On Hip-Hop and the Weight of Authenticity: The Fight Between Race and the Culture
Race relations have been slightly strained in America as of late. Following the unpopular decisions not to indict police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, citizens around the country have expressed outrage, feeling that justice is but a one-way street and only reserved for the privileged, whether that privilege comes courtesy of wealth or a lack of melanin.
During this time, the hip-hop community has been going through a bit of turmoil as well. The talk is centered on upholding the standards of the culture and how race plays a role in the celebration of artists who otherwise lack the skill and credentials compared to others. Seattle native Macklemore was at the center of discussion during the Grammy Awards earlier this year and Australian import Iggy Azalea is now the focal point. Both rappers have received a considerable amount of publicity and accolades over the last two years, sometimes at the expense of artists many fans and critics feel are more deserving.
Macklemore, who has admitted to being fully aware of the advantages his complexion may give him over other artists, was criticized for showing the world a text message he sent to Kendrick Lamar apologizing for seemingly stealing the West Coast rhymer's Rap Album of the Year trophy at the Grammy Awards.
But whereas the 'Thrift Shop' superstar has been completely aware almost to the point of feeling burdened by his polarizing status in the game, Iggy Azalea hasn't seemed to budge one bit when it comes to the issue. And when confronted by critics who question her authenticity or challenge her, T.I., who happens to be Iggy's benefactor, has come to her defense, having words with Snoop Dogg and Q-Tip, among others, for their disparaging comments about Azalea.
Last week, the discussion heated up again after Harlem, N.Y.-bred rapper Azealia Banks, one of Azalea's most outspoken critics, spoke out against her in an interview with New York City's Hot 97. Banks feels Azalea's reign is systematic and sends an oppressive message to children of color, among other bold statements. Much of the talk on social media cosigned what Banks touched on in the interview and her quotes, which were surprisingly insightful and more than valid, soon became the news of the day. But things took an unexpected turn when Queens MC Action Bronson found himself in the crosshairs.
After having his name brought up by a fan in a tweet directed towards Banks, Bronson -- who most likely was unaware of the context of the question or was directing his retort squarely at the fan -- responded in a harsh manner. "DONT EVER IN LIFES HISTORY MENTION MY NAME IN A SLANDEROUS MANNNER," he wrote.
In typical Banks fashion, she blasted back herself, stating that she never spoke harshly of Bronson, but not before taking low-blows directed at his weight. What ensued after that was a back-and-forth between the two, with Bronson ill-advisedly throwing the term "civil-rights" into the fray, ultimately putting himself in hot water in the process. "BOOOOO *PEOPLE THIS IS UR CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST*??? COME ON," he questioned, in reference to Banks.
No sooner than he tweeted what some deemed the racially insensitive and politically incorrect tweet, he became a target, with legendary artist and producer Q-Tip asking what the usually lovable and respected MC of Albanian descent was implying with his tweet. Even fans of Bronson were somewhat turned off by the comment and voiced their displeasure via social media, questioning if the tweets came from something more underlying than just an off-the-cuff statement. Social media tends to fuel the fire of overreaction thanks to Twitter crusaders, and in this case, Bronson's intentions seem to be anything but racially-charged; he wasn't aiming to harm African Americans as a whole.
But the situation did evoke a statement from me, which I've used on occasion: it's not a racial thing, but a cultural thing. As a 27-year-old African-American man from a working-class family skirting the poverty line, I spent my youth between Wilmington, Del., and Brooklyn, N.Y. I was raised primarily in inner-city neighborhoods with drug dealing, violence and other crime. My neighbors were black and Latino, the mail carriers were either black or Latino, and you were sooner to hear the latest rap record than heavy metal or classic rock blaring from a car stereo. In the simplest of terms, I was well-versed and more than familiar with what black culture was about.
The older I got, the more frequently I would associate with people from other races while in school. Aside from the token Caucasian kid that resided in our neighborhood, the most consistent exposure to races other than my own was during the school year. Recess and group activities allowed for interaction and getting to know each other. I was a fan of Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic. So was my friend Joey from the suburbs. Another of my suburban classmates enjoyed Hanson's chart-topping hit 'MMMBop.' So did I. Soon, me and a number of my classmates found that other than the homes and neighborhoods we went to after school, we had more than a few things in common as far as our cultural interests.
Going into my middle school and high school years, hip-hop was an undeniable influence among kids from all races and backgrounds and put us all on common ground. Whether I had to scrape up the funds or their mothers gifted it to them, we all enjoyed the music and would discuss it ad nauseam during all points of the day. Whether Nas or Jay Z won a battle or wondering who a then-unsigned 50 Cent would end up inking a deal with, we discussed it all. Unwritten rules such as not being able to recite the "n" word were fully understood and respected and the art was never treated as a mockery by these friends. Some of them were truer to the roots of the culture than even some of my black friends, who would've mistaken Stetsasonic for the newest gaming system on the market.
Yes, my experiences may have given me firsthand knowledge and experience when it came to certain rap lyrics and events or debates outside of the music, but my white friends were deferential when it came to these sensitive topics without coming off as sympathetic or indifferent. Did they sometimes misinterpret certain things or may have unknowingly made a statement that could've been painted as insensitive on an occasion or two? More than likely.
Yet, not for one second did I question their genuine love for hip-hop or feel like they looked down on me. They respected where I came from and the harsh realities behind the stories that were expressed by the rappers on the records at the time. While hip-hop is a culture birthed by blacks and Latinos in the ghettos of New York City, Caucasians, Asians, and every other race has been a part of the party as well as the genre has evolved, championing hip-hop and doing their part in helping to get the culture where it is today.
There are definitely people of all races and backgrounds that go out of their way to capitalize on the culture while not giving it its full respect, but this discussion is to warn people to pump their brakes a bit when making accusations. Yes, Vanilla Ice was a poser, but that doesn't particularly make MC Serch a cheap imitation. Rick Rubin may have been a white dude who looked more comfortable in a dive bar than signing and grooming a young LL Cool J to stardom. And Steve Stoute earns more respect from corporate America than many of his peers. The mistake people make is thinking that being black automatically authenticates your place in hip-hop and being Caucasian or privileged automatically excludes you.
Action Bronson may have put his foot in his mouth on this occasion, but for rap critics and talking heads to make rush judgements, implying that the artist is yet another example of a privileged rapper getting out of line and sticking it to his black peers is a bit short-sighted and irresponsible.
And with the state we're in as a nation at this time, those are the last things we want to be at this point.