When Did Black Become the New White?


People have been analyzing the popularity of rap music in white suburbia ever since Yo MTV Raps started scaring parents in the late 80s and early 90s. I've always considered such an analysis to be motivated by fear of "black" America or another battlefield in the ongoing culture wars ravaging if we are to believe Fox News the United States. Some 20-odd years later, such hyperbolic language and warnings about rap music turning Smalltown, U.S.A. into the streets of Compton seem silly and outdated. Instead we should include racial attitudes insofar as it informs on the broader economics of culture. Segregation between "black" music and "white" music has only ever existed as a political characteristic as the market clearly demands a constantly evolving product regardless of the artist’s ethnic or cultural background.

Rap and hip-hop have traversed just about every socio-economic group in America. When Jay-Z and Kanye performed at the opening of the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, my only friend able to snag tickets was a white, Canadian-born, Ivy League-educated corporate lawyer who was invited by his firm. Rap culture has moved from the fringes of American society all the way to the halls of power. Contrast the '92 presidential election when Bill Clinton admonished rapper Sista Soulja for her lyrics to appeal to moderate white voters with Barack Obama’s highly publicized relationship with Jay-Z and Beyonce during his two presidential runs.  

So what's the appeal? All the usual answers such as the glorification of the rebel, the sex appeal, the production of the music, and the message are valid reasons and together can give a more complete reason as to why all types of music become popular. The same attitudes towards drugs, sex, and violence that have become associated with Rap culture can be found in the rock, heavy Metal, and ska, and punk genres. Furthermore, and unfortunately, the sexualization of young women is not only found in male-dominated genres but also in the female-friendly pop category. Listen to Mariah Carey"s "Honey" and then head to Urban Dictionary to see how the song’s interpreted.

Economics explains how these themes become popular.  Media companies target the coveted 18-49-year-old white male demographic because of their propensity to spend not just on songs, albums, and films but on the consumer goods and devices that allow people and families to experience media. These themes filter down to hormonal teens and tweens eager to be adults. Former record executive Lyor Cohen, who distributed music for Jay-Z, Irv Gotti, Run-DMC, and Drake, claims "white, suburban kids make up more than 80%" of the genre's sales. Seizing on this demand, record labels and other merchants of cool flood the market with images associated with rap culture and ensure anyone who can identify viscerally with an anti-establishment and rebellious theme can consume "cool." Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the rising star of the Tea Party, showed his street cred when he quoted Wiz Khalifa's "Work Hard Play Hard" during the filibuster of John O. Brennan for CIA director.

I wouldn't ask why rap is so popular in white suburbia because the answer is cosmetic. I'd ask why the mass production and mass consumption of a sound and a lifestyle has remained an expression of anti-establishment and individual culture. What becomes of originality in society when consumer goods decide the identity of the consumer and not the other way around?