I’m going to do my best here to avoid a Macklemore “White Privilege II” situation in which, while attempting to address a complex issue of race and privilege, I end up positioning myself as a 100-percent enlightened and understanding communicator, one who can “translate” the concerns of African Americans to white audiences.
I really like rap. This wasn’t always the case. During junior high, I liked classic rock and indie rock that sounded like classic rock. I actually remember worrying back then about how I listened to an overwhelming majority of white artists. I counted the black artists I liked — Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley — as precious, token proofs of my balanced taste. This is what getting into music criticism at too young an age does to a kid; it made me think about representation in a Hall of Fame sense, where it was important to have a diverse roster. Of course, at that age I thought “diverse” just meant black people as well as white people, and I hadn’t even considered that women might have a stake in this conversation.
What is different about rap, in comparison with other traditionally black genres, like jazz, soul, funk or R&B? Why do white rap fans seem like tourists, in a way that white fans of these other genres don’t? Part of it must be that the other genres have been co-opted by white artists in a way that rap has remained more resistant too. Of course, single artists like Eminem or Macklemore have managed to pull Elvis Presley-style coups (a comparison that Eminem repeatedly made in his music, to his credit), but in general the top-selling rap artists have remained black. Perhaps this is because rap has often stayed true to the purpose of serving as “black America’s CNN,” as Public Enemy’s Chuck D once described it. And the truth is that, even though white males might make up the largest number of hip-hop fans, there is very little in rap lyrics that reflects the lives of middle-class white guys.
So I guess white people should feel a bit like tourists at a rap concert. It’s a weird dynamic, how white fans come to hear these songs about things they have no experience with, dance and yell and sing along, and then leave. It’s a something that few rappers have really addressed in their music. That’s why the perspective of Vince Staples is refreshing: “All these white folks chanting when I ask them ‘where my niggas at?’ / Going crazy, got me going crazy, I can’t get with that.” When I saw him perform in Brooklyn, he told the crowd, “put your hands in the air if you don’t fuck with the police.” My friend proudly put both hands in the air. Staples looked out at the crowd and said something like, “I can see some tight-lipped white people in the back not raising their hands.”
I can personally attest to the touristy move of yelling along to “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police” during the song “Norf Norf,” although my only two run-ins have been with an officer who gave me $180 ticket for not wearing my bike helmet my freshman year of high school and with another who let me and my friends go when he caught us smoking.
Staples knows that white fans at his concerts can’t relate to anything he’s saying, and so he doesn’t think they should feel totally comfortable. It worked, and that was part of what made it such an exciting show. No other rapper that I know of would so directly address that tension. At the beginning of the show, Staples said that there were probably a lot of new fans in the building. “Shouts-out to Pitchfork,” his DJ replied. Yep, that was me.
My point is that I recognize that my enjoyment of rap is complicated, and that there’s a real way that it will never belong to me. This doesn’t prevent me at all from enjoying it, but I do think it’s a good thing for white fans to keep in mind. It’s good to know when you’re a tourist.
Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Despite all the Amputations appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.