How Music Executives Created 'Black' Hip Hop For White Suburban Kids


The only really interesting news accompanying this year's Grammy nominations was white rapper Macklemore's The Heist snubbing Kanye's Yeezus for Album of the Year. In response, Kanye said, "I don't know if this is statistically right, but I'm assuming I have the most Grammys of anyone my age, but I haven't won one against a white person." That last statement is false (he's beaten out the Beastie Boys, Eminem, and white songwriters on numerous occasions), but it does drive at an interesting point. Grammy nominations do show a statistical preference towards white artists, and Macklemore is as white as they come, for reasons that go beyond his skin color.

In hip hop, whiteness isn't color — it's a sound.

"Whiteness" in hip-hop music has to do more with a certain sound, story, and style than it does with a skin tone. The attributes that define "white" rap music are a high level of emotional sensitivity, an enunciated and articulate flow, suburban stories, poppy beats, and hooks. Certain white rappers, such as Queens native Action Bronson, are never accused of making "white" music, while many black rappers, notably Childish Gambino, Drake, Will Smith, Tyler, The Creator, early Kanye, and Earl Sweatshirt often are. Earl describes himself and his music on "Chum" as being "Too black for the white kids, too white for the black." Childish Gambino spits similarly on "Bonfire": "Yeah, they say they want the realness, rap about my real life / Told me I should just quit: 'First of all, you talk white!/ Second off, you talk like you haven't given up yet.'"

White men — specifically young, suburban white men — consume around 80% of hip-hop music.

Drake is a classic victim. Check the YouTube comments of any Drake song, or search "Drake" in any hip-hop forum, and you will undoubtedly find the gratuitous post asking"Am I The Only One That Considers Drake A White Rapper?"

Hip hop blogger TRUTH Minista Paul Scott claims Drake is so white that his music is "tarnishing the legacy of real Hip-Hop." Scott argues that Drake is out of touch with black culture, and that he shouldn't be allowed to use the n-word: "We have to take away his ghetto pass, or whatever he thinks he has, and ban Drake from using the n-word, because nothing in his lyrics even relates to black culture." What is missing from Drake's music that causes so many listeners to say it's not "black"? 

The TRUTH Minista cites Lil Wayne and Rick Ross as black rappers who use the n-word and use it appropriately. What makes these rappers' music more "black" than Drake's? The hyper-masculinity? The American ghetto stories? The drug slangin' and gunplay? These seem to be the main things that distinguish "black" from "white" music in the popular lexicon. But using these traits to define "black" hip-hop is extremely problematic, as white men have had such a heavy hand in shaping the genre and playing off negative stereotypes to sell it. 

White men — specifically young, suburban white men — consume around 80% of hip-hop music. This became a recognized industry fact in 1991, and since then, the music industry has crafted mainstream hip-hop culture to appeal to that demographic. Raps containing gangbangers, drug dealers, pimps, and hoes were pushed to the forefront, as executives believed that the sexiness and danger of these lifestyles were what white audiences craved from the genre. These stories were crafted, packaged, and sold as representing authentic "blackness." Other core attributes of early hip-hop music, such as its political critique, social commentary, comedy, and spirituality — represented by classic groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli — were pushed to the fringe and are now considered "alternative" uniquely socially engaged, and, sometimes, "white."

White and black audiences have accepted this misogynistic, materialistic, hyper-sexual, and violent gangbanger image as defining "black" rappers to the point where nobody describes white rapper Action Bronson, whose songs fall into that thematic territory, as a white artist whereas Macklemore is always discussed as a white rapper. Over time, as the story was repeated by different rappers and made more and more ridiculous, the character was flattened into a dick-grabbing, bitch-slapping caricature.

The trend of describing hip-hop as "black" or "white" stems from this cultural disconnect, and it's an entirely useless means of comparison. It normalizes negative stereotypes that black people have been fighting since Jim Crow. These are the stereotypes that help white people dismiss the violence and poverty in black communities as if it's black people's own fault; they cause kids to equate articulate styles of speech as "white" rather than as signs of "intelligence."

Millennials are in a unique place to dismantle these stereotypes. Hip-hop has been a well-established and accepted art form the entire time we have been conscious, culture-consuming individuals. We understand hip-hop's history; we can see where it's going and where it could go.

We should start by talking back if Macklemore beats Kendrick Lamar for Album of the Year since there is no question in any true fan's mind that good kid, m.A.A.d city is superior to The Heist — even Macklemore agrees. The narrative that has The Heist so critically acclaimed (an album built on the strength of a single that mocks classic hip hop tropes of materialism) is that Macklemore is somehow saving black hip hop from the malignant effects of misogyny and violence. This is extremely insulting and infuriating, especially as it was largely white executives who oriented mainstream hip-hop towards that realm in the first place. Kendrick combats these same negative stereotypes much more artfully than does Macklelmore. He just isn't immediately assumed to be outside of it.

Purchasing power is what shaped our current cultural landscape, and it is the only thing that will reshape it. Support real hip-hop, whatever you believe that to be, and quit talking about "blackness" and "whiteness" as if they were sounds.