If there is a look that defines hip-hop, then 13-year-old David Dollar Montana has it. He talks the talk, walks the walk, even dresses the part — down to his loose-fitting Levi’s, which sag below his buttocks, exposing his underwear.
Now Dollar, as he is known around his Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, and other young males who let their jeans hang below their waist are the target audience for a new cable TV ad campaign that aims to get them to pull up their sagging pants or face fines or prison time.
In the ad, an actor dressed in police uniform looks sternly at the camera and warns: “It’s the law.”
The Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts, which launched the public service announcement in January, said that sagging is an obscene offense and an assault on common decency in the African-American community. It adds that sagging heightens thug-like behavior and contributes to how young men are perceived and treated by police, teachers, and other adults. “The PSA says respect yourself and respect your community,’’ said Omar Reid, a 54-year-old education psychologist from Grove Hall who is helping to lead the ad campaign. “Our community and our people are tired of these kids walking around like this.”
The ad by the alliance, a trade and advocacy group of mental health professionals who treat minorities, is the latest in a nationwide war against sagging. While other campaigns have used courtesy and respect in their efforts to change behavior, the alliance is stressing the law.
In the ad, an officer stands on a city sidewalk as hip-hop music plays in the background. “So you think you look pretty good wearing your pants like that don’t you?’’ says the officer, as the clip shows two young men walking by with their underwear showing.
“Underwear exposed. Hip-hop style,’’ the officer says. “Well, there is something you may not know.”
The actor names the penalties — $300 fine; up to three years in prison — and then says: “You still think it’s cool. It’s the law. Pull up your pants!”
Suffolk County prosecutors said the alliance is basing its premise on a loose interpretation of state law on open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior. They say they would never press charges on anyone for what some consider a fashion faux pas.
But the ad has hit a nerve in urban communities and is raising a discussion about what is the best approach to address what many concede is an annoying fashion statement.
“If the question is that you can change a person’s behavior merely by changing his or her wardrobe, [then this] is highly problematic,’’ said Michael Jeffries, a sociologist at Wellesley College who authored “Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop.” “It’s like saying you can change the story of a book by changing its cover.”
Critics cited racial profiling and said the ad has a misguided emphasis on hip-hop and men’s clothing that further maligns young black men.
“What people wear on the outside might be a manifestation of what is going on on the inside, but is not a cause of it,’’ said Mariama White-Hammond, who heads Project Hip-Hop, a Roxbury youth program. ”Young people don’t wear slouching pants and suddenly become gang members. That’s not what is happening.”
Among the younger crowd, teenagers like Dollar lament what they see as adults unfairly judging black men by their clothes and not who they are.
“It’s just a style,’’ says Dollar. “It’s not hurting anyone.”
But Tamara Bubble, a 25-year-old Brooklyn-born rapper, took on sagging on her latest album in a song called “Pull Them Pants Up,” a message she will soon be taking on a college tour.
In the song, which is on YouTube, she laughs at the suggestion of dating anyone who sags and openly mocks men for flaunting their boxers.
“Sagging should stop now,’’ Bubble said in a phone interview. “Girls don’t like it and people don’t take you seriously in general. You can’t get job with it. If you go to court with it, you’re probably going to lose your case. In all aspects of life, it’s not healthy.”
Rappers Lil Wayne and Jay-Z wear the style on the big stage, a symbol of their hip-hop authenticity. Justin Bieber is sagging. The pants are worn below the hips, exposing a portion or all of the buttocks. Even skinny jeans come with a sag.
“I think the definition of swag changed with sagging,’’ said 14-year-old Damone Clark of Dorchester. “Now sagging is part of the swag.”
Reid said the alliance launched the campaign after mental health clinics across the state were being besieged by parents who brought their sons in for behavioral treatment. The sons were skipping school, smoking marijuana, and acting thuggish — conduct the parents attribute to the saggy pants, Reid said.
He said the alliance is paying $2,000 a month for the ads and will soon expand the campaign.
Dressed in a pin-striped suit, crisp white shirt, and matching blue tie, Reid is model of buttoned-up fashion. He said the campaign’s goal is not to single out black teenagers and make them targets of the law, but to teach them that dressing well plays a critical role in life.
Young people have long pushed the envelop when it comes to fashion — think Gothic, grunge, and boys with the bill of baseball caps turned backwards. And hip-hop has been an easy scapegoat for those who want to find links to what some call “ghetto pathologies,” some critics contend.
Even so, observers acknowledge that there is a fine line between teenagers’ fashion taste and adults’ urge to protect them from a highly judgmental public.
“Kids do stylistic things that horrify parents,’’ said Rachel Ruben, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I don’t want to lose sight of that. But it is true that young black men face a different kind of scrutiny.”
At the Dorchester Youth Collaborative recently, some teenagers scoffed at the idea of ever pulling up their pants, a waist-high concept they attribute to a long ago generation.
“It’s not comfortable,’’ said D.J. Feliciano, a 17-year-old from Quincy said of pulling up his pants. He stood up and danced to demonstrate how easily he can move with his pants sagging.
“When you are wearing jeans you don’t want the waist to be really high,’’ he explained. “You don’t want to wear it too low. You want to wear it in a zone.” That zone, he said, is little below his hips, midway down his butt.
Meghan Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at MeghanIrons.