Battleship, Rihanna and the Death of the Rap-Tress

Battleship, Rihanna and the Death of the Rap-Tress


Raise your hand if you’re planning on seeing “Transformers on the Water” also known as Battleship this weekend. Wait, you’re not? You mean the idea of watching a movie based on a toy, based on a paper and pencil game, based on World War II naval war tactics doesn’t interest you?

Don’t worry: the producers have a plan to drag you into the movie theatre anyway. You will be seduced under the umbrella-ella-ella of singer/Pop Star Rihanna playing a bit part in the film and that will bring you into the theatre … right? Except that trick doesn’t work anymore, and now Hollywood is running scared on how to prop up the audience for big dumb summer films.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away known as the 1990’s, Hollywood film producers discovered an interesting conundrum. The disposable income of the African American middle class was growing but Black folk just weren’t turning out in droves to see the latest Sleepless in Seattle, or Bird on a Wire. Nevertheless lower budget films like New Jack City, or Boomerang were pulling in 80+% of the Black movie-going audience.

What’s more is that whatever these movies weren’t making at the box office they were raking in extra millions of dollars when the soundtracks for these films went platinum. (That’s right, how many of you saw the movie Mo’ Money? But, how many of you remember the song “The Best Things in Life are Free” by Janet and Luther? Point made.)

So the mostly White producers hatched a plan. Rather than expand casting to include talented hungry minority actors and put them on the big screen and attract Black audiences another creative form of tokenism was created. “Let’s add a minority rapper/pop singer to the cast guaranteeing us some of their minority fans AND a big slice of the soundtrack pie!”

And, thus, what I like to call “the Rap-Tress” was born.

Plug a random rapper or singer into a movie, throw their name on the soundtrack and boom: instant pick-up in the DVD or soundtrack market. This pretty much explains a whole slew of curious casting decisions in the 1990’s until the early 2000’s.

Now, let’s not get confused here. We’re not talking about movies made as a vehicle for rappers like 8-Mile or Cool as Ice, or rappers who were legitimately interested in acting (L.L. Cool J was doing a sit-com before he started fighting sharks.) We’re talking about horrible, last minute obvious marketing play casting decisions like putting DMX with Steven Segal, or Ludacris and Lil Bow Wow in Fast and Furious, or ANY film that had any excuse to give lines to Ja-Rule. The phenomenon got so bad at one point that the Dean of Black Actors himself Samuel Jackson refused to read scripts for movies with “Rap-Tresses” in them. And in 2002 went so far as to say:

To take people from the music world and give them the same kind of credibility and weight that you give me, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker — that’s like an aberration to me; you just can’t do that.  It’s not my job to lend credibility to so-and-so rapper who’s just coming into the business.

Of course Sam didn’t realize that it was never about credibility, it was about bringing in an audience and soundtrack sales. And for a couple of years this combo was working pretty well for Hollywood.

 Title Starring Rap-Tress Year
Romeo Must Die Aaliyah 2000
Exit Wounds DMX 2001
Queen of the Damned Aaliyah 2002
Half Past Dead Ja-Rule 2002
Fast and Furious Ja-Rule 2001
2 Fast 2 Furious Ludacris, Tyrese 2003
XXX: State of the Union Ice-Cube, Xibit 2005
Fred Claus Ludacris 2007
John Tucker Must Die Ashanti 2006

And then the bottom fell out. As you can see from the chart above, the music industry really started to take a dip in the late 2000’s. Maybe it was Napster or free file-sharing or the recession or Pandora. Either way people have stopped paying for recorded music. Record companies have lost over $8 billion from 1999 to 2009, with no sign of improving. No albums, no soundtracks. No soundtracks, no need for rap-stars. No rap-stars, no Rap-tresses.

And as bad as Samuel L. Jackson found rappers/turned actors to be, the fact remains that without those roles you actually see fewer and fewer minorities of any kind in big budget majority White films. So how did we end up with the Rude Boy Lover on the set of Battleship? According to an interview with casting director Peter Berg in Entertainment Weekly:

I spent a lot of time in the Navy thinking about who would make sense and who would bring an urban swagger to this character.

Urban swagger isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when I think of Rihanna. Then again, when you can cast a movie about the Navy that takes place in Hawaii and can barely fit any Asians into the trailer I shouldn’t be surprised at a lack of cultural awareness. With the music industry gone and Hollywood tightening its belt, the era of the Rap-tress might be pretty much over anyway. But perhaps if Rihanna can do a good enough job this weekend we might see a slight resurgence. I’m pretty sure she and Jay-Z can scramble together a dance hit about blasting aliens and serving your country.  Trust me: from the trailers and reviews that might be the best thing to come out of this movie.

DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson


  1. I saw a sneak preview of the movie last night. I enjoyed it. It was a cool way to spend a few hours! And Rihanna wasn't half-bad. Even President Obama makes an appearance.

  2. It ought to be kind of obvious by now that many rappers are in fact, actors. What do you think a music video is but a 4-minute film? Quite a few have done a relatively outstanding job convincing audiences they're players, gangsters, & pimps when their actual lives are very different. There's no reason a talented singer, musician, or rapper can't make the transition — to the degree one really exists.

    We live in a time when Will Smith, Queen Latifah, and even Ice-T (!) are seen as mainstream as it gets. Mark Wahlberg is respected *by his 'actor' peers* as one of the world's best actors. To the small extent they cast popular music performers in movies and TV shows, Hollywood studios are never going to stop. Gasbag pundits and bourgeois critics need to get over the conceit art's value can be measured in objective terms.

    • There is a huge difference between Will Smith, Queen Latifah or even LL. Cool J, and folks like Ludacris or Ja-Rule or Ashanti. The aforementioned folks are actually actors, or spent years working on their craft, or actually did their craft and music simultaneously. Casting Mos Def in 16 Blocks was not Rap-Tress stunt casting, Mos Def can act. Very well in fact. Even Common was taking acting seriously for awhile. Most of these others it was a half baked attempt to score some extra buts in seats and make some soundtrack money. All movies don't have to be high art, but don't my word for it, even Sam Jackson thought those casting decisions were out of control

      • The only difference is a matter of degree. I agree Will Smith, Method Man, and a tiny handful of others are better at acting than the average musician and perhaps work at their craft more diligently. That, however, doesn't disqualify DMX or Rihanna (to name two) as actors. They've been playing make believe 4 minutes at a time. And the general public likes, if not believes, these entertainers as the characters they portray in music videos. That counts for A LOT when casting for a movie or television show.

        Samuel Jackson knows the business well enough to understand even he 'mails in' performances (see, 'Snakes in a Plane') for a paycheck. Maybe if he was more discriminating in his choice of roles, he'd be convincing.

    • "Gasbag pundits and bourgeois critics" – Why do you always call people names in the middle of your comment, William? It is not becoming. Can you not just make your point without insulting people?