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Wankstas, wigsters and wannabes?

Being that ego trip’s White Rapper Show is the show to watch right now, it makes sense that the issue of white folks in hip-hop would be a hot topic. In the blogosphere, there’s been a lot of debate about what it means to be white in hip-hop. And now some dude named Jamie Tanz has released a book on that very subject, which I’m going to have check out. [1]

I haven’t read Tanz’s Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America yet [2], but from the Unmasked One’s review, I gather that in it he chronicles white people’s participation in hip-hop culture, and goes on some sort of white pilgrimage to examine what hip-hop looks like outside of the inner city—in the process characterizing white fans as cultural tourists that fetishize black people.

Tom Breihan from Status Ain’t Hood recently weighed in on the book in the Village Voice, arguing that hip-hop music is now the “default pop music,” and that white kids have just as much of a right to it as anyone else. He dismisses the notion white kids have a tenuous bond with the culture—pointing to the fact that they buy CDs by black artists (as opposed to needing an Elvis figure to translate the music for them) as a sign of progress in race relations. “Could it be that the people who buy music aren’t necessarily buying it because they want to identify with the people making that music?” he asks. “Maybe white listeners are learning that they don’t need white performers to reinterpret black music for them.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to him that some white kids identify with the people making the music—that some white kids actually feel an affinity with black artists.

Hip-hop, after all, isn’t just a genre of pop music. It’s a culture. And it’s a black culture. Being a white person in hip-hop is essentially being a white person in black culture, and that’s a complex experience.

I don’t think that white people’s involvement in hip-hop can be reduced to the stereotypes of the clueless suburban rap fan, the superior white backpack rapper, or the smug white hipster—although these figures certainly exist. I think there’s a lot of white folks out there that genuinely love hip-hop, and have a range of reasons for feeling such an affinity with it.

Being that I’m white, Canadian and female—the antithesis of black, American and male—I obviously have a few thoughts on all of this. But it’s a tough thing to unpack. Nothing I write ever seems to really capture why I feel such a strong connection to hip-hop.

I could say that I took dance classes for ten years, and that hip-hop was the backdrop for the pleasure and abandon that I achieved through dance—the beats and rhymes interwoven with moments of utter joy. But that’s not enough, not by a long shot.

I could tell you that I grew up broke, with a dad that wasn’t around, a single mom that worked her ass off, and a brother that was always getting into trouble, in a subsidized housing complex bang smack in the middle of a wealthy neighborhood. I could tell you that I grew up ashamed of where I lived, of our ugly thrift store furniture, of never having the right clothes, of working shit jobs, yearning for a different life. I could tell you that hip-hop made my life make sense to me, that it fed my aspirations, my ambition—that it gave me hope. But that sounds a little dramatic, even if it’s the truth.

I could tell you that I watched the guys I grew up with drift into the arms of trouble, and how much that hurt—and still hurts. I could tell you about trying to come to terms with the cycle of violence, and how that has a way of eating away at your soul, and how sometimes you need to hear from people who you don’t have to explain all that to—who just know. But that winds up being stereotypical, since obviously not all black people have had those experiences.

I could tell you that the more involved I got with hip-hop, the more I saw people I care about harassed by police, held up at borders, unable to get cabs, disrespected, passed over for jobs, beaten and imprisoned, and that it deeply affected me. But that sounds like I’m reducing hip-hop to the soundtrack to pain and suffering, and I don’t want to do that.

I could tell you that perpetually being the only white person in the room, I heard a lot, and what I heard opened my eyes to some things. I started to notice the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that white people talk about black people, and that it disturbed me. But that sounds like white guilt and self-hatred.

I could tell you that I have been to hip-hop shows all over the world and I’ve seen how the spirit of hip-hop can be a healing, unifying force, that sometimes the music is pure magic and just makes you feel plain old happy to be alive. But that sounds corny to me. And lord knows us white folks hate looking corny.


[1] He’s not the first. Upski’s Bomb the Suburbs looked at white people’s relationship to hip-hop back in the day, and more recently, novelist Adam Mansbach published Angry Black White Boy, and former Source editor Bakari Kitwana published Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop.

[2] For all I go on about books, no publicist thought to mail me a copy?

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