kind of overarching policy mongering as both insulting and ineffective. “These young men need an immediate award for not sagging, or else they won’t respond to admonitions not to do so,” he says. “We don’t need another reason for our young men to get trapped in the prison system. It’s completely ridiculous, even in the school setting. What teacher wants to be the pants-sagging police? Sagging is a counter-culture, just as white kids with black nail polish is a counter-culture. We have to take a better route in getting to the crux of the matter. We should talk with our children, not talk at them.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP both claim that the bans constitute racial profiling of minorities and have successfully fought them across the country. The notion of arresting young men for wearing sagging pants, only to then assign them sagging pants in some jails, is a hideous irony.
Still, says Toldson, this trend also exemplifies an element of laziness on the part of adults and parents. “Sagging is about survival for these kids. What adults need to do is teach them how to navigate and survive in these spaces. It’s easy to judge them and shame them with talk of ‘prison culture,’ but where are these adults when they come before their peers who ask the question, ‘Why your pants like that?’ Where are these adults when they get harassed?”
And although the sagging trend has definitely been co-opted on a superficial level by a mirror hip-hop white culture, just as wealthy U.S. corporations reap major profits from foreign sweatshop workers living in inhumane conditions, the negative connotations that stem from the trend are still outsourced to black communities. Regardless of pop status, if sagging began in prisons when belts were prohibited to minimize violence and inmates hanging themselves, due to disparities in prison sentences, it will always be inextricably tied to black culture. And through its revered place in hip-hop, it has become, for many, the symbol of a generation hanging itself.