Iced Out: The Rise of Male Ornamentation in the Black Community

In many ways, chains and the African American community have been inseparably linked. From the chains of slavery to the modern day chains of imprisonment and generational poverty, a symbol with a history of oppression and exclusivity has turned into a modern day allegory for the American Dream. As said by performer Jermaine Lamar Cole:

This is everything they told a n**** not to do
Image is everything I see, it got a lot to do 
with the way people perceive, and what they believe
Money short so this jewelry is like a weave
Meant to deceive and hear n***** say: "I see you” 

– “Chaining Day” (J. Cole)

The 1990s were both a progressive and tumultuous time in the Black Community. There were the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the rise of Hip Hop culture in the form of lyricists like Tupac Shakur and groups like N.W.A, and the explosion of Black television and films. Black people were being seen in a way they hadn’t before, not only by Non-Blacks, but by Blacks themselves.  The flashy chains Hip hop is known for was started in the 80s with pieces like Run DMC’s Adidas Piece and LL. Cool J’s Dookie Chains. However, it was not until the 90s that the chain took more prominence as a staple for the working class Black man. The chain became what the pocket or wristwatch was for past generations: a sign of independence, manhood and strength.

BIG was the first one that had it
Then I saw Nas' chain, man, that was Illmatic
Then I saw Kanye's hanging from his gold necklace
Then Ye gave me mine, that show you my work ethic 

“First Chain” (Big Sean)

Buying one’s first chain is more than an overexcited trip to the mall clutching the cash equivalent of an unspent paycheck. From a young age, children see everyone from their siblings, fathers, uncles, and community leaders put a chain around their neck every day before leaving the house. Some never even take them off. They are passed from generation to generation, neck to neck. The men they saw on TV spoke truth to power they never dreamed they’d have, and they got inspired. For instance, in the film Poetic Justice, Lucky (played by Tupac Shakur) and 2Pac were two very different people — one a single father driving a USPS truck and the other an internationally known performing artist. But both rocked a chain regardless of the size difference. Without a chain you were a regular person on the street, but with a chain came an air of importance and perceived financial stability, everything the world told them they could never achieve.

Male ornamentation has a long and storied history, from the Bloodstones worn by Babylonians of Mesopotamia as protection against their enemies to the luck-bringing amulets of Ancient Egypt. These accessories made men larger than life, both in presentation and in performance. These elements represented one’s status, their life path, and what drove them to get out of the proverbial bed in the morning. This same ideological framework can be traced to the continuous boom of chain wearing in the Black community. Be it a $3 “Big Gold Chain” from party city or a $3,000 cuban link, the chain exudes importance and ambition.  Every man with a chain has his story:

“My uncle gave it to me for my graduation.”

 “I had this shorty pulling up to the crib for a function and I had to stunt right quick.”

“All the cool kids in high school rocked a chain and a watch so I had to fit in to stand out.”

These are all stories I’ve heard when questioning my peers about their newfound drip.  While they are all unique in their own way with a multitude of social and internal forces driving them to their purchase, they all fit the criteria of an eagerness for a power shift: the uncle endowing his nephew with a chain symbolized a sort of rite of passage; the eager suitor peacocking for the object of his desire symbolized an emulation of power he may or may not have had; and the teenager trying to fit in with the cool kids symbolized a yearning for acceptance, respect and reverence.

Viewing these shifts through an Emersonian lens, one might argue that the chain has come to be not an expression of freedom, importance, and individuality but a symbol of conformity and foolish consistency. But I believe it’s the opposite. While the color and appearance may be the same across generations and peer groups, every chain has its own meaning and has a wide range of expressive power. You can have it dressed it up or dressed down, experience poverty or immense wealth, be ambitious or “chillin”, and the chain will remain a pivotal set piece. The chain not only represents a push for importance but serves as a timeline of progress along one’s own path. You will always remember your first chain and you peers will too.

– Noah Wright