Could Hip-hop Heal America’s Racial Divide?

Last July, the future of youth culture was chillin’ in the parking lot of a hip-hop concert in suburban New Jersey. Smokin’ Grooves, the only annual package tour featuring rap artists, was in town, and as far as the eye could see, in varying shades of pale, were white boys and girls, jocks and nerds, preps and stoners, lounging against family-size cars, getting their brewsky on, or queuing up to be frisked. All the acts–Wyclef Jean, Busta Rhymes, Cypress Hill, Gang Starr, Canibus, a reunited Public Enemy–were black and Latino, and inside, some black and Latino fans pushed to the front of the stage. But outside, it was a Caucasian invasion. As a security guard waved our car forward, a friend joked, “Are we at the right venue?”

That same week, the country’s No. 1 pop band was a group of thirtysomething white rappers called the Beastie Boys. Noreaga, a practically unknown underground rapper, boasted the No. 3 pop album. Barenaked Ladies, a heretofore annoying group of novelty-rock spazzes from Canada, were at No. 6 on the strength of their first rap song, “One Week.” Three of MTV’s top five videos were from hip-hop artists. In fact, you could have picked any week in the past year and built a similar case. Like losing your virginity or blaming your parents, hip-hop, for today’s average kid–black or white–is just another part of growing up.

“Why shouldn’t [white kids] be exploring us? That’s the way it’s supposed to be, you know,” says the Grammy-nominated rapper Busta Rhymes, a.k.a. Trevor Smith. “If we’d grown up with a different mind-set, then all this shit wouldn’t seem so strange. It would be normal and natural for white kids to be idolizing and imitating rap stars. But the powers that be have created all these barriers and segregated us and brought us up not to appreciate each other’s cultural significance, so everybody looks at these white kids like they’re out of their motherfucking minds.”

Though grunge had ties to a rock tradition that many parents could grasp–Nirvana loved the Beatles, after all–hip-hop has always been another matter entirely. Ever since Run-D.M.C. matched screeching guitars with minimal drum-machine beats and turntable scratching (circa “Rock Box,” 1984), hip-hop has sounded like the rebellious truth for increasing numbers of white youth.

“If you’re a white kid, it’s hard to get your parents riled up these days playing rock ‘n’ roll,” says Fab 5 Freddy, a.k.a. Fred Brathwaite, an original host of Yo! MTV Raps when it debuted in 1988. “But if you got some Tupac blasting in your room, your mother’s gonna be mad at you, and that’s cool. You’ll be like, ‘Shit, I’m just listening to this black guy talking over some beats and my mom is terrified!'”

White fans no longer listen to hip-hop on the sly or surreptitiously rhyme in front of the mirror; they form bands and rhyme on MTV. Pop’s most imaginative artist, Beck, works on the assumption that hip-hop is his generation’s folk music. Rock’s fiercest guitarist, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, proudly mimics a stylus wrecking vinyl. Hanson’s 1997 sandbox smash “MMMBop” was livened up by a DJ scratch. The pervasive slanguage of hip-hop is not just a goofy racist punch line anymore, it’s simply how kids communicate.

Sometime after the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the hip-hop kid–oversize clothes, syrupy slang, skateboard double-parked outside–emerged as the ’90s embodiment of youthful white alienation. And, as a result, he’s become a flashpoint for politicians and media cynics who insist on pushing the same tired teen “analysis”: Numbed and perverted by a Godless barrage of abusive imagery via music, television, film, Sega, and the Internet, otherwise well-adjusted Billys and Beckys have sunk to new depths of antisocialism. They emulate gang members and shoot up school cafeterias. They wear baggy pants and have unprotected sex.

But when you break the racial encryption of this rant, you face an unavoidable reality–millions of white kids are defining themselves through nonwhite culture. Demographically, there’s no mystery; the terms majority and minority are busily playing musical chairs. Between 1970 and 1990, the white population in the United States dropped almost 10 percent, while the black population rose slightly, the Hispanic population doubled, and the population of Asians and other nonwhites tripled. The nonwhite middle class is now a substantial suburban presence. Despite pressure to choose “black” or “white,” Americans identify themselves more and more as mixed-race or biracial. Hip-hop, during this period, has mirrored the country’s multicultural shift, becoming a pitched battle of race and identity. Emerging as the radical (re)vision of pop-rock that punk never managed, hip-hop is the crucial cultural influence for Generation X and beyond. The music-industry numbers are undeniable. According to a SoundScan study, 71 percent of rap music is purchased by white consumers, and R&B (which includes rap) was the top-selling musical genre overall in 1997. Hip-hop style is pop style–Teenage Research Unlimited reported in October ’97 that baggy pants were “in” for 78 percent of white teen-agers–and Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and other fashion designers court hip-hop’s imprimatur. From Nike to Sprite, sampling and selling black cool to white consumers is the get-rich-quick scheme of the decade.

For the original black and Latino b-boys who scraped out an urban existence 25 years ago in the South Bronx and Manhattan, hip-hop culture meant break dancing, graffiti writing, MC-ing, and DJ-ing–along with a flashy, seat-of-the-pants fashion sense. Today’s white hip-hoppers, with considerably greater resources, attach an endless array of lifestyle statements (tattooing, skateboarding, snowboarding, body piercing) and entrepreneurial projects (fashion, rave promotion, Web design). Their subcultural diversity is bewildering. There’s the slam-dancing mooks with their buffed-up chests and testosterone poisoning; the immaculately made-up chicas with their go-on-girl strut; the ska-crazed buds with their bong hits and sunburned tattoos; the rave aesthetes with their selfless mysticism; the cooler-than-you indie-underground geeks with their vinyl jones and extensive mailing lists. And this is a wildly superficial list.

Then, of course, there’s the classic “white homeboy” routine–acting a fool in daddy’s car. Musically inept groups such as the Kottonmouth Kings and Insane Clown Posse, who parade around the suburbs rapping like psychotic pimps, are the most extreme offenders. Sadly, this phenomenon has become the definitive prototype and enduring mass-media cliché. It has also led to the widespread use of the word wigger–a nasty slurring of the epithet “white nigger.” Wigger, like “nigger lover” during the civil rights era, was first used by whites who objected to other whites embracing black culture. Now it’s also used by whites who embrace black culture to call out other whites who defame black culture. Either way, one timeworn fact remains: With race and class so intertwined, any white kid (wigger or not) who idolizes an African American flaunting a fat bankroll will always get under somebody’s skin.

While many publications have sincerely chronicled and bemoaned the so-called death of alternative rock as a relevant, creative genre (circa 1996, say), what actually faded with alt-rock is a belief in rebel style that exists independently of African American culture. This was the secret legacy of punk rock (indie rock and grunge) in America–it offered a handbook of cool for whites that basically ignored the existence of black people. What’s happening now is that rock ‘n’ roll is going back to its miscegenated roots. Like suit-and-tied black professionals donning kente cloth and attending the Million Man March, rock’s white fans and performers are undergoing an intense redarkening process.

In recent years, dozens of white scholars have dissected the flimsy foundations of “whiteness” and “blackness” (purely American economic inventions). Two of the more pugnacious palefaces, Harvard’s Noel Ignatiev (editor of the journal Race Traitor ) and the University of Minnesota’s David Roediger, have even called for an “abolition” of white culture. They argue that such an animal doesn’t exist; our bloodlines are too mixed. Even famously cranky hip-hop-phobic essayist Stanley Crouch asserts that America is undergoing an unprecedented “cultural miscegenation,” a blending of speech, style, and gestures that will result in our being “far and away more comfortable with human commonalty and variety.” The New York Times reported in February 1998 that, while adults’ television viewing habits split along color lines, their kids watch black and white shows equally. Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey are arguably America’s two most admired celebrities. Quentin Tarantino, perhaps the most imitated filmmaker of the ’90s, is a self-proclaimed product of black pop culture whose movies hinge on a volatile racial frisson. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown star Samuel L. Jackson describes Tarantino this way: “He’s like my daughters’ little white hip-hop friends. They’re basically black kids with white skin.”

Not since pre-Civil War blackface minstrelsy has popular culture been such a racial free-for-all. And there’s certainly no shortage of opinions on why this is (a) evil; (b) liberating; (c) inevitable; or (d) good for a few laughs and that’s about it. Blacks remain suspicious of whites who identify too closely with African American culture, primarily because those same whites often want to appropriate the culture completely. Traditionally, this suspicion has taken two formsthe Elvis Syndrome and the White Negro Problem. The former has to do with money and fame and goes like this: Elvis Presley, a white man, became the biggest pop star of this century by singing and dancing like a black man, and from the Rolling Stones to New Kids on the Block, the process has repeated itself as blacks create and whites luxuriate; any white artist who follows such a path is suspect (for the hip-hop era, see the Vanilla Ice Virus). The second has to do with social status and sex and goes like this: In 1957, as the Beat Generation went pop with the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, novelist Norman Mailer wrote a widely cited essay for the political journal Dissent called “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Ennobling white “urban adventurers” clued into black “existential” dread via the “Negro jazzman.” Mailer posited a sexual freedom ride for any white kid with the appropriately cool droop: “I believe it is the absolute human right of the Negro to mate with the white.”

Usually when you read about white kids who appropriate hip-hop–be it rapping or forming faux gangs–Elvis and Mailer are invoked. These folks tower over the subject like priapic parents, while smug journalists shrug off the phenomenon as nothing new and rather embarrassing to boot. Of course, it is nothing new. In his groundbreaking 1993 work, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford), Eric Lott could have been nodding at the wigger (or the gangsta) when he wrote, “If . . . we are to understand anything more about popular racial feeling in the United States, we must no longer be satisfied merely to condemn the terrible pleasures of cultural material such as minstrelsy, for the legacy is all around us.” The minstrel shows of the 19th century (in which both white and black performers wore the cork mask to fulfill audience fantasies), like pop culture of the 1990s (in which both whites and blacks customize their personas to “keep it real”), probably tell us more than we want to hear about our democratic experiment. Blackface was an exorcism of prejudice, self-hatred, forbidden lust, and genuine respect; it threw out feelings onstage that couldn’t be expressed anywhere else. These days, to suggest that a white kid’s immersion in black culture might be a natural, even progressive step is to risk charges of malicious naïveté. But maybe what’s maliciously naive is to expect American teenagers to have any idea who they are.

Obviously, hip-hop is no clear window into African American life; it’s just the most popular. Chart-topping rap capitalists speak for little but the economic vitality of the Gangsta Entertainment Complex, and white kids kicking Ebonics and wearing Kangols will not end racial discrimination. There are real social problems that hip-hop will never touch. In 1996, the typical black household had a net worth of $4,500, one-tenth that of the average white household; poverty among black children is at 40 percent; young black males are murdered at a still startling rate–111 per 100,000, according to 1995 figures. All of which puts impassioned white hip-hop-heads in an odd position. Sure, whites have participated in hip-hop–as fans, promoters, writers, breakers, DJs, producers, photographers, label owners, and rappers–for as long as the art form has existed. Still, hip-hop Caucasoids of all persuasions are usually lumped together as interlopers or charlatans, self-conscious of both the music’s expanding white audience and their role in that expansion.

Says El-P (a.k.a. Jamie Meline), a New York City-based MC-producer, “When people ask me about being white in hip-hop, I tell them, ‘Look, you can’t pretend.’ The reason a lot of white people play themselves and just get it wrong is that they have the arrogance to think that they can identify with the experience of the black man or woman in America; not just empathize with it, but feel it. And you can’t go there. Otherwise, you’re sabotaging and belittling the experiences of the people you claim to love.”

Fab 5 Freddy has been as responsible as anyone for translating hip-hop culture to mainstream white America. Star of the classic early-’80s New York b-boy flick Wild Style, Freddy draws a direct line from early be-boppers to rock ‘n’ rollers to rappers.

“Jazz musicians in the ’40s were seen in the same light as rappers today; they were the scourge of the earth,” he explains. “But white kids couldn’t see Charlie Parker on cable TV at all times of the day. He didn’t have the pulpit. . . Unlike Charlie Parker and Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf, Tupac [Shakur] and [the Notorious B.I.G.] were promoted as the baddest stars out there. So part of the rebellion becomes racial; that’s America. These kids are rebelling against a society that says they shouldn’t have anything to do with black people. So they’re like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna get down with the illest niggas I can find!'”

Popular culture’s racial dynamic is evolving madly, and for folks born before 1970, that is often threatening or downright baffling. “Hip-hop is the only popular culture that takes seriously the relationship between race and democracy in America,” says Henry Giroux, a professor at Penn State University and author of Channel Surfing: Race Talk and the Destruction of Today’s Youth (St. Martin’s, 1997). “This music has had a grip on white kids for 15 to 20 years, and everybody calls it pathology and that’s that. Are all these white kids just idiots who are being duped and manipulated by the record industry? Who is cynical and arrogant and detached enough to believe that? Sure, some kids are just latching onto the moronic gangsta elements, but the vast majority are caught in some middle space where they’re trying to figure themselves out.”

Corporatized or idealized, hip-hop is the American Dream and the African American Nightmare rolled into one fat-ass blunt. It’s not Elvis because black artists remain preeminent; white rappers, aside from the Beastie Boys, and maybe House of Pain or 3rd Bass, haven’t won anything. It’s not a rerun of jazz or the blues because it represents raw-boned sorrow and opulent success, often bestowed by black executives. Hip-hop rules the world of youth and pop culture for a reason–it’s talking about what everybody’s thinking. White and black kids know this, even if they can only articulate it by getting stoned to the gills, rejecting proper English, profiling like ghetto supastars, or nodding their heads when Tupac screams on their car stereos that he doesn’t “give a fuck.”

Many white hip-hoppers, myself included, still wrestle with an age-old disease, which I call only somewhat ironically “double unconsciousness.” It’s the white flip side to W.E.B. Du Bois’ turn-of-the-century diagnosis, “double consciousness,” which suggests that blacks in America are “always looking at [themselves] through the eyes of others” and feel a sense of “twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls; two thoughts; two unreconciled strivings.” Conversely, double unconsciousness means failing to look at oneself through the eyes of others and living under a delusion of “oneness,” the myth that if you, as an individual, don’t behave in an actively racist fashion, then you’re not shaped by racism. The doubly unconscious refuse to acknowledge how certain institutions (education, housing) constantly watch their backs. They want extra credit for entertaining different points of view. They love black music, talk to a few black friends, and believe they are developing an understanding of black people (when in fact they are only developing an image of themselves). Dead giveaway: If a white guy exclaims “I’m not a racist!” or “But a lot of black people feel the same way I do!” he’s doubly unconscious.

Nobody’s pondered this ofay shuffle more deeply than a hyper, balding graffiti writer from Chicago named William Wimsatt, a.k.a. Upski. In fact, he’s just about the only person who’s bothered. What’s encouraging about Upski, and why he’s still ahead of the curve in terms of understanding whiteness and hip-hop, is that he’s so proudly unhip. He’s spastic, vulnerable, and poorly dressed. He doesn’t try to impress you with arcane knowledge. He doesn’t drop names. He actively campaigns against gratuitous use of slang. And for somebody who’s spent so much time actually journeying through the b-boy killing fields, he’s almost maddeningly guileless. When I finally reached him by phone–he’d just moved from his parents’ house in Chicago to his girlfriend’s Manhattan apartment–he said sweetly, “Wow, I didn’t know anybody still cared.”

The next week, we’re walking through the West Village, and he’s manically going off about his new book, tentatively titled Urban Life, Home Schooling, Hip-Hop Leadership, and Why Philanthropy Is the Greatest Art Form of the 20th Century. I ask if he feels bad for making all those white hip-hop kids look like such bozos. He grins and laughs. “I have clowned wiggers over the years, I admit it; but in general, I think it’s a great thing for white kids to get into hip-hop. It’s had an enormous impact on my life. It caused me to look at the world in a whole new light,” he says.

“America is such a racially charged place that white people are afraid to mess up,” he adds. “Our biggest fear is being embarrassed. We’re scared of making a racial faux pas. I want to make it OK to mess up; I sure made my share of messes. I mean, why are we trying to convey to the world that we know what we’re doing? We need to start from scratch and mess up a lot!” Back in the day, white kids generally had to make a point of crossing over racial lines, especially if we didn’t live in an urban melting pot. Today, the racial lines are crossing over us. White kids today are being restyled and reoriented by black popular culture, whether they like it or not. The choice they have is whether to resist the process, and what bothers parents and the cultural establishment is how little these kids are resisting.

What worries me is how white hip-hop kids’ familiarity with black pop culture tends to give them a false sense of familiarity with, and knowledge about, black people. Neither black nor white rock fans assume that most white people are like, say, Dave Matthews or Sarah McLachlan. But most white hip-hop fans tend to think DMX or Method Man represents some essential quality about black people. This isn’t necessarily their fault–society’s arrested racial development is due most of the blame–but it is an assumption that needs to be questioned, regularly. So when I see the autonomous white hip-hop enterprise the Beastie Boys have constructed–which seems to feel more strongly about cool sneakers and Tibetan monks than exploring their relationships with African Americans–it strikes me as an enormous denial. Then again, the Beasties, like so many of us, aren’t that hyped about being racial martyrs. They just want to live.

With racism evolving as quickly as racial demographics, anything’s likely to happen in the years ahead. Discrimination could become less acceptable, the suburbs could become less isolated from cities, concert audiences could become more integrated, radio formats could become more diverse. Or not. But the so-called hip-hop generation–white, black, or otherwise–is doing everything in its power to mock our culture’s stuttering fear of racial progress. When a kid’s identity crisis is ridiculed or blamed for the minstrelsy of the past, racism’s foundation is only reinforced. OK, so much of young white America looks like a bunch of foolish twits playing dress-up. But are they really any less confused than you are?

Charles Aaron is a senior editor of Spin magazine. Reprinted with permission from Spin (Nov. 1998). Subscriptions: $11.95/yr. (12 issues) from Box 51635, Boulder, CO 80322-1635. Or call 800-274-7597.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.