What It Means to Be White in Hip-Hop in 2015
Michael Jackson told us "it doesn't matter if you're black or white" on his 1991 song "Black or White," but more than two decades later, when looking at racial tensions across the nation, the sentiment doesn't sit with the majority. In light of the tragedies involving the deaths of many young black men at the hands of white police officers over the past few years, the topic of race is once again a hot-button issue. Members of the hip-hop community have been big proponents of spreading awareness when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, but within the genre, the community deals with racial matters of its own.
Known as a predominantly black culture, hip-hop is by far the most influential musical genre and culture in the U.S. and beyond. Just like the rappers that span the globe, rap fans are all races, colors and creeds. And while hip-hop has embraced its multicultural constituency, there is still a sizable divide between fans of different races and plenty of discourse to be had in terms of race and how it translates into the culture. Which brings us to the question: what does it mean to be white in hip-hop? The answer will certainly be different for everyone.
The majority of rap's founding fathers were African American or Latino, but there were also a slew of Caucasians that helped move the culture forward. People may be quick to point to the Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin and 3rd Bass as flag bearers for Caucasians in the rap community, but contrary to popular belief, the history of white people in hip-hop dates back to its infancy. Names like Michael Holman -- he helped bridge the graffiti culture in the Bronx with Manhattan's chic, downtown art scene as a result of his groundbreaking Canal Zone party in 1979 and is reportedly the first writer to use the word hip-hop in print -- and famed photographer Glen E. Friedman are just a few of the people that added to the culture before being down with hip-hop was in vogue. The '80s would include its fair share of white artists in the limelight and others behind the scenes, but it wouldn't be until Eminem came on the scene that being white in hip-hop would truly become a topic in the mainstream conversation.
Eminem's widespread success helped break down barriers for other aspiring white rappers who would follow in his footsteps, including Bubba Sparxx, Brother Ali, Lil Wyte, and a host of others. Those names may be respected by members of the hip-hop community, but over the past few years, a new generation of white rappers have emerged and haven't been as embraced in the way that many of their predecessors were. Artists like Iggy Azalea, Post Malone and Lil Dicky are just a few white artists that have recently come under fire for a variety of reasons. In the court of public opinion and social media, they've been accused of one (if not all) of the following: cultural appropriation, using the N-word, a lack of authenticity, a disregard for elder statesmen and failing to be educated on black culture. But what may be even more disconcerting than these allegations is the lack of understanding between all parties involved. The topic of race is nothing new to the artists or the fans, but can be seen as taboo to discuss.
One person that felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts on race and hip-hop is Steve Lobel, CEO of A-2-Z Entertainment and a music industry veteran with nearly 30 years in the game. His time working with legends like Run-D.M.C., Fat Joe, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Common, as well as newer stars like Sean Kingston and Nipsey Hussle afford him a well-rounded view of what it takes to be respected and have longevity in hip-hop.
"First of all, hip-hop has no color boundaries, whoever thinks it's color lines is ignorant," Lobel tells The Boombox. "If you think back to the early stages of hip-hop, Rick Rubin is white and Russell Simmons is Afro-American, they started Def Jam together. Lyor Cohen is white and he ran Def Jam for a long time and gave a lot of opportunities to a lot of artists. And there's tons of white executives that give opportunities to rappers no matter what color they are so I don't think that it's a white or black or Latino thing. I think that anybody who thinks there shouldn't be white rappers or white writers in the industry is ignorant and doesn't know the history of hip-hop."
Lobel may see race as an afterthought, but independent hip-hop artist Soul Kahn, whom has more than a decade of experience in the industry, begs to differ. "I mean, I think it matters in everything, to be honest, and music is no exception," the member of The Brown Bag Allstars says via phone. "There's nothing in America where race doesn't affect how things occur and I think to say otherwise is just living in denial or misinformation that sometimes is very well intentioned, but there's literally zero aspect of life and culture and society and politics that isn't affected by the racial framework in America.
"From my perspective, it'd be irresponsible if I didn't account for the cultural [and] racial roots of the art form because it's embedded in it itself. And rap has been pretty much one of the only wholly American music forms that happens to be one that's black created and I don't wanna do the whole appropriating and displacing, that's not what I'm about."
Cultural appropriation and displacement has reared its head as a prevalent topic in hip-hop in recent years. For every fan defending Iggy Azalea's honor, there is another chastising her for what they deem as an artist perpetuating a fraud for dollars. Regardless of what side of that particular argument you fall on, what can be said is that there are white artists actively participating in the culture that garner the utmost respect from fans across the board. Among them is rapper Brother Ali, who -- in addition to being white -- is one of the most outspoken voices in hip-hop this side of Killer Mike.
Politically charged songs like "Uncle Sam Goddamn," as well as his willingness to tackle topics regarding race and religion that speak to the essence of hip-hop music have made him a beloved figure in the community and is proof that not every white rapper gets painted with a broad brush. Respect for the pillars that hip-hop is built on and how they correlate with the genre's cultural roots is a responsibility.
Dove Clark, a journalist, brand development specialist and founder of Tygereye Entertainment and UrbLife.com, also acknowledges that the roots of hip-hop culture are intertwined with black culture. Clark has been creatively involved in hip-hop since 1982 and on the business side for the last 15 years, which means she's witnessed many artists come and go. She credits the Beastie Boys as being the first group to truly resonate with white rap fans removed from the concrete jungle.
"We know that hip-hop is largely black and Latino music and culture and there were a few select people in the early days who did grow up in the inner-city and were more accepted like 3rd Bass. Questionably of course, because there were people that didn't like them either just because they were white and they thought they shouldn't be rapping, but there were a lot of people that gave them credibility," Clark shares. "Like, the Beastie Boys came out and they didn't come out trying to act like they were super hood or anything, but to me they created an audience for the average white kid who loved hip-hop, but who was a little nervous, like 'Am I allowed to like this black culture stuff?' So I think there were a lot of white kids back in the day that were a little intimidated by it so the white artists kind've gave them that stamp of 'Hey, it's okay for me to like this too.'"
Indeed, criticism is a plight that almost all white participants in hip-hop are sure to come across at one time or another. Being that the culture was born out of the slums of the Bronx and cultivated in various poverty-stricken neighborhoods in America, African Americans and Latinos view the culture with a sense of ownership. In a time when they were shunned by the world, hip-hop became their own country club of sorts, putting the onus on the white rapper or critic to "prove themselves" as worthy of being accepted into the hip-hop community.
Underground Brooklyn rapper Necro, a purveyor of horrorcore whose career dates back to the early '90s as a producer for other notable white rap acts Non-Phixion and Cage, digs deep beneath the surface and points to the historically strained relationship between whites and blacks as the cause for such a critical lens on white rappers, "Racism, simple," Necro writes via email. "What happens is, the rest of the country that is white doesn't rap, and because of what white people did to blacks in the past, there is major resentment towards white people. Blacks don't feel anything whites have done could make up for that. I can relate 'cause I'm Jewish and that's like asking me to forget what Germans and Nazis did to my people.
"But in a lot of ways I have moved forward, 'cause I perform in Germany a lot, and its always love," he adds. "So I think the problem is, because of all this hate for the white population, it trickles down to the white rapper, and we get the bad end of the stick. For example, when I moved into the projects we had major beef with black crews daily. They would roll really deep and have an agenda to f--- you up if you were white, so I never understood all this aggression towards me. What the f--- did I do? I ended up learning that this aggression came from the blacks moving in years before me, and them getting their asses kicked by the Jews and Italians that first lived in the projects. So it was a vicious cycle and it made sense to me once I learned that. So I think white rappers get massive hate because white people are hated for things they have done."
Necro brings up some interesting points with his commentary and while his opinions are all plausible, there are multiple ways the cookie can crumble in regards to matters like this. Being white in hip-hop may bring added pressure or stereotypes, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you will be cast to the side. In many cases, it's simply a matter of talent, work ethic, opportunity and parlaying that perfect storm into critical acclaim and success.
Clark recounts moments of feeling ostracized in her career, but describes her experience of entering the world of hip-hop as simply paying her dues as an artist. "As far as me personally, coming up as a dancer and an artist, I had to earn my stripes," she says. "There was never any pass like, 'Oh, you're white so we're gonna treat you special.' No. There was definitely a hazing or a kind of rite of passage if you're gonna be in this movement with us, then you have to show that you're worthy to be here. And I feel like nowadays, there's a lot of passes that get handed out. I feel like it's some exception, like, 'Oh, you're white, you can rap.' It's become somewhat of a novelty [on some level]."
Necro describes what he perceives as an invisible wall separating certain white rappers on the East Coast from making a large impact in the mainstream. "Well, a lot of areas of hip-hop, in the business and media, are racist, and treat white rappers like black jazz artists were treated in the '60s, like we aren't worthy, especially in New York City," he states. "I been through it all, the radio shows, conventions, the streets, cyphers, pitching myself to everyone in the game and getting rejected, it didn't matter how thugged out I was, people didn't believe I was real. It was like if you aren't co-signed by someone black they assume you are faking it, and usually these people were the most fake. I could have robbed them right in their offices, but I knew I couldn't do that because I didn't wanna get blackballed. So I was in a difficult position 'cause I felt I was equal, color didn't mean s--- to me 'cause when I rhyme, and sit down to rhyme, I don't think I am a white person."
According to him, his aggressive nature and demand for respect may have turned off record label executives that were more familiar with dealing with artists with suburban backgrounds. "I'm a human, my skin color is not an issue to me, its more an issue to other people and when I made dope, hot s--- I wanted my respect for it, and not by ass kissing or riding coattails. I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn," Necro explains. "My projects was half white, half black, so some of my first friends ever as a little kid were black kids. So I wasn't about to treat someone special in the rap game 'cause of color. I demanded respect in the early stages, and that turned off a lot of people. This is why only soft white boys get on -- you have never seen a rugged, thugged out white kid from queens or Brooklyn blow up. We are not acknowledged, even when these industry heads know our status."
While racial tension in hip-hop may be put on the big screen when it involves artists, it may be even more common behind the scenes. The stars may get the headlines, but white executives also face battles that may stem from race. "Have I had incidents, of course," Lobel says. "People try to test you, but at the end of the day, I live off respect so if you try to disrespect me, I'm gonna let you know you're not gonna disrespect me again. It's from where you're from, the way you were raised, it's your integrity, your principals, your morals, your loyalty, everybody gets tests in life.
"And I say the N-word a lot and people sometimes look at me like, 'Yo, why you saying that word?' and I'm like that word is not about an African American, you're my n----, that's [me saying] you're homie, you're my friend, that's how I grew up. Russell Simmons recently went on The Breakfast Club and said that Steve Lobel gets a pass for saying that word. People might say to me, 'Why you dressing hip-hop or why you think you black?' I think that's so ignorant. I got a swag, I got a style, I come from Queens, N.Y. It's not on me, it's in me."
Racial tension is alive on the East and West Coast, but the South is a whole different animal. The region that championed slavery and opposed the Civil Rights Movement has a checkered past when it comes to dealings between blacks and whites and continues to work past those issues. This makes rapper Paul Wall's ascension to the top of the rap game even more amazing. After beginning his career as one-half of the duo the Color Changing Click with Chamillionaire, the Houston, Texas native released his major label debut, The People's Champ, in 2005, and has gone on to drop eight solo studio albums during his career and solidify himself as a living legend within the southern hip-hop community. As the sole white rapper in the SwishaHouse clique, Paul Wall has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to navigating being a white artist in a predominantly black culture.
The Slab God creator admits he's an artist caught between a rock and a hard place at times when it comes to his diverse fanbase. "Sometimes it might be a concert where there'll be some fan in a suit, some fans with their face painted looking like some juggalos, and people from the hood of all different types of races," Wall says. "There'll be a real melting pot at my shows, but they don't always mix. It's like they want me to themself. The fan in the suit wants me to themself, the juggalo fans want me to be like them, and the fans from the hood want me to be like them. But at the end of the day, I just try to do what I feel like is best and be the person god wanted me to be and try to inspire different people from all walks of life."
When white members of the hip-hop community feel a bit unwelcomed by their black contemporaries in certain instances, Soul Khan pegs those feelings of being out of touch with the roots of the culture. "It's weird because I know white people, myself included, have been conditioned to think that we should feel welcomed everywhere and be really upset if we're not and think that there's something wrong," Khan says. "But if you're from a community that's been stigmatized, afflicted or oppressed and someone comes in looking like the oppressor, that doesn't get shrugged off overnight and especially in climates where there's a lot of residential, educational, cultural and commercial segregation."
He also reasons that some fans' lack of regard for standing in support of causes that affect the black and Latino community is simple naiveté. "There's plenty that do that and it's f---ing weird and it's embarrassing and it comes from this naive and well-intentioned, but offensive idea that's like, 'Ah, the music brings everybody together and we're all just music fans here.' Yeah, but everyone still has their circumstances that affects them and positions them differently in America's power structure and to deny that is dishonest and counterproductive," Kahn states,
Hip-hop is largely a party and was created as a means for entertainment on its surface, but it's undoubtedly rooted in social responsibility, particularly to the impoverished and economically challenged areas that inspired its creation. Feeling a need to shed light on issues pertaining to the black community should be in any rappers mission statement, white or not, but can seen as a lack of empathy when those duties are ignored by white rappers.
"This is where it came from so if you're gonna step into this realm you gotta take on the responsibilities that come with it, you just can't ignore it," Paul Wall says. "When you jump into the ring of hip-hop, in any aspect, then you definitely should be sensitive and aware, or just try to be. And not only because you're doing hip-hop you should do that, but just because you're being a good human being and try to be conscious of issues going on in the community, especially for the people without a voice.
"And that's what hip-hop a lot of time when it started, it was a voice for a generation and we take that for granted. If you look at a lot of the old hip-hop songs, there was accountability in every aspect of the game, but now there's no accountability in hip-hop with the music we make. The more ignorant it is, the bigger the song gonna be so that's just encouraging people to bring that out. So our freedom as an artist has gotten out of control where anybody can be an artist. It's not a fraternity no more, it's an open bar. And I don't think it's not just something that white people should be aware of, it's something as a whole that hip-hop should be aware of."
There have been numerous white rappers fall under scrutiny due to what some perceive as appropriation and a lack of respect for black culture. Incidents include Kreayshawn's fall from grace, Iggy Azalea's Twitter exchange with A Tribe Called Quest member Q-Tip, Action Bronson's showdown with Ghostface Killah and Slim Jesus' gun-toting "Drill Time" video, to name a few. When asked about the backlash that some white hip-hop artists receive, Steve Lobel urges overzealous critics to differentiate between those who have paid their dues and others that truly fit the appropriation tag.
"Say Macklemore, yeah, he's a white guy who came out of nowhere people think, but he's been around just trying to get in where he fit in and get a deal and then his music took him to another level," Lobel explains. "But it's a business so if he's selling records and he's getting accolades and people are nominating him, then he has a fanbase so you can't say that Macklemore came out overnight. Justin Beiber, he's a little white kid, I knew him when he couldn't get a deal, he had no deal.
"I been on tour with him and then he ran around and he starts to think he's hood or he thinks he street or he thinks he's black and at the end of the day, slow down, because that's not who you are because if you wind up in the county jail, you'd wind up getting robbed or raped or disrespected or extorted. Macklemore, people are giving him s---, but at the end of the day, his music spoke for itself. So it all depends on how you look at everything."
He continues by saying, "If Macklemore says I'm from the hood and I'm selling dope and I'm robbing people, then we gotta question some things. But if you're disrespecting the culture because you think you got a little popularity or fame then you're a bitch or a sucker. But if you're respecting the culture and understanding the culture and you're getting some popularity then salute. Can Kreayshawn or Iggy go against a Nicki Minaj in a freestyle? Why don't we see? Everybody's got skills, so let's see who can hold their own."
The introduction of blogs and social media has been a game-changer when it comes to gaining visibility as an artist without a record deal or promotional budget. In the draconian days of actual artist and repertoire, rappers, especially white ones, had to go through a certain vetting process before even being presented to the public on a larger scale. If this was 2005, chances are that Slim Jesus wouldn't have been able to finagle the clicks people gave to his polarizing "Drill Time" video into an actual career.
While this can be seen as a positive or negative, what cannot be debated is the current divide between hip-hop artists and the bloggers, writers and journalists that cover and dissect their every move under a microscope, sometimes for better, but in many instances, for worse. Publications like Complex and Pitchfork are just a few of many outlets that have been accused by high-profile rappers for disrespecting their artistry and being irresponsible in their coverage of the culture as a whole.
On Childish Gambino's “All the Shine,” a song off his Because the Internet album, he rhymes, “But Pitchfork only likes rappers who crazy or hood, man, so, I guess we gon’ see.” Pitchfork ultimately gave the LP a 1.6 rating out of 10. As for Complex, Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco weren't too fond of an article that critiqued their music, with the latter deeming it "distasteful and unnecessary." The uproar can also be attributed to the advent of social media and blogs, which lessens the checks and balances people have to go through before being considered as a credible voice in hip-hop.
Dove Clark seems to notice this glaring trend and frames it as a fish out of water situation. "It's 100 percent easier, it's too easy," she admits when asked about white artists and media members gaining traction within the hip-hop community today. "I don't think that the challenge is race a lot of times when it comes to the music industry, I think what the challenge is the relatability of what you came from. You have a lot of people, whether they're on the record label side or the blogger side or whatever, they're not from the street.
"So if you take a street rapper and you put them in the mix to be judged by people that don't even come from that environment, it creates a weird synergy. We can say some of that is racial, but then again, I know a lot of white kids from the street and I know a lot of black people that grew up in the suburbs so there's still a divide in the way that we communicate about certain things in hip-hop."
Steve Lobel, on the other hand, believes that the presence of white artists in hip-hop today is unrelated to quality control, and is moreso a byproduct of blog sites and social media. "In the '80s you had Beastie Boys, you had 3rd Bass, you had Bloods of Abraham that was signed to Eazy E's label," Lobel explains. "And then you had Eminem and now you got Yelawolf. You had so many white rappers throughout the '90s and '00s so I don't think nothing's hard to break. If you got quality music, it's all about the music. There's always been white rappers. Have they got exposed as much [as now]? No, because now with the internet you got every right rapper [exposed to the public]. And if you're dope, you're dope and if you're wack, you're wack, but the fans have to be the judge of that. It's not about a black or white thing, it's about a business, it's about a culture. It's about the music."
The music is ultimately the biggest thing that matters when it comes to these discussions. However, hip-hop is more than just music. The genre encapsulates the dreams and fears of black and brown youth in America that would otherwise go unheard in many instances. So while the music may be your motivation for participating in hip-hop culture, it's truly deeper than rap and that is something that anyone, regardless of race, should be aware of. Being white in hip-hop should mean telling your story in an honest way, but it should also mean being in tune and in touch with the roots of a culture you're eating off of and utilizing.
Hip-hop is more inclusive than ever and shows no signs of slowing down. A variety of things factor into that, from dope music being created from rappers of every race to the genre's growing audience, which allows for more unique stories and perspectives to be shared.
At the end of the day, being white in hip-hop isn't a big deal at all, but having a disconnect to the culture and a lack of respect most definitely is, especially if you want your voice to be heard.
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