The "Whiting" of Hip Hop: On the Responsibility of White Artists in Black Music

by Brittany Dawson

“This year I’ll ‘prolly go to the awards dappered down / Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile” —J. Cole, “Fire Squad”

It’s awards season again, a constant reminder that white music artists are celebrated for "columbusing" historically Black music genres—even when there are Black artists still producing much better work. Iggy Azalea has received a number of five 2015 Grammy nominations—including Best Rap Album—and it’s highly likely she will win, if her recent win for the People’s Choice Award for Best Hip Hop Artist is any indication.

Thanks to the appropriation of Black culture and her adaptation of a “blaccent” that is slightly amusing yet embarrassing, Iggy Azalea’s performance of hip hop speaks volumes on the current state of hip hop.

While T.I. continues to defend his protégée, Q-Tip and other rap aficionados transform Twitter into a virtual classroom on hip hop’s political and social significance in an effort to school Iggy on why people are so mad at her “mediocre” talent. Grammy award winning rapper Macklemore gained brownie points earlier this week after weighing in on the perks and perils of White privilege on HOT 97. Aside from the fact he simply regurgitated truths already realized by struggling artists of color, Macklemore stated the following:
You need to know your place in the culture. Are you contributing or are you taking? Are you using it for your own advantage or are you contributing? [...] Just because there's been more successful white rappers, you cannot disregard where this culture came from and our place in it as white people. This is not my culture to begin with. As much as I have honed my craft [...] I do believe that I need to know my place.
Of course, his comments were advertised as insightful and worth listening to. Macklemore saves the day! While his acknowledgment of his own privilege is commendable, it is excruciatingly clear that by saying, “Hey everyone, I know I’m technically remixing an age-old art from people of the African Diaspora, but the system will reward me for it anyways!” shields Macklemore from the same vitriol as Iggy Azalea.

In this case, we have two disparate examples of cultural appropriation: (1) a model appropriator that stays within the realms of White dominated interests (Macklemore); and (2) another whose overt, awkward affinity for Black culture is overly contrived, unconvincing, and insulting to the hip hop community (Iggy Azalea). Both complicate our current understanding of appropriation even further.

Partially because his appropriation is not as clumsily performed as Azalea’s, Macklemore’s is relatively “safe” in comparison to other white artists. From Macklemore’s sound to overall image, he follows a pattern of producing hipster rap appealing to white 20-somethings. Sure, he attracts a sea of supporters across these lines, but his biggest impact is within these spheres. Macklemore is lauded as the long awaited hip hop savior widely among White listeners or those looking for music with a “message”.

The same is true for other white rappers too.

MGK’s biggest influence is punk rock, squealing electric guitars, and Blink 182. After adopting a persona akin to MTV’s Steve-O, MGK continues to earn respect within and outside the rap community. In fact, MGK rapped a verse for hardcore band Sleeping With Sirens, a realm rarely explored by mainstream hip hop artists of color. Pennsylvania-based rapper Mac Miller’s silly antics, skateboarding, and stoner class clown tracks failed to ignite the same concerns on appropriation, mainly because of the audience Miller panders to. His brand of hip-hop does not encroach upon the territory of black lyricists. Alabama rapper (who may be Iggy Azalea’s doppelgänger) Yelawolf follows a homeless-to-hip-hop pipeline eerily reminiscent of Eminem, and embodies all things rock and roll—rap’s very own Travis Barker.

Excluding the obvious, these rappers share one distinct trait that differs from Iggy Azalea and rappers we flag down for misusing Black culture: these artists perform hip hop within interests associated with whiteness. No, skateboarding or punk rock music is not synonymous with White people. But, in the fairly limited scope of mainstream hip hop, these interests do not send the same red flags as would a Kreayshawn or Riff Raff simply because it panders to stereotypical hobbies we associate with whiteness.

If we’re holding Iggy accountable for needing to earn her hip hop stripes, why aren’t we holding other white rappers to this standard? If this is true, we should expect Action Bronson to pen an op-ed to the New York Times, speaking on ways others can check privilege. Mac Miller and MGK should write a book on how to dismantle the inherent racial bias in the music industry that favors white artists who master a Black sound. Sounds silly, huh?

Let me not forget to mention that we all know some artists are given free range to navigate both white dominated spaces and traditionally Black spheres. Robin Thicke? He’s considered “down” right? Remember Jon B.? In the music video for his popular single “They Don’t Know,” Jon B. is seen getting his hair cut at a Black barbershop, rocking a fade rippled in waves that would put every hair care box to shame, and lusting over a Black woman. Both Thicke and Jon B. follow the Black male gaze, proving to be one way to appeal to the community. And interestingly enough, Jon B.’s relationship to Black culture didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most memorable voices of the 20th century. Again, are these examples of appropriation or appreciation?

Are we misdirecting our anger? And most importantly, how can we determine the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation? Based on ongoing conversations, we target white artists whose relationship to Black culture is deemed inauthentic—or to put it frankly “too Black” or “performative”—but leave artists who appeal to white dominated interests relatively unscathed.

It’s easier to take down Iggy Azalea because of her stilted “urban” accent, but what about the aforementioned white artists who appropriate stealthily? If we compare Macklemore to Iggy, of course Macklemore appears more “in tune” with his whiteness. Of course Macklemore’s comments debars scrutiny, after all, he marched in solidarity with Mike Brown last November, which allegedly makes this form of appropriation (or any appropriation, I might add) more acceptable in comparison to white rappers whose adaptation of Black culture is regarded as unsettling.

We have been extremely inconsistent with who we’ve been targeting when discussing appropriation. One would think artists who aren’t as overt would pose a deeper threat. All in all, non-Black rappers do have a place in hip hop as seen by its impact socially. Still, we need a clear reexamination on who we laud and who we loathe within the hip hop community.

We are molding a clear message to white artists who wish to thrive in our community: you can appreciate and appropriate our music as long as you stay. somewhat, within your lane as you do it. But the moment you veer outside of it, kiss your hip hop pass goodbye.

Photo: Shutterstock

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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