I Am Kurious Benjii

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Hip-Hop Hurrah; rap music’s history with the British royal family

I’ve found it interesting that two of hip-hop and the R&B scene’s more prominent members in 2023 have referenced the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The first was the front cover of SZA’s album SOS, which deliberate reference to a photo of Princess Diana taken in 1997 during a trip to Portofino, Italy. In the photo, Diana can be seen wearing a similar outfit and posing in a similar position to SZA on the album cover.

SZA confirmed this connection, stating that she chose the Diana reference because she liked how isolated Diana appeared in the photo and wanted to convey a similar feeling in her album art. Although the original plan was to use a shipping barge as the setting for the album cover, they built a diving board instead but kept the boat in the background as a nod to the original reference.

SZA’s album cover on the left and the image of Diana on the right that SOS draws its influence from.

The second and equally as conspicuous is Ice Spice’s most recent single with Nicki Minaj, “Princess Diana,” in which the Bronx rapper spits the phrase In the hood, I’m like Princess Diana,” leaning into the popular meme that she is indeed Bronx’s answer to Princess Diana – going as far as to hand Thanksgiving turkeys out to residents in her home hood.

Though hip-hop uses royalty to convey the message of at times rags-to-riches tales, or to assert their belief they are “Kings” or “Queens” of their respective scenes (Jay-Z and Nas’ feud over the mantle King of New York), I found it quite interesting that there have been as of late more specific reference to the British Royal family – and two rising names in the music scene directly referencing Princess Diana cannot be a coincidence can it? I mean – we do have the coronation of King Charles III later this week (as of writing), but given the less-than-amicable end to Di’s relationship with the soon-to-be king, I doubt it’s in celebration of a new monarch.

It goes further back than just this year though, the specific references: “BBC” by Jay-Z featuring Nas, Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake, released in 2013, includes the line “I think Prince Harry’s tryna holla at me”, which some have indicated was a reference to the Duke of Sussex’s reputation as a wild-child, off the rails after his mother’s death. It could be a sincere invitation also – in 2019, Beyoncé and Jay-Z congratulated Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their pregnancy during their Brit Awards acceptance speech, which suggests that they have some degree of familiarity with the couple and admiration at the very most.

Jay-Z even earlier referenced Princess Diana in 2006’s “Kingdom Come” with the line “From the bottom to the top/ The only place to go is up/ The sky’s the limit, that’s why I’m up/ Took my crown to the mountaintop/ Sit back and watch the world get cold/ Young Slim, the new Princess Di”. So evidently there was a fascination with “The People’s Princess,” which might lay in with one of the theories that Dr Aria Halliday wrote in their paper God Save the Queen: Hip Hop’s Fascination with the British Monarchy (Journal of Popular Culture, 2019).

The royals… meeting the Duke and Duchess of Sussex

They contend that hip-hop’s fascination with the British royal family is one that “is not simply one of admiration or emulation; rather, it is a complex and often contentious dialogue between two cultural forms that share important historical and cultural connections.” Given that Diana was viewed as almost an iconoclast to the way the Royal family conducted themselves, from her philanthropic efforts using her platform to raise awareness for important causes to her status as a fashionista icon, it’s plausible that the hip-hop community admired her for bucking these “elitist” conventions. 

But that isn’t just where the references to the Royal family end; in fact, despite her status as the pantomime villain of the British public who cares about the Royal family, Meghan has been referenced in a good light by hip-hop artists. Eminem’s collab with the late Juice WRLD specifically signal boosted the Duchess of Sussex, with the real Slim Shady stating “ I’ll change my name to Meghan when I get married, ’cause I don’t wanna be a princess, I’m already a queen” in “Godzilla.”

Eminem’s references to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex don’t end there either; in “Zeus” from his album “Music to Be Murdered By – Side B,” the rapper shouts out Harry and the media’s use of the late Princess Di to take shots at the Royal – “You want a headline? Leave Prince Harry’s mum out of this, you punk bitch / Or I’m a come and kill the fun with some 40s and a blunt, huh?” 

Given the 2020 release of both songs coincided with the furore the media made regarding Harry and Meghan’s withdrawal from Royal duties, commentators believe that Eminem was drawing parallels to his own moral panic/media storm during his fame. Though maybe not as acerbic and widespread as that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are contending with this close to the King’s Coronation. 

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Could the move away from the institution and its rules, from what we’ve learned through various articles regarding Meghan’s time with “the firm” and Harry’s publication of his bombshell memoir, Spare, fit into the argument that hip-hop’s roots as a subversive and counter-cultural movement have acknowledged such a move by the pair as a disruptor event in terms of “traditional norms.” I’m sure whatever protest takes place during the Coronation on May 6 will act as some form of disruption. 

This fascination with the British Royal family could be seen as a recognition of their cultural and historical connections, but it could also be interpreted as a subversive and counter-cultural movement acknowledging the Royal family’s move away from traditional norms. As the hip-hop community has historically been a voice for marginalized groups and a tool for social and political change, it’s possible that their interest in the Royal family reflects a desire to challenge traditional power structures and norms.

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