Innovator Insights: Rock The Bell’s James Cuthbert

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James Cuthbert describes the birth of Hip-Hop as a time when “an emerging cultural force gave a voice to the voiceless.” As its 50th anniversary approaches, he suggests Hip-Hop’s community will have a lot more to say to the brands smart enough to listen. 

James Cuthbert describes the birth of Hip-Hop as a time when “an emerging cultural force gave a voice to the voiceless.” As its 50th anniversary approaches, he suggests Hip-Hop’s community will have a lot more to say to the brands smart enough to listen. 

Cuthbert is president of Rock The Bells, a global lifestyle brand founded by Hip-Hop icon LL COOL J. In addition to the namesake music festival, it inaugurated this past August in Queens, New York, Rock The Bells also operates a branded SiriusXM station (Ch. 43), several other experiences – including the first-ever classic and timeless Hip Hop cruise slated for November 2023 – a robust commerce business, short and long-form content, and a digital platform that offers Hip-Hop news, merchandise and more. 

Simultaneously, Rock The Bells has also become a highly sought-after creative partner for brands who want to connect with their community in unique ways. A good example was on display in November 2021, when the company worked with Chicago artist Lefty Out There to curate eight art pieces created from Cheetos’ cheesy dust (known as the Cheetle), which were featured at Miami’s legendary Art Basel. The collaboration continued this year with artist Whitney House aka The Creative Era and rapper and rapper Flo Milli. (Check out the content for a floating gallery with a Cheetos-inspired sneaker from the 2022 activation.) 

Cuthbert, who joined Rock The Bells following a stint at BET, is working at the organization during a time when Hip-Hop’s value has arguably never been more widely recognized. Just recently, for instance, the US Congress announced it would observe November as National Hip-Hop Month, following the passage of Resolution 331, a bill co-sponsored by Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Congressman Jamaal Bowman. 

“For something that was born on the streets of New York to become global and fully appreciated on a national level is huge,” Cuthbert told Brand Innovators. “For brands, it’s a way for them to talk to consumers through the lens of what actually interests them. Whether you want to connect with Gen X or Gen Z, Hip-Hop culture is the ultimate conduit because it ties into so many passion points of music, fashion, art and dance.” 

Of course, there will always be brands that want to be present amid a moment like Hip-Hop’s 50th anniversary by slapping their logo somewhere, but Cuthbert urged advertisers to consider more authentic ways to engage. This includes: 

Amplify honest (and unapologetic) conversations

Rock The Bells and an enterprise business software firm like Salesforce might not seem like an obvious match, but in June of this year the two firms collaborated on a mental health campaign to advance the progress of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal around good health and wellbeing. The campaign was done through, the company’s arm that serves non-profits and educational institutions, and included a panel discussion featuring Cuthbert and GRAMMY-winning artist Michelle Williams, and a panel with recording artist 6lack. 

“This process of normalizing the conversation around mental health has been organically happening within Hip-Hop,” Cuthbert said. “Salesforce is a platform dedicated to solving some of the world's most challenging problems, so it was a perfect collaboration for us to work together and continue to amplify these conversations.” 

Recognize Hip-Hop as a way of life 

Brands may think of Hip-Hop as primarily a musical genre, but Rock The Bells tries to educate its clients about its impact on so many other areas. “The advice I would give to brands is that you don't need to be relevant in all of it. Then there should be a process where you're analyzing Hip-Hop culture in its totality and doing a bit of a segmentation,” he said. “People sometimes lose that idea of finding that area within culture where you should drive relevance because it’s what your brand stands for, and it makes sense for you to show up. Instead, they wait until the very end of the process to say, ‘Now let's find the Hip-Hop artists who can make this (campaign) cool.’” 

Lay the foundation – and then build upon it 

Although the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop is formally scheduled for August 11 (the day legendary DJ Kool Herc threw the first Hip-Hop party in The Bronx, New York), Cuthbert and his team said the celebrations will carry on throughout 2023 and beyond. That’s why he recommends brands think long-term in how they want to connect with and build a real relationship with those in the community. 

“One of the core pillars of Hip-Hop is ‘keeping it real’ and at Rock The Bells, we authentically connect brands with consumers to build community,” said Cuthbert. “How do brands create something that’s really breakthrough and hits KPI’s but also leaves the community better than how we found it?” That’s the question brands should be asking themselves when trying to reach Hip-Hop audiences, according to Cuthbert. “Rock The Bells is the bridge that brands need and the champion the Hip-Hop community deserves to dream and deliver big idea.”

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