Army recruiters' rap video brings mixed reviews
By RACHEL KURZIUS | Special To The Washington Post | Published: August 6, 2019
The three-minute music video for the song "Giving All I Got" has many of the hallmarks of an archetypical hip-hop production: shots of men in hoodies walking in slo-mo down a graffiti-filled corridor; men rapping straight to the camera and dancing in front of flashy cars; guns. Aside from the lack of bikini-clad women (indeed, there are no women at all in the video), there's only one major difference: The video was made by U.S. Army Recruiting Command, which the song's autotuned hook makes clear as it croons "Join A-R-M-Y."
"Giving All I Got," released in February on the Army's social media accounts, touts growth opportunities ("Army changed my life / Gave me a new clock") and more bread-and-butter benefits ("Uniform: paid for / Electric bill: paid for / Water bill: paid for"). It also, in many ways, resembles the videos of deployed soldiers singing popular songs that have shown up in recent years on YouTube. It was written and performed by Sgts. 1st Class Arlondo Sutton and Jason Brenner Locke, who met through social media work for the Army.
Locke is a recruiter in Houston who spent years in rock bands before transitioning into hip-hop. Sutton, who goes by the stage name Rookie Baby, is a station commander in the Atlanta area and previously released a slow jam, "Enlisted," on his own YouTube channel; that song similarly touts the benefits of joining up.
Sutton and Locke decided that they wanted to "share the Army story" through song. "Music is one of those things where it's a universal language, and I think it was something that we wanted to capitalize on," Locke says. "How are we going to resonate with the youth and our current audience?"
"Giving All I Got" has racked up more than 120,000 views and over 600 comments on YouTube. "Dope work and execution! I love it," wrote a commenter called J Fresh. "HOOAH! Relevant and current!" wrote Z Patriot.
Mostly, though, the reaction was not what Sutton, Locke or the Army had hoped for. A few commenters had technical gripes. (Colin G noted, "They change the flow like every ten seconds.") But most panned the whole thing. The top comment — with more than 400 likes — is: "I'll be honest. I was considering joining up until I saw this video."
Sutton and Locke told me they aren't letting the doubters get to them.
"The people that need to hear the song, the people that we are actually trying to communicate with through all these different platforms, I think that those are the targeted audience," says Locke. He adds that some of the criticism has come from veterans. "That's cool," he says, "but it's a different Army now. We have to be able to adapt." For his part, Sutton points out that the Army's uniforms have changed over the years. Why shouldn't recruiting?
"Giving All I Got" is not as slickly produced as past recruitment ads, which had a more cinematic feel, says Michael Neiberg, the chair of war studies at the U.S. Army War College. But he sees continuity in the two-pronged appeal that the military has used since the draft was eliminated in 1973: an emphasis on service and the material benefits that come from enlistment.
Delivering that message to the Army's target audience is the hard part. In 2018, the Army missed its recruiting goals by 6,500 people.
"Our biggest problem with recruitment is awareness," explains Lisa Ferguson, media relations chief for U.S. Army Recruiting Command. "Fifty percent of youth 17 to 24 years old have little to no knowledge or understanding about military life."
What's more, seven in 10 youth don't qualify to join.
Ferguson likens the Army to a family business, given that 79% of new recruits have a family member who has served or is currently serving. To broaden its reach, she says, the Army is now focusing on 22 more liberal-leaning cities that are "not traditionally places that we're necessarily doing well in" — such as Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles.
In Chicago, the Army has a pilot project targeting ads in neighborhoods and using web analytics to see what resonates. In some areas, says Ferguson, teens might care more about getting a job after graduating high school, whereas in other neighborhoods, they might be drawn to the chance for leadership experience.
The Army's new recruitment initiatives also include promoting recruiters with video blogs, as well as launching a competitive fitness team and an esports team (more than 7,000 soldiers have applied to join the latter).
"It's nothing new that they're trying a whole different range of ways to appeal to the audience," says historian Beth Bailey, who has charted the Army's recruitment campaigns. She points out that "Giving All I Got" isn't even the Army's first attempt to use rap. In the early 2000s, as Bailey details in her book "America's Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force," the Army, as part of its recruiting efforts, sent custom yellow Hummers blaring rap music to college campuses and Black Entertainment Television's Spring Bling.
"Our research tells us that hip-hop and urban culture is a powerful influence in the lives of young Americans," the leader of the Army's Strategic Outreach Directorate said at the time. "I want them to say, 'Hey, the Army was here — the Army is cool!' "
In 2019, that requires a presence on social media — and Ferguson notes that the Army has a bevy of recruiters working on various social media platforms. But, she says, "we're kind of done with the rap video part" of the campaign.
Kurzius is senior editor at DCist.