White People And Hiphop: Tourists, Expats, Or Colonists?

Chicago rapper Chief Keef’s major-label debut “Finally Rich” has sparked verbal sparring among rap critics about cultural tourism and hiphop. This valuable conversation began with a glowing review by Jordan Sargent, and an angry response from RapRadar’s Brian “B.Dot” Miller. The central controversy is over the responsibilities we have when we talk about hiphop, and who should be allowed access to and influence over those conversations. Sargent is white, and Miller is black. Miller insisted on the New York Times ArtsBeat podcast that his distinction between tourism and legitimate participation in hiphop culture is based upon tenure and not melanin, and the disagreement over Chief Keef does not break along simple racial lines at all. But there is a natural suspicion of white voices in hiphop discourse.

The controversy over Keef is in many ways about the age-old lyrics vs. music wrestling match over how to value hiphop. Craig Jenkins has already eviscerated the “community of gatekeepers” who insist Keef’s lyrical content removes him from serious consideration or threatens to destroy hiphop. I’ll try to add something to the parallel thread about cultural tourism, white privilege, and good intentions.

Suspicion of white folks in conversations about hiphop is natural, and more valid than most acts of cultural gatekeeping. American history makes this inescapable. We’re a superpower built in record time thanks to 400 years of stolen labor and stolen lives, and another 150 of systematic oppression of the descendants of that thievery. (That that oppression is now abstract rather than legislated does not make it disappear.) This makes white appropriation of black cultural output inherently more problematic than, say, a Greenwich-born Bentley-driving 17-year-old who finds her angst validated and channeled in the music of impoverished Appalachia. Or a dentist’s son pouring the pain money can’t treat into an identification with music by blue-collar drug-addicted pop geniuses. The honky-tonk bar crowd might be wary of the rich girl, and the punk club might be angry to learn the mosher among them is going home to financial security and a nuclear family. But class divisions may go unnoticed, and even if they don’t the gap in privilege that financial class breeds is limited, and most of all, impermanent. Progress for the rich is, to borrow a phrase, fragile and reversible.

When it comes to hiphop, the privilege gap between the outsider and the insider is based on hundreds of years of brutality. When suburban white privilege comes to the rap show, it’s crossing a hell of a lot more space, and that space is going to be enforced by society far into the future. (To steadily decreasing effect, inshallah.) Straight, white, and male is the easiest difficulty setting in life. Even the white kids who were dealt a bad socioeconomic hand are holding it at a damn good table. And again, history: However sincerely we participate in hiphop culture, we’re beneficiaries of systematic oppression finding an outlet in the anthems of the systematically oppressed. This is the source of the suspicion that sometimes greets white hiphop heads, and which lingers to some extent even after we succeed in proving our sincerity and depth of knowledge or curiosity about the culture. This is why some people call us tourists even after we’ve stayed awhile and taken up residence in hiphop culture.

There are a lot of us expats, in an ill-defined space between those raised on black music and culture and those just-visiting dilettantes. We think we’ve earned some standing (and some codeswitching). But some folks regard us more as colonists. And that’s not a crazy sentiment, especially as regards white folks’ interest in violent drug rap. Dave Bry’s New Republic piece does a nice job of explaining why:

For me, a white person, a rap fan who does in fact enjoy Chief Keef’s album, for musical reasons, much the same as I enjoy Waka Flocka Flame’s music, even as I find the lyrics banal and deplore much of their message—a person who likes to think that I can compartmentalize various elements of artistic expression, and appreciate music without any agenda—it’s worth giving hard thought to what it means that a black person is saying that she can’t. It’s worth ruminating on how deeply and insidiously white privilege and the black lack thereof infect every aspect of life in America—even something as simple as enjoying a good pop song. […] We want it to be different, us well-meaning white people. Maybe that’s even part of why we listen to rap music, or part of why we started to, anyway, because we want to do our best to make amends, to bridge the divide. We don’t want to be outsiders; we don’t want for there to be such a thing as outsiders. We want it to be different, but it’s not.

We want it to be one way, but it’s the other way. (Quoting “The Wire” sagely is another primary identifier of us would-be expats.) I don’t agree with Bry about Chief Keef on artistic grounds – based on two spins of “Finally Rich” and video evidence of his formulaic plug-and-play vapidity as an emcee, I want badly to side with Keef’s critics – but he’s dead on that it should be impossible to consider the Keefs and Flockas and Gunplays of the world completely outside of moralized critique, no matter how much serious white fans of their music might wish it so. Still, I think Bry missed a spot.

When he says he enjoys thuggish rap “even as I find the lyrics banal and deplore much of their message,” he’s pleading innocent of partaking in ign’ant shit as escapist fantasy. This seems disingenuous. Part of the appeal of everybody from Keef to Nate Dogg is that they give us access to a synthetic blend of toughness, indomitability, and limitless sexual potency that most of us don’t actually enjoy. Those banal lyrics and deplorable messages aren’t just part of the fun– they are the fun. That folks like Bry or myself aren’t enjoying this stuff in a mocking or ironic way does not make it completely above-board. We’re getting sincere enjoyment from something that makes us feel more alive, but as his piece notes so eloquently, we don’t live with the consequences when the music stops. Insofar as we white sojourners praise and download this stuff because it lets us play gangster, we’re taking advantage of the privilege gap Bry discusses.

And that gap puts the lie to the expat aspirations of even the most sincere and versed of white hiphop heads. Jamelle Bouie’s recent piece on his decision not to carry a flatscreen TV to his friend’s house alone, for fear of being taken for a thief, reminded me that my tourist status can’t be erased by my own actions. It’s imposed by the culture around us that assumes the worst about a black face – an attitude with much deeper roots than rap music, but which has been drawing strength from rappers for decades.

But Chief Keef can’t be responsible for that attitude. Neither can any other rapper. Images of black virility, self-determination, and power have scared white folks since long before Ice Cube nailed the motives of white cultural reactionaries in an interlude on his 1992 album “The Predator.” Every white hiphop head should check their privilege almost constantly. That privilege does not oblige us to be silent about our tastes or criticisms– much the opposite, in fact. It obliges us to speak a lot, because it obliges us to speak carefully and inquisitively, and recklessness always takes fewer words than consideration. Just playing good rap for our friends isn’t being down for any cause unless we’re also participating in the conversation about systems of oppression. Hiphop kickstarted that conversation long before we got here, and however much time we’ve put in learning this culture we should always acknowledge that we’re guests.

Otherwise, we’re not just tourists or commuters to hiphop, free to walk unjudged through the streets our musical heroes depict. We’re worse than that. We’re subconsciously preying on that privilege in order to enjoy feeling Like A Bawse in private. We’re colonizing the music of someone else’s struggle.