Last Saturday, Atlanta rap group Migos were arrested at Georgia Southern University, where they were playing a show. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff, along with members of their crew, were apprehended on campus and taken to Bulloch County Jail. The trio was charged with felony possession of narcotics and bringing narcotics and loaded guns onto school property. Typical rapper shit.
Despite the severity of the charges, these facts feel frustratingly rote. There was no threat of violence or concern for public safety during the concert; in fact, the local student organization chose Migos to perform because an overwhelming 40 percent of students voted for them out of seven possible acts. Still, due to the very public nature of the raid by the police (which certainly did not seem to be an accident), the story got picked up by several music sites.
I saw the “Migos Arrested at College Concert” headlines, and my immediate reaction was “so?” This is a group that’s been shot at in Miami, seen stabbings break out at their shows, and in their first few months of real success turned #FreeOffset into a rallying cry while the rapper served a prison term. If this is the same group I saw toting guns on camera for Vice, I couldn’t be surprised (if a bit vexed) that they were arrested for the same thing on a college campus.
Police crackdowns on rappers are nothing new. Last year, Bobby Shmurda and members of his crew were arrested just months after he scored one of the biggest songs of 2014, “Hot Nigga”. Even the sharp goofball Tyler, the Creator had to deal with the cops when he was arrested after encouraging audiences to break down a barrier during SXSW. These cases vary in severity, with the charges against Shmurda (including conspiracy to commit murder) being the most serious. But in general, the higher profile that comes with being a successful rapper offers little favor to these black men. It just makes them bigger targets for police.
Migos scored a viral hit in 2013 with “Versace”. Even without Drake jumping on the official remix, they were poised to become regional stars, but the Canadian helped speed up their success. They’ve had numerous hits over the last few years — “Bando”, “Hannah Montana”, “Fight Night”, and “Handsome and Wealthy” — but their songs and mixtapes aren’t always the reason for press coverage. What’s helped them rise into the headlines is their meme-like functionality within certain spheres of the music world.
At the end of 2013, the quip that Migos were better than The Beatles started to balloon into a full-blown Twitter virus. It’s a joke that didn’t originate with them, but the memeablity of Migos became a strange albatross for them to carry when headlines and interviews with the group all started to shape themselves around the Twitter gag. They’re treated as a joke, but it’s not a joke that will help them laugh off these felony charges. In fact, such charges only add to the irony of the original “Migos vs. Beatles” joke; it boosts their black “authenticity” for fans far removed from the lifestyle the group portrays, fans who consume their criminality through a computer screen.
People tweet jokes accompanied by the hashtag #FreeMigos, as though the group’s run-ins with the law were just another part of the music for fans to enjoy. Maybe that’s not too far from the truth. When The Fader profiled Migos, they devoted paragraphs to how their record label 300 Entertainment paired with Twitter on a data-sharing agreement in an effort to spot emerging trends and boost their artists’ metrics. The label is heavily invested in the future of viral entertainment, and the Atlanta three are one of their flagship brands. Migos have always been in the business of trending — just in a way that drives a wedge between Migos, the product, and Migos, the group of people with real lives.
Whether it’s their label shooting their songs up the charts or the music news cycle regurgitating the facts of an arrest, the band’s image becomes more and more abstract from its three members as individuals. That kind of detachment seems to be becoming par for the course in the music world. Though it’s nothing that the 24-hour news cycle hadn’t already put in motion, it feels increasingly strange to see artists fed into the online content churn. There is almost a contractual obligation not to “sell one’s soul”, but to become a gif-able meme, a mugshot primed for Photoshop remixes. By this point, it’s hard to tell if people see Migos as artists or just as a viral phenomenon — a blip of pure content ready to be written up and data-mined.