White people and hip-hop

A little while back I went to a screening and discussion at NYU of Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, a documentary about the wigger phenomenon by Robert Clift. I’m a very white person who has been heavily involved with “black” music over the years, like for example rapping an Ice Cube song in public on more than one occasion. So this is an issue close to my heart. Here’s the trailer:

And here are the first three minutes of the film:

Are white hip-hop fans stealing black culture?

The film’s central thesis is stated by Paul Mooney: “Eminem is blackface without makeup.” Mooney draws an equivalence between the stealing of black culture by white people with the literal stealing of black people during slavery. However much white people enjoy hip-hop, Mooney views us as unwelcome intruders and appropriators.

I feel the moral force of Mooney’s argument, but it glosses over many complexities. Hip-hop has never belonged exclusively to black people. The practitioners and fans have come from a broad spectrum of races, cultures and classes from the beginning. Also, blackness isn’t synonymous with the traditional hip-hop signifiers: being urban, street, poor, etc. And who says the fans of a musical form have to live the same experiences as the artists? As Aesop Rock says in the movie: “I love Star Wars but I’ve never been to space.”

Still, all of that aside, there are a lot of embarassing white rappers and hip-hop fans. It’s worth asking hard questions of anyone in a socially dominant group who adopts the trappings of a less-dominant group.

So who’s exploiting who?

The story of music in America is one of powerful people exploiting marginalized people. Hip-hop is no exception. But the situation is complex. The film shows a hip-hop tour of Harlem, where the tour guide distributes bling and Kangol caps to the bemused, mostly white and Asian participants. This would seem like a textbook example of the worst and most demeaning kind of exploitation… except that the tour is run by Grandmaster Kaz of the Sugarhill Gang. Does he get a pass because he’s exploiting his own culture? Can a founding father of hip-hop exploit himself?

Vanilla Ice is another complex case. In the film he claims that he was a victim of exploitation, not a perpetrator of it. He says that he revered hip-hop growing up, and that he was duped into a clownish bastardization of the music he loves by the lure of money. At first blush he appears to be an exploiter, not an exploitee — you could argue that he got to cash in because of his race. But then, Will Smith was a corny, market-friendly rapper too. Was he an exploiter, or an exploitee, or both, or neither? I don’t have the answer.

Acting black vs acting cool

One of the film’s most compelling characters is a white girl from small-town Indiana who was deeply involved in wigger culture. She explains her appropriation of hip-hop style: “I didn’t want to be black. I wanted to be cool.” If the cool people you know of are mostly black, or behave in stereotypically “black” ways, it’s natural to want to act “black” too.

For me, hip-hop is so cool because a release from the stifling pressures of bourgeois professionalism. Hip-hop gives uptight, repressed people like me a way to access and validate our more aggressive side, to give vent to anti-authoritarian urges, to use improper language, and to give attention and validation to bodily pleasures. I can say confidently that my inner life would be severely impoverished without hip-hop, and so would my cultural and social lives. But how do I embrace and participate in this culture without becoming the thieving white oppressor, perpetuating ugly stereotypes for my own selfish benefit?

Why are some white rappers fine while others are unbearable?

The film thoroughly documents all the wrong ways of being a white hip-hop musician or fan. The worst example isn’t Vanilla Ice, it’s a duo of dreadlocked white chicks called Empire Isis, appearing at 0:42 in the second video above. Empire Isis rap in a style influenced by dancehall reggae. Or at least, they used to. If you visit their web site now, you’ll see they’ve undergone a dramatic image makeover, perhaps motivated by being portrayed in the film as the most clueless pair of white wanna-be Rastafarians since Ras Trent:

In fairness to Empire Isis, their frontwoman is multiracial, not white. But I still get a strong Ras Trent vibe from them. After the screening I asked a couple of the NYU students sitting next to me why they thought Empire Isis is so wack, whereas everybody loves MC Serch. (When Serch came up in the film’s montage of lame white rappers, the girl behind me exclaimed, “Oh, why you wanna hate?”) One NYU kid’s assessment: Empire Isis is so bad not because they’re appropriating an oppressed culture, but because they’re doing it so ineptly. MC Serch gets a pass because he can actually rap. NYU Kid offered Natalie Portman’s SNL gangsta rap video as a positive white rap role model. Natalie might be playing a self-mocking character, NYU Kid argued, but she brings so much heat and passion to the gangsta role that she deserves to inhabit it.

Al Jolson and Eminem

The film is most provocative in its examination of Al Jolson and blackface. After mostly supporting Paul Mooney’s assertion that wiggers are no different from the minstrels of yore, the movie then gives Jolson a surprisingly sympathetic reading. This is a bold move, because the most embarrassing people depicted in the film aside from Empire Isis are the members of the still-active Al Jolson society. They don’t wear blackface so far as I know, but the film does show a dude performing “Mammy” to an audience on Long Island without a trace of irony. It’s a total facepalm moment. And yet, a historian in the film gives Al Jolson credit for making a good-faith effort to show love and respect to black culture. Jolson said that he found his most authentic self singing in blackface. I’m appalled at the ignorance of that idea, but I have to ask myself how different it is from the way I feel about rapping that Ice Cube song. Growing up in the time and place I did has made me more culturally and politically sophisticated than Al Jolson, so I have better manners and am more careful to show my feelings respectfully. But am I that different?

America is the land of mutts. We can’t be expected to keep our musical interests within our class and racial identities. If I’m going to defend my own motivation for wanting to participate in hip-hop music and culture as coming from a place of love, then I need to at least give Al Jolson the benefit of the doubt. I’m not trying to apologize for blackface, which I continue to find disgusting. If minstrelry is a form of admiration, it’s an ignorant, warped form. And white, upper-class hip-hop fans like me have the privilege of being ignorant without having to suffer any negative consequences, except being portrayed negatively in documentaries. The question isn’t, should white kids like hip-hop? The real question is, what’s the most appropriate way to reach across power differentials when exploring other cultures’ music?

Are wiggers intruding into a private space?

Harry Allen gives a powerful argument why hip-hop is more than just a style of music in his essay “The Unbearable Whiteness Of Emceeing: What The Eminence Of Eminem Says About Race” (pdf link), first published in The Source, February 2003. It mostly concerns 8 Mile, the loosely biographical story of Eminem overcoming his whiteness to win rap battles. As his epigram, Allen quotes James Baldwin:

“Negro speech is vivid largely because it is private. It is a kind of emotional shorthand — or sleight-of-hand — by means of which Negroes express, not only their relationship to each other, but their judgment of the white world. And, as the white world takes over this vocabulary — without the faintest notion of what really means — the vocabulary is forced to change. The same thing is true of Negro music, which has had to become more compelling in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience.”
–from “Sermons and Blue,” The New York Times Review of Books, March 29, 1959

Allen’s essay is worth quoting at length:

Compared to Black artists, Eminem, like Vanilla Ice, Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass and a number of white rappers before him, got more by doing less; an almost sure way to mark someone as white under the system of race. (Asked by novelist Zadie Smith in Vibe how he’d grown as an artist while making The Eminem Show, he replied, “I learned how to ride a beat better…. On the last album, I hadn’t completely mastered it yet, to sink into the beat…I’d listen, and I’d be like, ‘why am I so far behind that beat? The first album was terrible — like, I was playing catch-up with the beat constantly” Oh, my.) As well this charge — that race has greased white people’s way—that they haven’t really earned what they possess — is, in this writer’s experience, the accusation that white people typically find most infuriating.

Watching 8 Mile at the multiplex, I was struck by a number of facts: the unusual whiteness of the New York City theatre audience for what is, essentially, a rap movie; that at least one filmgoing couple was, generously, well past retirement age; the flat, cardboard quality of the film’s characters; that, with exemption of Eminem, nobody has any parents, and everyone seems inexplicably focused on “Rabbit,” as Eminem’s character, Jimmy Smith Jr. is nicknamed. Everyone seems usually concerned with what he’s going to do or not do, what he thinks or feels. Characters orbit him in a way that, especially if you’re Black, feels completely false. Eminem has been widely compared to Elvis Presley, due to both men’s so-called “white-trash” roots, controversy-counting careers, and enormous success mining Black music and importing it to white audiences. This contrast has been drawn by persons as disparate as Sir Paul McCartney, Leiber and Stoller (who wrote Elvis’s hit “jailhouse Rock”) Public Enemy’s Chuck D—and by Eminem himself. In the video for “Without Me” Eminem appears briefly as Presley in this bloated, near-death form, self-mockingly rapping, “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/To do Black music so selfishly/ And use it to get myself wealthy…”

But, in truth, the Tarzan narrative—that of a white infant, abandoned by its mother and father and raised by apes, who rises to dominate the non-white people and environment around him—gets closer to the heart of Eminem as a phenomenon. (“The baiting of Blacks was Tarzan’s chief divertissement,” wrote his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, neatly summarizing 8 Mile’s climax.) As well, the Tarzan myth also neatly sockets into one of white supremacy’s most enduring structures; the Black facilitation of white development (BFWD); that is, Black people, often at great cost to themselves, working to, again, improve white people.

I think my job as a white hip-hop fan is to listen closely to Harry Allen and Paul Mooney, to take their arguments seriously, and to not react defensively. The right attitude for me is to remember that I’m a guest in this culture, that I should behave as I would in someone else’s home. I should probably leave the Ice Cube songs to Ice Cube. I can let my own music be informed and influenced by my hip-hop heroes without imitating them. I can learn from people different from me and then go back to work at trying to be myself.

12 thoughts on “White people and hip-hop

  1. Why are people obsessed with race. White hip hop fans stealing black culture? Black culture is much deeper than vapid and hollow pop music.
    Read some history books. Dr. King tried to teach us that we should be color blind. Instead, we have generations of music that glamorize hate, sex, crime, and drugs.
    What about blues, soul, jazz, dance, art? Why do young people refuse to experience new things and broaden horizons? Instead, listen to the same tired loops. God, at least break out of Parliament-Funkadelic or Miles Davis or better yet Duke Ellington. Maybe its too old and boring for you. Then listen to some of the great new jazz out there. Or is jazz just for white people? Don’t prejudge.
    I was really bored with rap and hip hop years ago. Please, dig deeper, you might be surprised what you find.

    • I seem to recall a lot of blues, soul and jazz songs that glamorize sex, crime, and drugs. If you take a glance around this blog, you’ll notice that I revere P-Funk, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. I suggest you dig deeper around here as well.

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  3. Ethan!  This is great!  I came across it just looking for an essay on Eminem and voila!  One by Ethan!

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  6. While there may be some surface parallels, I think historically there’s a pretty big difference between the two. Drag originated in the gay community, as a subversive act meant to challenge societal constructions around gender. Even in cases where the intention is not expressly subversive, any participant in drag still runs the risk of being targeted with homophobia. But by perpetuating racial stereotypes, performers of blackface reinforce their status as members of the dominant group.

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