It’s ironic how integral Instagram has become for musicians in 2019 — especially rappers. The platform, designed primarily as a sort of online photo album to share pictures and videos, has become the foremost item in the rap promotion toolbox. More and more rappers rely on the app to promote their music and build their fan bases than ever; some rappers owe their entire careers to Instagram, which gave them a space to showcase their personalities way before they were able to show off their talents.
However, as Instagram adds features to help artists connect with fans, there is one aspect of the app which is as likely to blow them up for the wrong reasons than the right ones: Instagram Live. On the surface, the live-chat function seems like it‘d be the perfect promotional tool, giving stars the means to respond to fan queries in real time and showcase their more intimate, behind-the-scenes moments, unfiltered and improvised. The problem is, it’s those off-the-cuff moments that have become rappers’ worst nightmares.
For some artists, the problem with sharing so many candid moments can be legal. Of course, the biggest example is Tekashi 69, the Brooklyn rapper who rose to fame by playing the outrageous provocateur, only to end up paying the piper with a potential 20-year sentence in federal prison. Tekashi lived his life through livestreams, opening the curtain for fans to see into his debaucherous existence and leering into his phone’s camera to taunt and cajole critics, rivals, and anyone else he thought would bring him a little more fame.
It was this constant jostling for attention that eventually set him up to take the ultimate fall, as fans watched him trade threats with Chief Keef, Casanova, and members of gang sets all across the United States. This propensity for constantly documenting his experiences in real time only made prosecutors’ jobs that much easier; as they slapped him with multiple charges of racketeering including firearms violations for separate violent incidents in which members of his Nine Trey set shot at Casanova’s crew and Chief Keef’s cousin on his orders, all the evidence they needed was right there on Tekashi’s Instagram.
Even when admissions of wrongdoing don’t lead to charges, they can wreak havoc on an artist’s public image, as Cardi B found out when an old Live chat resurfaced along with an inflated outrage at the implication that she was “as bad as Bill Cosby” for drugging and robbing clients during her stripper days (just for the record, no she isn’t “as bad as Bill Cosby” for robbing clients, although she definitely broke the law). Once upon a time, Cardi’s gift of gab and glowing personality on her live fan chats helped make her a star. Now, she openly laments about having to self-censor, since anything she says can be used against her.
Perhaps no rap star better epitomizes this effect than Kodak Black, who has on separate occasions insulted Black women, insulted the LGBTQ community, insulted both at the same time when he spent a week trolling lesbian rapper Young MA, and gotten himself banned from radio stations and berated by his elders for making ungentlemanly comments about Lauren London in the wake of Nipsey Hussle’s death (never mind those elders’ anger being directed toward protecting Nipsey’s memory than Lauren’s dignity). If anyone needs to keep away from Instagram live, it’s the rapper from Florida whose new hairdo has him drawing comparisons to famous cartoon characters. He debuted the new look — where else? — on Instagram Live.
But even when the thoughts and opinions rappers share on IG Live don’t aim to directly incense entire demographic portions of the population, rappers can still find themselves on the receiving end of the internet’s everlasting supply of excoriating scorn. Just ask Dave East, who is an accomplished and well-respected rapper and actor, but found his accomplishments and musical catalog belittled by jeers of “Who’s that” on Twitter when he answered an earnest question during a recent live chat.
The question was simple: What did Dave think of “Old Town Road,” the suddenly inescapable viral hit from upstart Atlanta meme rapper Lil Nas X? Dave’s answer was likewise earnest and honest, if a bit unpolished; he didn’t like the song one bit: “Sh*t is wack with a cape on it.” Which is a fair response, if not the most popular one at the time. Dave East is 30-years-old — squarely outside the TikTok meme-loving demographic who helped turn “Old Town Road” into a hit. He’s also a street dude, not an internet dude. They process things a different way and certainly no amount of Woke Twitter haranguing of Billboard for (justifiably) kicking the song off the country chart could make East jump on that bandwagon.
But sharing that opinion resulted in an afternoon of dragging that sent his name to the top of Twitter’s trending topics list for possibly the first time in his career — or at least in recent memory. That’s an ignominious distinction at best. Sure, a little diplomacy might have helped him avoid such a punishment — how hard is it to manage “it’s not for me,” anyway? — but he opened himself up to such a risk as soon as he turned on that front-facing camera. He, like many other rappers, set out to bond with their most passionate fans and wound up with even more potential fans demeaning his music before they’d even heard it.
For what it’s worth, it’s probably impossible for rappers and other entertainers to completely swear off Instagram Live. It’s just too powerful of a promotional tool not to employ as rappers seek deeper connections with the type of engaged fans who will attend shows, buy merch, and support their music both financially and through word-of-mouth. However, rappers do have to be aware, as with all social media, that the audience is always potentially larger than just their staunchest supporters and that no genie ever goes back in the bottle. The unscripted nature of Live may be more endearing, but there is a greater chance for mistakes that would ordinarily be avoided or mitigated on other platforms. Unless rappers are keenly aware of that unseen potential audience out there in the wider social media sphere, perhaps their live ambitions are best left on stage and away from video chats.
Cardi B and Kodak Black are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music.