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Fear of a White Genre

Hip-hop is getting whiter, but that doesn't mean the genre is doomed

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Earlier this week, in a review of a concert by a white rap-reggae duo from Boston, The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica addressed "a phenomenon that’s been happening for some time—white rappers performing for predominantly white audiences." But Aer’s recent performance at Irving Plaza took place in a slightly different atmosphere. The success of Seattle’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at last month’s Grammys, where they won three awards in rap categories, was "the sort of pigs-flying moment that gets prognosticators to prognosticating, and self-designated cultural protectors to fuming. Here was a pop-inclined white hip-hop act that had leapfrogged to juggernaut status in barely a year and in turn become a bellwether of racial shifts of in the genre.” 

Caramanica predicts there’s much more this—white rappers "performing to an almost exclusively white audience"—to come. He’s right. 

To hip-hop traditionalists, this is a nightmare come true. Houston rap legend Scarface, of the pioneering gangsta rap group Geto Boys, sounded the alarm recently in comments to the website VladTV. “Hip-hop is hip-hop,” he said. “And it ain’t going anywhere, you know what I mean. The face might change in 25 years. You know, hip-hop’s gonna be white in 25 years. It’s gonna be all white kids. No more—it’s gonna be like rock n’ roll. To find a Geto Boys record in 25 years is gonna be rare. Some of you don’t even believe that shit. You better fuckin’ believe it.” 

The fear, as Caramanica noted, is not new. It reared its head five years ago when a blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid from the Philadelphia suburbs named Asher Roth had a top-20 hit with a rap song called “I Love College.” Ten years before that, of course, Eminem gave rap its own Elvis, selling millions upon millions of records, becoming not only the biggest rap star on the planet, but perhaps the biggest pop star of any sort.

At that time, I was working at Vibe magazine. And it was certainly a topic of conversation around the office—among white staffers (like me) and black. I edited our first feature story on Eminem, and interviewed MC Serch of the white 1980s rap duo 3rd Base about the subject. “My main concern with his record being this big,” he said, “is whether the door now opens for the most corny, bullshit-ass crackers to come through the pipeline … Only time will tell. It could go two ways: Either Em will make record companies realize that they need to support true MCs, or they will put more money behind white artists than black artists, and hip-hop will become just like rock n’ roll. That, to me, would be the equivalent of Revelation. You might as well just blow up the earth. It would be so disgustingly vile.” 

Some say the end Serch predicted is nigh. In 2013, for the first time in the 55-year-history of the Billboard Hot 100, not one black artist lodged a number-one single. (Of the eleven songs that held the spot for some portion of the year, four were hip-hop, and four featured black singers or rappers in guest roles.) There’s been round, sustained clamor over Macklemore’s Grammy haul, which was all the more glaring because it came at the expense of fellow nominee Kendrick Lamar, a (frankly) far more talented artist, who is black. (Macklemore handled the situation awkwardly, too, writing Kendrick a text message that said, “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” And then posting a screenshot of that text to his Instagram account, so everyone could see how magnanimous he is.) Macklemore admits that white privilege is a factor in his success. “I benefit from that privilege,” he has said. “And I think that mainstream Pop culture has accepted me on a level that they might be reluctant to, in terms of a person of color.” But that doesn’t change the facts on the ground: A new white hip-hop superstar has been anointed, one who does not live up to most rap critics’ definition of excellence. (Eminem is widely considered to be an extremely skilled rapper.) Some have even gone so far as to anoint Macklemore some sort of savior of hip-hop, a Great White Hope who will help the genre evolve into a more enlightened form. A recent Dallas Morning News headline sums up this perspective: “Macklemore shows hip-hop doesn’t need to be homophobic, violent in Dallas concert.” 

Like Serch said, with so many more white people listening to rap than black, more and more white people will make it (and, it’s hard to deny that its easier to sell a white rap star to millions and millions of white consumers than it is a black one). So let's imagine that, in 25 years, most of the people making it are white, and that, like rock, it's thought of as a white form. Shouldn’t we expect black artists will be on to creating whatever next new form might challenge the status quo the way rap did, and the way rock n’ roll did before that? As rock became whiter over time, black artists forged new paths in R&B, in soul, in funk, in disco. (And many—Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, Prince, Bad Brains, Living Colour, Fishbone—stayed on and made an indelible impact in rock.) 

That’s already happening in hip-hop. There’s a recent strain of rap music that has the purists up in arms just as much, if not more, than Macklemore does. Influenced by experimentalists like Kanye West and Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, a new wave of artists from Chicago and Atlanta have been pushing rap into aesthetic spaces it has never been before. Often using Autotune to warp their voices in ways traditional rappers never could, they bleed one word into the next, blurring the line between rapping and singing. Folks like Future, Chief Keef, Z Money, Rich Homie Quan, Young Thug—these guys puts far more focus on melodic vocal delivery, and far less on word-by-word lyricism, than any rappers the genre has ever countenanced. Is the music they’re making still hip-hop? For now, I’d say so. But who knows? Maybe someone will invent a whole new word for it, and it will evolve to the point that it sounds so different from our traditional understanding of hip-hop that it will become a genre unto itself, with its own hard-line purists trying to protect its borders. By that point, maybe “hip-hop” will be left to the stodgy old white guys.