At the 2022 Grammys on Sunday night, the ceremony’s “in memoriam” section paid tribute to the talents the music industry has lost over the past 12 months, including Virgil Abloh. In the wake of his death last November from a rare form of cancer, the Off-White designer and creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear was mourned not just by the fashion industry, but by those across the numerous other creative communities he touched throughout his career.
It’s not hard to see why. Abloh’s influence on music went far beyond just dressing stars for the red carpet – although he was a favourite of everyone from Drake to Frank Ocean to Rihanna, too. Abloh first honed his skills as a DJ while he was at high school in the 1990s, eventually coming to prominence for his art direction work for the likes of Kanye West, Kid Cudi and A$AP Rocky. (He even received a Grammy nomination in 2011 for his work on West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne cover art, which he designed in collaboration with Riccardo Tisci.) Abloh also released an EP with the electro-house producer Boys Noize in 2018, and he continued to DJ and direct music videos for the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Pop Smoke and Quavo all the way up to his untimely death.
So for many of Abloh’s fans, it came as something of a shock to see Abloh referred to during the Grammys tribute section as a “hip-hop designer.” It’s certainly true that it’s hard to define his various talents – which spanned the titles of fashion designer, DJ, producer, creative director, architect, visual artist and philanthropist – under a neat professional title. But as plentyofTwitterusers pointed out on Sunday night, “hip-hop designer” does him a particular disservice.
For one, it speaks to the historic failures of the Grammys to appropriately recognise the contributions of Black artists. The most memorable recent example came when the voting body scrapped the term “urban” in 2020 – which referred to records predominantly made by Black musicians – after Tyler, the Creator spoke out at the ceremony the year prior. “It sucks that whenever we – and I mean guys that look like me – do anything that’s genre-bending they always put it in a rap or urban category,” he said. “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. It’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
For many, pigeonholing Abloh specifically as a hip-hop designer carried many of the same connotations, minimising his impact across a multitude of genres in a manner that could easily be interpreted as racially charged. While Abloh was certainly proud of his influence within the world of hip-hop, and the associations with the genre are far from derogatory, it felt like a flattening of his wider contributions to music culture. In fact, the most notable celebrities to wear Abloh’s designs for Louis Vuitton over the weekend were the K-pop boyband BTS, disproving the notion that his designs were only worn by a specific genre of musician.
The moniker also overlooks his contributions to music outside of the world of fashion, with no mention of the fact he himself had been a Grammy nominee, nor that he had an impressive side career as a DJ. The need for a short description is understandable, but including “DJ” or “producer” in addition to designer would have felt like a more fitting eulogy. While it may not have been the tribute that Abloh deserved, as the many stars who continued to wear his designs on Sunday night proved, his powerful legacy lives on.