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Why White Kids Love Hip Hop
Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America
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To my mother, Dorothy Dance, for teaching me everything I need to know about America's old racial politics. Her motto, "Don't let other people's ignorance make you ignorant," daily keeps me from falling into the abyss of easy answers about racial matters.
To hip-hop generationers fighting this wrongheaded war in Iraq. In the words of Bob Marley, "Every day the bucket goes to the well. One day the bottom's gonna drop out." Hold your heads.
And to hip-hop activists on the battlefield to building a new world and a new politics. Your example is necessary, noted and the best gift we can give the next generation, other than change itself.
To the memory of Dr. Jacob Carruthers, whose example of "intellectual warfare" brought much beauty into the world; Lu Palmer, journalist, organizer and instigator extraordinaire, who knew the right combination of truth, insight and agitation "enough to make a Negro turn Black"; and "bridge generationer" Lisa Sullivan for teaching the hip-hop generation where to find our natural leaders.
No generation can choose the age or circumstance in which it is born, but through leadership it can choose to make the age in which it is born, an age of enlightenment, an age of jobs, and peace, and justice. Only leadership—that intangible combination of gifts, discipline, information, circumstance, courage, timing, will and divine inspiration—can lead us out of the crisis in which we find ourselves.
—Reverend Jesse Jackson, Democratic National Convention Address (San Francisco, July 18, 1984)
What goes around comes around I figure
Now we got white kids callin themselves "nigger."
Now we got white kids callin themselves "nigger."
—KRS-One "MC's Act Like They Don't Know"
The premise of this book is simple yet long overdue: the national conversation about race in this country has yet to catch up with the national reality. Given the technological gains of the past three decades, which ultimately defined the concept of the "information age," it's not far-fetched to assume that cutting-edge ideas in most areas of thought are quick to penetrate the mainstream. However, when it comes to racial matters, long an American obsession, the new reality of race is rarely part of the national conversation. Particularly ignored are the ideas and voices of the post-baby boom generation. Members of both generation X (those born between 1965 and 1984) and the millennium generation (those born between 1985 and 2004) have inherited and created a new world when it comes to living race in America. They are the first Americans to live their entire lives free of de facto segregation. This alone warrants our attention as we consider racial matters. What is more, today's acceptance of hip-hop as mainstream popular culture has radically altered the racial landscape. And in that nebulous space where hip-hop and popular culture meet, we see specific shifts in the ways young Americans are processing race. These shifts help explain the dawning of a new reality of race in America.
Hip-hop culture has its roots among young Blacks in urban communities throughout the northeastern United States. The Black subculture that emerged in the South Bronx in the early to mid-1970s began as what hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa called the five elements—graffiti art, break dancing, rapping, deejaying and "doing the knowledge." What is popularly known as hip-hop expanded beyond that definition by the early 1990s, mostly due to the commercialization of rap music. So today, when we speak of hip-hop culture, we are also referencing a hip-hop-specific language, body language, fashion, style, sensibility and worldview.
Part of the reason the culture is so influential among today's youth is that most young people who identify with hip-hop, unlike rock and roll and other musical genres, identify with more than music. Although bebop, the jazz subculture, was also associated with a cultural lifestyle, that lifestyle never ventured far beyond jazz aficionados. Hip-hop's emergence in a global information age is a major variable that sets it apart, vastly increasing its capacity to reach beyond anything the world has ever seen.
Throughout this book when the term "hip-hop" appears, depending on the context, I'm referring to either rap music or some other aspect of hip-hop culture. When I use it to describe individuals (e.g., hip-hop activists, hip-hop designers, hip-hop educators), I'm implying that they have a connection to the culture that goes beyond simply being pop culture consumers. When I use the term "mainstream hip-hop," I'm talking about aspects of the culture that have been packaged, often distorted and then sold by corporate America.
It is helpful to think of hip-hop's cultural movement as having both a local and a national manifestation. Even though hip-hop has reached a national consumer culture level, the local is still crucial to its survival. The local too, at times, has a life of its own. So it shouldn't be assumed that the local, off-the-radar manifestation of hip-hop is exclusively defined by what hip-hop does in the mainstream.
That American youth across race have embraced hip-hop culture, in both its local and national manifestations, is as much about hip-hop culture's sense of inclusiveness as it is a testament to American youth incorporating the founding fathers' "all men are created equal" rhetoric into their worldview. Another reason for its wide acceptance is that consumerism has become an American value. And hip-hop, as part of the American entertainment industry, is now for sale to all buyers.
But hip-hop music, no matter how widely accepted in the mainstream, isn't entertainment alone; it's also a voice of the voiceless. More than just a new genre of music, hip-hop since its inception has provided young Blacks a public platform in a society that previously rendered them mute. It has done the same for youth of other cultures as well. This in large measure explains hip-hop's mass appeal.
In the past decade American youth across the board have increasingly had to confront some of the economic and social frustrations (declining job options, deteriorating quality of education, rising incarceration for nonviolent crimes and the evaporation of living-wage employment) that began to handicap Black American youth in the early 1980s. A recent study (Left Behind in the Labor Force) by a team of scholars at Northeastern University found that by 2002, 5.5 million American young people between 16 and 24 were out of work, out of school and virtually dropping off the mainstream radar. At the same time white American youth, like their Latino American, Asian American and Native American counterparts, have embraced hip-hop culture. The music and culture of hip-hop, once deemed a Black thing, has been a ready refuge.
It is not only hip-hop's message of resistance to the status quo that young Americans find welcoming. The hip-hop cultural movement has provided a new arena of public space (although still largely off the radar of the mainstream) for young people to come together at local and national levels. In these spaces, which include local hip-hop collectives, spoken word venues, rap concerts and more, America's multicultural youth enjoy, observe and participate in this cultural arts movement.
A clear understanding of hip-hop's cross-cultural engagement, which may seem superficial to those outside the culture, affords us a unique lens for analyzing the evolution of ideas about race in America—changes that are manifesting themselves in a new generation. We are moving away from what I call the "old racial politics," characterized by adherence to stark differences—cultural, personal and political—between Black and white, away from cultural territorialism on both sides and away from an uncritical acceptance of stereotypes, also on both sides. The "new racial politics," on the other hand, is marked by nuance, complexity, the effects of commerce and commercialism and a sort of fluidity between cultures. The new views about race also allow us a radical standpoint from which to see the ways that America's outdated racial politics—a force more deeply embedded in our national psyche than we generally acknowledge—works against new definitions.
Although hip-hop is a refuge (albeit temporary) for many young people, old ideas about race continue to undermine attempts by pockets of youth to redefine the terms through hip-hop. Every day the nation clings to the old agenda and, even more troubling, rallies the younger generation to take up its dying causes. Examples are everywhere in pop culture, national debates and public policy at federal and state levels:
• In Al Sharpton's recent run for president a tired old racial history charade was played out. The campaign itself, and the way it was perceived in the media and political circles, took us back to the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, which were steeped in similar oppositional race politics. Was Sharpton's candidacy to be taken seriously or was he just a Black candidate?
• Affirmative action, seen in years past as a valuable tool for balancing racial inequalities, has itself recently been called racist. As it comes under attack at colleges and universities, the younger generation is strongly encouraged (if not coerced) to take up an older generation's dispute.
• Reparations is an issue with roots in the World War II generation. The manner in which the national discussion has been framed forces Americans to choose sides along outdated racial lines. One study at Harvard University, for example, found that 90 percent of white Americans oppose reparations, while 90 percent of African Americans support it.
Old ways of thinking about race certainly persist in the younger generation. However, the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture has in part provided a space where American youth, Black and white included, can explore these new ideas together, even if the old racial politics are always lurking in the shadows.
This book attempts to unmask not only "the why" but "the who, what and when" of today's pop culture fascination: Why does hip-hop appeal to white youth? How is this generation's fascination with Black youth culture different from previous generations of American youth, given that R&B, jazz, blues and even rock and roll have all enjoyed similar cross-cultural mass appeal? What role do telecommunications, mass media and consumer culture play in these differences? What does generation X think about race? How do gen Xers differ on the issues from their parents and grandparents? How have ideas of race evolved? Are white kids stealing Black culture? Can culture exclusively belong to one race in the first place? Why is the race/color of hip-hop's audience so significant, and to whom? Where does America's racial politics fit into this phenomenon? Are young Americans achieving Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream via hip-hop?
A large part of this book's concern is hip-hop itself, especially the terrain of popular culture, youth culture, economics and politics, where Black and white kids interact. But at its core, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop reveals the ways the younger generation is challenging the comfort zone that has made it fashionable for Americans to accept only baby steps in social change and race relations since the 1960s. This post-baby boom generation is forcing the country closer to Jefferson's assertion of equality: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." For the first time in forty years, a giant step in social change is before us.
Toward a New Racial Politics
People are not born racist. Racism is learned behavior that is part of American culture. If hip-hop can change that, then there is reason for hope.
—Haki Madhubuti, author of Run Toward Fear
When most Americans, reared on a steady diet of American racial politics, think of white kids and hip-hop, two questions come to mind: (1) Will this generation's music, hip-hop, be appropriated by white America just as rock and roll was, leaving its Black originators all but forgotten? (2) If white youth are emulating the same young Black men our society has vilified for two centuries, are the pathologies and immoral behaviors deemed to be "Black problems" now going to infect the young whites who fall under the spell of hip-hop music and culture?
Our obsession with these questions leads us directly into the quagmire of America's outdated racial politics. Once there, exploring the new ground where white kids and hip-hop meet becomes nearly impossible. However, transcending the old racial politics is essential to discovering the new strategies this younger generation is evolving for working across historical divides like race, class and nationalism.
I have spent much of the past three years talking to white kids across the country who are engaging hip-hop on a variety of levels: from casual listeners who tune in to their local hip-hop radio station, to die-hard fans who attend the concert performances of their favorite rap stars, to actual hip-hop arts participants—deejays, break dancers, graffiti writers, emcees and spoken word poets. Some were teenagers, some college students, others were adults facing the challenges of children and other grown-up responsibilities. Here's what I found.
In response to the first question, hip-hop, as the mainstream pop culture of our time, has been appropriated by young white Americans. Still, in our visual age, no matter how mainstream hip-hop gets, it will never duplicate rock and roll's metamorphosis—becoming more strongly associated with white Americans than Blacks. In fact it would take an army of Eminems to divorce the image of hip-hop from young Black men, who after thirty years still dominate the art form.
To answer the second question, young whites are emulating Black cool—nothing new there. Talk long enough to almost any white kid into hip-hop, and he or she will openly acknowledge a fascination with Black culture. But it isn't just Black youth culture alone that American youth are consuming as they delve into hip-hop today. As elements of hip-hop culture have become absorbed into the American pop culture grab bag, hip-hop's mainstream packaging often includes elements of prison and street culture. Because of this morphing of cultures, now more than ever, it's often indistinguishable where hip-hop ends and prison and/or street culture begins. Parents, regardless of race, should be concerned about the various mixed messages transmitted to youth under the rubric of hip-hop.
However, white youth are not simply consuming pop culture messages wholesale, any more than Black kids are. Most hip-hop kids—white, Black, Latino, Asian and Native American—are taking from popular culture what they find useful, fashioning it to local needs, claiming it as their own and in the process placing their own stamp on it. This is happening regionally (whether East Coast, West Coast, Midwest or "dirty South") and internationally, as youth the world over are claiming hip-hop.
In writing Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, I found it impossible to avoid answering the elementary questions demanded by America's old racial politics. I grapple with those issues and more in great detail in this book. However, the real value of this hip-hop generation to America lies beyond these hot-button racial issues. Questions like the one posed to me by Murray Foreman, hip-hop scholar and author of The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, begin to take us to the territory: "The real test of white kids and hip-hop is what happens with police brutality when the white officers policing Black and Latino communities are those same young whites who grew up on hip-hop?"
Foreman's question points to the way hip-hop (because of the way it treats race) is forcing aside the old racial politics. Over the past decade or so, as I've traversed the country documenting and engaging hip-hop, I've encountered other instances where the complexities of hip-hop as a mainstream American cultural phenomenon revealed its capacity to challenge the old racial politics, even as it sometimes reinforces them. There was the white hip-hop head in his early twenties who caused a ruckus at the hip-hop magazine where he worked as an editor. This young man was so immersed in hip-hop that he developed a predilection for the n-word. It rolled off his tongue as easily and frequently as it escapes the mouths of the young Blacks and Latinos with whom he daily discusses hip-hop. A twenty-something Black woman at the magazine, who grew up in an activist family, told him that his use of the word was offensive—even if the young Black men he talked to when peppering his conversation with the n-word didn't object. She demanded he not use the word in her presence.
There is the math teacher in his early sixties who doubles as a tennis coach at a prominent Midwestern public high school. Over the years, he's recognized the importance of hip-hop in the lives of today's youth and has tried in various ways to access hip-hop as a tool to reach students. He's even dabbled in hip-hop arts himself, penning countless lyrics and creating a rap alter ego that occasionally spits rhymes over the school intercom, an oddity, some would think, for a sixty-something white guy. The day his mostly white girls tennis team (on the return bus ride from an away match) sings along with a boom box playing Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz' "Get Low," he contemplates retirement and reevaluates the extent to which the negative messages in hip-hop undermine its possibility for empowering students. "As powerful a medium as hip-hop is, why so much negativity," he asks me in frustration, not really expecting an answer.
At a liberal arts college in South Carolina, a young Black student leader, frustrated with Black students' negligible involvement in campus life, turns to hip-hop for answers. Like other casual observers throughout the country, she's seen advertisers, the fashion industry, educators and even Broadway turn to hip-hop. She plans Hip-Hop Day intending to use hip-hop to bolster student life. The turnout is tremendous—and all white.
A close-knit circle of housewives in the suburbs of Cleveland, all in their late twenties and early thirties, plan a girls night out—a three-hour drive to Detroit for a sold-out Eminem concert. "We spend our entire days trying to fit into a perfect little bubble," a thirty-three-year-old stay-at-home mom told me. "The perfect $500,000 houses. The perfect overscheduled kids. The perfect husbands. We love life, but we hate our lives. And so I think we identify more with hip-hop's passion, anger and frustration than we do this dream world."
Other moments bring pause. The heated debate at a planning committee meeting for a major hip-hop political event, where a young Black man storms out of the meeting after it was determined the event would be multicultural. He'd insisted that since hip-hop is a Black thing and whites have historically stolen Black culture, white involvement would water down the event. There was the episode on the television sitcom Girlfriends , where the white adopted sister of a Black woman accompanies her to the hair salon. The radio is playing Jay-Z's "H to the Izzo." All the women are singing along until the white sister joins in without skipping a beat, "I do this for my culture/to let em know what a nigga look like when a nigga's in a Rollsta." And finally, the often-heard critique of commercial hip-hop coming from white kids in the hip-hop underground that so-and-so white emcee is more hip-hop than 50 Cent or any other Black hip-hop artists topping the charts by nature of their being underground as opposed to commercial.
Complex spaces like these were my starting points to the larger inquiry. These and similar moments emerged as I interviewed numerous industry insiders and everyday fans about white kids and hip-hop. These are the difficult spaces that bring us face-to-face with any substantive exploration of white hip-hop kids. One of the most telling of these complexities came to light in an interview I conducted with an A&R at a major record label. "Right now, some of the hottest producers such as Alchemist and Scott Storch are white," he said, "and when you speak of the hip-hop underground, you are talking about a significant degree of white hip-hop kids." When I caught up with thirty-two-year-old Billy Wimsatt—author of Bomb the Suburbs (1994), one of the first critiques of white kids and hip-hop—we chopped it up about working across race in hip-hop's emerging political movement. He reiterated the A&R guy's point, placing it in a political context. "I'm horrified by the aspect of the white hip-hop thing where you can be a white hard-core underground hip-hop kid in, say, Minnesota, and not know a single Black person. Their whole social circle is white. Their favorite rappers are white, and they're trying to put out their own CDs, and so on. This is shockingly and violently decontextualized from what hip-hop came from and what it's about."
As I was nearing the end of this project, I met a young man named Matthew Nelkin who fit Wimsatt's description—kind of. Born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, he caught the hip-hop bug as a nine-year-old watching Yo MTV Raps. A few years later, he took odd jobs to earn money for deejay equipment. Oregon's population is around 90 percent white, and Eugene is equally homogeneous. Its Black population in the last census was less than 1,800 out of around 140,000 inhabitants. Yet during Matthew's formative years, Eugene had a fledgling hip-hop scene.
"I grew up as that white hip-hop kid where my immediate circle of friends was all white. At the same time, the hip-hop influences in and around Eugene were not all white. There was the radio stuff, a core group of talented and diverse local artists and crews who were out in the community making noise and lots of underground groups were coming in to do shows at venues that were selling out to mostly white audiences."
Matthew, now 25, says that growing up, he didn't think about the implications of being a white hip-hop kid. "It was all kind of innocent," he says, thinking back to when he was 15 and an aspiring deejay, collecting vinyl, making beats and hanging out at the community college radio station during the hip-hop show. "I loved hip-hop and worked to be a part of it. I remember one friend saying, 'Wow you guys are really good. Too bad you're not Black.' Before that, I never thought about the implications of being white and a part of hip-hop culture. At the time, I felt that he was misguided for saying that. As I've gotten older, I realize he recognized that hip-hop is Black culture and what he was saying is, 'This is Black culture, you're white and you're taking part of it.' It's a cognizant process that a lot of white kids into hip-hop don't admit to themselves."
Matthew's foray into hip-hop wasn't completely naive. He and his friends were aware that they were going against the grain. His reflections on how he felt as a young white kid into hip-hop suggest one of the ways hip-hop is forcing a new dialogue about race. "I went through a crisis after I read Bomb the Suburbs when I was 21," he says. "I thought about never being involved in hip-hop again. I thought it wasn't my place to do so. I went through months of being depressed. At the time, I was doing a hip-hop college radio show and I began to wonder if I was representing something that I didn't have the right to represent. I seriously thought about giving it up. I eventually asked myself the question, Who would want to deprive me of something that brought so much meaning to my life and that got me involved in positive things? To this day, I try to constantly check myself, bearing in mind what it means to be white, to have privilege in America and to take part in hip-hop. I attempt to be as responsible as possible. That's my compromise."
For every Matthew I met whose passion for hip-hop was more than a fad, there was an equal number of white kids whose fascination with hip-hop went no further than a desire to learn the latest Usher dance moves. Matthew and those like him, on the other hand, are engaging hip-hop on a deeper, cerebral level. Theirs is a constant struggle not only to absorb the art, politics and cultural roots of hip-hop but to make sense of its significance in their lives.
"When I was in high school," Matthew tells me, "a friend came up to me one day and told me that he had been writing rhymes for about a year, but was afraid to tell anyone. It was normal for that to happen back then. We still got made fun of by some of our friends for being white and into hip-hop. Looking back on my formative years, I see that we were trying to create an identity for ourselves that was more substantive than what we were handed in public school, church or any other outlet. We were really fighting for our spirits, fighting to define ourselves outside of mainstream American society by latching onto an oppositional identity and the perceived power in hip-hop."
- On Sale
- May 30, 2006
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Civitas Books