True Colors: Race, And The Misnomer Of Hip Hop As "Black Music"

posted September 05, 2012 11:30:00 AM CDT | 53 comments

True Colors: Race, And The Misnomer Of Hip Hop As "Black Music"

If you can remove stereotypes and broad generalizations from the discussion, race becomes a topic many emcees are either ignorant of or just plain afraid to discuss.

Before rappers had multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with shoe manufacturers and makeup companies, it was commonplace to see even the most mainstream emcees speak out on controversial issues. In the wake of Hip Hop’s commercial boom from the late 90’s through the early aughts, and the subsequent commercial drought we’re witnessing now, most mainstream emcees on major labels sidestep anything remotely controversial.

Moments such as Lupe Fiasco calling President Obama
the biggest terrorist or Kanye West quipping, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” are now generally the exception and not the rule. In an effort to create dialogue on issues many of the most popular and commercially successful emcees are afraid to touch, HipHopDX is launching a “Taboo Series” of editorials. Whether readers agree or disagree with the opinions brought forth, our hope is to play a small part in returning the level of discourse in Hip Hop back to the days when mainstream, major label, commercially viable artists weren’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable and thought-provoking subjects.

From September 5 through September 7, HipHopDX will post these Taboo Series editorials daily, addressing topics the top mainstream rappers no longer talk about. Do you agree with the choices? Do you agree that such subjects have become taboo for Top 40 emcees? Weigh in, starting today

True Colors: Race, And The Misnomer Of Hip Hop As “Black Music”

For me, listening to Hip Hop music during my formative years was, at least in part, an entry point to black culture at large. On the most basic level, N.W.A. articulated both the fear and anger I felt as a child when I regularly saw members of the Long Beach and Los Angeles Police Departments harass the men in my family.

And while groups like X-Clan and Arrested Development tapped into aspects of Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism inside of me that I didn’t even know existed, they were also parts of many musical influences—some of which had nothing to do with race at all. Undoubtedly, nostalgia tints my “The Wonder Years”-style memories of Hip Hop’s so-called “Golden Era.” But, my subjective and anecdotal stroll down memory lane aside, I can’t help but feeling that mainstream Hip Hop used to be a form of black music, and it no longer is anymore. I’m honestly not sure what to do with that opinion. Before you read any further, I should point out that I’m not complaining that Hip Hop isn’t strictly black music. Much like the other contributions to this Taboo Series, I just want to offer an opinion on a subject that many artists seem to have been dancing around for the better part of the last decade. It boils down to a few simple questions. Is Hip Hop black music? Should we care if the music or culture is or is not a facet of black culture?

Respond, React

This editorial was spawned by one of the less glamorous duties associated with being an editor. In June, I attended a panel on black music’s impact on advertising and popular culture. The panel featured David Banner, UCLA Associate Professor Scot D. Brown, HipHopDX.com founder/publisher Sharath Cherian, Singleton Entertainment CEO Ernest Singleton and Johnnie Walker, President of the National Association of Black Female Executives in Music and Entertainment. As with any panel discussion, there was an ebb and flow of dialogue. And since I work for a Hip Hop site, Banner’s comments stood out rather prominently.

“I did an advertisement for Gatorade; I did the ‘Evolve’ commercial,” Banner offered. “When they heard the song, they actually thought that was an old Gospel song that Gatorade had stolen. It was funny, because for the most part, everyone that worked on that song was under 35. People said, ‘I didn’t know David Banner could do something like that.’ And you know why? Because we don’t buy it! Everybody talks about the music being degraded, but it’s because we don’t buy it. A friend of mine that works at Sony Records was talking about Adele. And some people were saying, ‘Well that’s just a white woman singing black folks’ music.’ Yeah, but white folks are buying it. If we bought Anthony Hamilton…if we bought Erykah Badu the way that we’re supposed to, then it wouldn’t be no problems. Advertisers follow money. The one thing that I learned from Universal Records—and I actually think it was a blessing—excuse me, but I’m just gonna say it how I feel it. White people are not emotional. Whether it’s how many listeners you have, how many views you have or how much money you make, they will do it. If we can couple that with talent, then we could show our people.”

As you can imagine, Banner got quite the reaction with those comments. In an effort to provide them within the proper context, a video of all of David Banner’s thoughts from the panel discussion is posted below. His remarks about the Gatorade commercial begin at the 6:45 mark. I’m not touching the whole “white people are not emotional” part of the discussion. But I will say, to Banner’s credit, he has never shied away from the issue of race as it regards Hip Hop. Never. And if you can remove the generic “white people do this,” but “black people do that” aspect of the discussion, you touch on a topic that many artists are either ignorant of or just plain afraid to discuss.

Hip Hop’s Audience By The Numbers

“White people might buy 80 percent of hip-hop records today, but I don’t think they’re as big a percentage of the tastemaking crowd. If you get an underground record that’s really cool and innovative, the initial audience might be 40 percent white. There’s also a diverse group of black people who are part of that audience, including black people who are not from the same background as the obvious ghetto one. The key is that all of these different groups make up the core tastemaking crowd.” –Russell Simmons, Life And Def

There’s a commonly held belief that despite creating the majority of Hip Hop music, black people don’t purchase much Hip Hop these days. This theory is floated around so much that the Wall Street Journal investigated it back in 2005. And that’s where things get murky. In 2004, an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “70 percent of the paying (and downloading) Hip Hop audience is white kids living in the suburbs.” The statistic was attributed to SoundScan, even though SoundScan can’t and doesn’t track music buyers’ races. Similar articles have been found in Advertising Age, Forbes and Vibe. If you follow the trail of information, you wind up at a company named Marketing Research Incorporated. Carl Bialik of WSJ.com explained his findings in further detail.

“Conventional wisdom, for once, turns out to be mostly correct—with the caveat that there’s a lot we don't know about race and Rap sales,” wrote Bialik. “Each year, MRI researchers go into about 25,000 homes nationwide and talk to residents for an hour about their media habits…Among the questions MRI asks is whether the respondent purchased pre-recorded Rap audio tapes and compact discs in the last 12 months. MRI sent me the results for 1995, 1999 and 2001, for both adults 18 to 34 and for all adults. For both groups, the percentage of recent Rap buyers who are white was about 70% to 75% for all three years.”

A seven-year-old study of three years worth of data is a small and easily manipulated sample size, but it still leaves an interesting dynamic. Any way you slice it, Rap and Hip Hop is predominately performed by black males. As of Monday, September 3, 49 of the top 50 songs on Billboard magazine’s R&B/Hip Hop chart are performed and or written by people that would generally be considered as black or African-American. Robin Thicke is the only non-black performer, and he’s not a rapper. If you put stock into the MRI data, you’re left juggling the fact that Hip Hop is by and large performed by black people selling product to an audience of mostly white people between the ages of 18 and 34.

Co-opted Culture Or Diverse Global Growth?

“And all this post-racism is killing me / I heard some hipsters saying nigga real liberally / I know some of your best friends is niggas / Nigga please / I know this gentrification is killing me / But I ain’t gone pretend like I ain’t got no white friends / I mean it is what it is I guess / And if you ask me what I’m is / I say I’m blessed…” –Denmark Vessey, “Quit Smoking.”

In a vacuum, those two statistics shouldn’t matter. And while I find them interesting, the point of this piece isn’t to just throw some old, limited data at readers. How do we account for illegal downloads, considering that’s how a large portion of listeners get their music these days? When presented with MRI’s 100-plus page questionnaire, what box do participants of multiple ethnicities check? I’m more interested in what artists aren’t saying when they dance around Hip Hop’s racial dichotomy. Take Eminem, for example. He’s a white artist in the predominately black field of Hip Hop. Yet he is the best-selling artist in any genre between the years 2000 through 2010. Aside from an occasional reference and the self-deprecating talk of his teenage poverty and social ineptitude, he rarely talks about race.

If the MRI statistics hold up—and, by no means am I saying they do—we’re left with many questions. Is the current incarnation of mainstream Hip Hop a co-opted form black music or is it organically diverse enough to attract all races? That’s a trick question, because it’s probably both.

Oppression, Progress And More Questions

“All the fresh styles always start off as a good, little, hood thing. Look at Blues, Rock, Jazz, Rap…not even talking about music—everything else too. By the time it reach Hollywood, it’s over. But it’s cool. We just keep it going and make new shit.” –Andre 3000, “Hollywood Divorce.”

By pointing out what I see as rather obvious links between black culture and Hip Hop, I’m not saying only black people can identify with Hip Hop. Nor am I saying that Hip Hop should be the sole cultural touchstone for understanding black culture. But I would argue that during Hip Hop’s commercial and critical peak, both the music and culture were infused with elements of black culture. You can take something as simple as Method Man’s “Biscuits,” and trace the chorus of, “Yo mama don’t wear no draws / I seen her when she took ‘em off…” directly to the practice of playing the dozens. I’d make the same argument for early Goodie Mob albums and their inclusion of Gospel and cultural aspects of the black church. A listener could purchase Tical and Soul Food today, and totally miss or ignore those black cultural references. The listening experience would still be enjoyable. But I would argue that if you are in tune with those aspects of black culture, their mere inclusion brings the element of race into the discussion.

The other issue at hand is if Hip Hop culture in and of itself was organically diverse enough to attract all races. For most of us, the answer to that question would be an obvious yes. So, in a very real sense, Hip Hop is not “black music” anymore than basketball is a “black sport.” The majority of Hip Hop performers are black males, but the music and culture appeal to people of all races. During its peak, I would argue that even mainstream Hip Hop was not necessarily black music, but oppressed people’s music. The systematic racial and socio-economic oppression many black emcees addressed was one of many forms of oppression. And I feel those rhymes spoke to other marginalized and oppressed groups of all races and creeds that gravitated to the music and the culture. Add in the appeal of youthful, rebel culture, and it doesn’t surprise me that Hip Hop held the distinction as the most commercially successful genre of music at one time. Unfortunately, now that corporate interests are involved, artists are scared to speak truth to power when addressing what are likely millions of people of all races that still feel oppressed and marginalized in some way.

I think, recognizing and speaking on that systematic oppression is an important part but not the only part of the black experience. Besides, the assertion that blacks are solely responsible for Hip Hop is a slap in the face to any and every non-black pioneer and die hard b-girl and b-boy. But now, most of what you see and hear is just as mainstream as Country, Rock or any other genre.

Dominant elements of black culture have been a large part of Hip Hop music and culture during its entire existence. While the MRI data is muddled, most would agree that the music—and by extension, those elements of black culture—have been co-opted into mainstream American popular culture. To further speak to some of Banner’s points, should we celebrate the fact that subsequent generations of all races have learned to appreciate and profit from those cultural elements? Or does this incite anger because large groups of people aren’t financially supporting the musical expression of culture in its earlier forms? If you appreciate musical elements historically associated with black culture, are you wrong for wanting to hear them expressed by a black person? Race will always be one of Hip Hop’s taboo topics until emcees ask those questions in their songs and we candidly answer them as listeners. Banner alluded to the fact that listeners make decisions with their wallets, and I would agree. Few of the mainstream emcees willing to ask the above questions are financially rewarded for doing so.

What To Expect From Hip Hop

“Hip Hop will simply amaze you / Praise you / Pay you / Do whatever you say do / But black it can’t save you…” –Mos Def, “Hip Hop.”

As I mentioned at the outset, certain Hip Hop artists provided my entry point to better understanding aspects of black culture on a much larger scale. I applaud those artists and the emcees they inspired. But over 25 years after discovering those albums, I don’t particularly subscribe to a notion of some universal, homogenized standard for blackness. I don’t get angry when mainstream Hip Hop at large no longer reinforces certain positive aspects of black culture. Decades after my youthful naiveté has (hopefully) passed, I sought out other sources for further understanding black culture. Former professors and the likes of Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurst, Marcus Garvey or any number of other contributors have informed my current, evolving understanding. Anything a Rap artist adds to that understanding is a pleasant surprise.

Black culture is complex, and all black people don’t have the same agenda. So if Rick Ross, 2 Chainz or any rapper releases music that I feel doesn’t reinforce my personal values, I don’t place the responsibility of being a standard bearer for black culture at their feet. And if I happen to be involved in some ratchet activity on a weekend in Vegas, I’m more than happy to let either of them provide the soundtrack for such activity. I think Hip Hop can do a lot of things. And if you or an artist you like uses Hip Hop to teach and inspire others about any culture, more power to you and them. But if you’re expecting Hip Hop to always do so, or you want it to consistently reinforce your moral beliefs, you may often end up disappointed.

Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has  been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.

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