One For All: Hip Hop's Botched Racial Dialogue With Lord Jamar
Lord Jamar's comments on race in Hip Hop have had the potential to be constructive, but Hip Hop as a collective unit needs to do a better job of making this discussion a productive one.
In September 2013, Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian made noise when he declared that all white rappers are “guests in the house of Hip Hop” and that Macklemore was wrong to promote total LGBT acceptance in Hip Hop. What may have seemed like a casual, opinionated remark made in passing quickly turned into the hot topic with regards everything Hip Hop. Even now, in February 2014, we still haven’t heard the last of it.
As a white man and a fan of Hip Hop, I have no problem with Lord Jamar’s opinion. There’s no denying the history: Hip Hop started in the predominantly black South Bronx borough of New York in the 1970s. Up until the Beastie Boys dropped License To Ill in 1986, there were no notable white artists to speak of, whatsoever. But as the years have passed, I think more and more white rappers have come out of the woodwork to become staples of the culture. Eminem is often mentioned as one of, if not the best living rapper. And regardless of how you feel about it, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis just took home the gold at the Grammy Awards.
I agree with a lot of what Jamar says; namely, that white audiences tend to gravitate towards white artists, and the white success stories in Hip Hop have largely achieved those accomplishments thanks to a “co-sign” from black artists (think Eminem and Dr. Dre, etc.). But I also think Hip Hop as a collective unit (artists and media alike) need to do a better job of making this discussion a productive one. After comments from Jamar and various rebuttals from different rappers, there was no real fruitful discourse about race. Lord Jamar unapologetically calls Eminem a guest in the house of Hip Hop, even though this opinion is not universally held by his peers. I feel that in its earliest stages, Hip Hop was the culture of oppression. Black artists were doing something new and exciting. I don’t think it was never about exclusivity.
Macklemore & The Accusation Of A “Gay Agenda”
“Yes, it is jazz and yes it is the blues / And yes it is the exact same way they did rock / But I refuse to watch the same thing happen to Hip-Hop / I refuse to watch that bullshit…” -Murs; “And This Is For…”
I think Lord Jamar’s initial points came from a defensive point of view—and rightfully so. Through the course of the 20th Century, we saw the Blues, Jazz and Rock & Roll get usurped by white artists and people. So understandably, he’ll be damned if that happens to Hip Hop, which is fine. But more importantly, Lord Jamar didn’t appreciate that Macklemore, a white artist, was promoting a cause that the Hip Hop he grew up with would ever endorse. During that September interview, Jamar told Vlad TV, “Just because you have a hit record doesn’t give you the right as I feel to voice your opinion…[Macklemore is] trying to push an agenda that him as a white man feels is acceptable.”
I don’t like that Lord Jamar juxtaposes LGBT acceptance with Macklemore’s whiteness. It makes that discussion seem pertinent only to white populations. But at the same time, I’d argue there’s always been an undeniable machismo in Hip Hop. And I think Brand Nubian, among many, many others, are adherents. Don’t forget that on “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down,” Lord Jamar once rapped: “Did you want some more, I didn't think so / Just got whipped like a faggot in the clink, so / I suggest you take your bloody mess and find a piece of wire / Fix your broken jaw, then it's time to retire…” An intolerance for homosexuality, for Brand Nubian at least, dates back to 1990. Or does it?
“It’s making it seem like that song was about that, and I was aggressively going after [homosexuals],” Lord Jamar explained in a 2012 interview with HipHopDX. “Nobody was doing that… First of all, my stand on homosexuality is I don’t agree with it, but everybody has their own free will in this world. And if that’s how you choose to live, you do you. I don’t agree with it; I feel like it’s a distortion of mind. But that’s up to me. You don’t have to live in my universe and I don’t have to live in yours.”
Given the current climate, I think that if “Same Love” was released during Hip Hop’s Golden Era, it probably wouldn’t have even made it onto the radio. I think there's been some evolution in his ideology since the days when Brand Nubian had people in white-face for the “Wake Up” video. But nobody talks about that. And nobody is talking about “Same Love” being so aggressively marketed. As Ryan Lewis pointed out in an exclusive 2013 interview with HipHopDX, for an independent single, “Same Love” benefitted from an unprecedented amount of marketing muscle.
““Thrift Shop” began taking off sort of organically on alternative radio, and we were in the unique position where Warner was willing to push “Thrift Shop” to Pop radio with no record deal,” Lewis explained. “On a project-by-project basis, we sort of hire them—strictly their radio department—to push a song that we thought would do well on Pop radio. And then it did.”
I don’t think that constitutes what Lord Jamar refers to as “pushing a gay agenda.” But if you’re wondering why a Rap song about same sex marriage hasn’t seen such a large platform, then ADA’s marketing of “Same Love” is a good place to start. Has a Rap song advocating tolerance of same sex relationships ever been a hit? Common’s “Between You Me And Liberation,” and Murs’ “Animal Style” both come to mind. But neither of those songs charted nor were pushed to radio by a major corporation in a manner similar to “Same Love.” And both songs were created by black rappers. Again, I don’t think that constitutes pushing a so-called gay agenda. But I do think people are putting more focus on directing vitriol back and forth instead of having a civilized conversation about race and sexuality in Hip Hop.
Generally, Rap songs have either been extremely intolerant of LGBT issues or insensitively fetishized same sex relationships for male titillation. Examples include Kanye West’s “Late,” which finds West rhyming, “Like them Eskimos, what would you do for a Klondike / Or two dykes that look Christina Milian-like.”
Unfortunately with all of the back-and-forth, toxic commentary both on various media outlets and from fellow artists and fans on Twitter, that’s just one of the many topics that never got addressed during an open dialogue. And that’s the real tragedy with the never-ending Lord Jamar news cycle.
After dozens of ensuing stories having to do with Lord Jamar, neither the readers, nor Jamar himself were pleased with all of the coverage. HipHopDX sought out an interview with Lord Jamar to set the record straight, and he obliged. If you’re baffled as to why DX continues to follow this story, it isn’t difficult: Lord Jamar represents Hip Hop’s Golden Era. He is revered so much that his initial and subsequent comments have attracted the attention of readers time and again. Some are offended or upset by the sustained coverage, despite it never ceasing to draw attention. His position in Hip Hop’s pecking order, and the nature of his words are why it continues to build upon itself. And if we’re being honest, Lord Jamar is good for business. At it’s most basic level, I think you’ll keep seeing Lord Jamar stories on sites that could care less about creating a discourse as you keep clicking on them.
Step To The Rear: Co-Signs, Rebuttal & A Lack Of Discourse
“Straight out the tube right into ya livin' rooms I came / And kids flipped when they knew I was produced by Dre / That’s all it took and they were instantly hooked right in / And they connected with me too ‘cause I looked like them…” –Eminem, “White America.”
Things hit a boiling point in November when Yelawolf was asked how he felt about Lord Jamar’s comments. After initially agreeing with Jamar’s assessment, Yelawolf added a caveat: “It's been renovated. It's been changed. Black people, white people, Asian people, people all over the world has been to this house, lived in it, used it, abused it, fixed it up. It is now a different home. It doesn't matter who laid the first brick.” I think his rebuttal was strong up until he said, “It doesn’t matter who laid the first brick.” It may not have been his intention, but I feel Yelawolf’s disinterest with the original bricklayers retracts serious legitimacy from his points. Read between the lines: I don’t think he was looking for confrontation, but the foundation was laid for someone to take offense. Hindsight being 20/20, if Yelawolf and Lord Jamar began this exchange face-to-face—instead of through TV and interviews—cooler heads may have prevailed.
Lord Jamar responded in two ways. The first was the less elegant, yet more poignant threat that Yelawolf would get, “Beat the fuck up if he not careful.” The second was a bit more insightful; that white rappers have succeeded thanks to “co-signs” from black artists: “If this is not black music then how come every white artist needs a co-sign from a black person? Beastie Boys had the co-sign from Run DMC. Eminem had the co-sign from Dr. Dre. Vanilla Ice didn’t have a co-sign. That’s why he didn’t fuckin’ last. Macklemore, see I don’t know who his co-sign is.” He took it one step further with Eminem, noting that, “[When] you have a white artist doing black music, white people just gravitate to that crazily...But sales doesn’t equate to greatness.”
I understand Lord Jamar’s points. And in most cases, I accept his reasoning about white emcees as guests in the house of Hip Hop. You can’t deny the history, or the number of white rappers that have passed the test of time. But Lord Jamar unequivocally states that Eminem’s standing in Hip Hop is only due to the fact that he has benefited from the support of white masses. I too agree that sales don’t necessarily equate to greatness, but I also think Eminem’s sheer talent contributed to his rise in popularity. In Ice-T’s documentary The Art of Rap: From Nothing to Something, Redman sings Eminem’s praises as a “true emcee” noting: “He gained that respect ‘cause he knew he had a job to do. He could’ve said, ‘I’ma just stick to my white fans. I got enough white fans over here to sell 30 mill.’ But nah. He was in my ‘hood before he blew up. He was in Newark, he was with the Outsidaz. So he been in the ‘hood before he got on. So I think it always been in him to be like, ‘Yo, I’m white. But this is music, and music don’t have no color.’ And that’s where it’s at, man.”
I think having a co-sign from Dr. Dre in the ‘90s was about as safe a bet as could be. Even then, many considered him one of the best, if not the best Hip Hop producer in the game. But second—and perhaps more importantly—the communal co-sign from dudes in the ‘hood meant that Eminem wasn’t just hype. His working class Detroit upbringing ran parallel to the rappers who grew up in the projects; he grew up poor and without a father. He shared similar hardships, which went a long way, ultimately earning him respect from the people that mattered most.
So what is Macklemore’s role in all of this? I’m not a mind reader, but I think Lord Jamar is peeved because Macklemore is pushing the envelope, insofar as he’s lacking the proper footing to push for total LGBT acceptance in Hip Hop. He also doesn’t have the ever valuable co-sign from a black artist. I certainly don’t think homophobia should reign supreme in Hip Hop, but I’m old enough to see and understand where Lord Jamar is coming from.
A Slow Progression Towards Tolerance
“On the real tip, let's take a field trip from the ghetto / You pick the time and we'll meet in the meadow / To discuss racial issues and tension / New York's a powder keg, did I forget to mention…” -Brand Nubian; “Concerto In X Minor.”
There has been no shortage of reactions to Lord Jamar. In November, Hopsin offered staunch objections with Hard Knock TV:
“Some stupid rapper dude was on. I saw an interview. I don’t know how I came across it, but he was talking about like Macklemore and pushing the [gauge] and being white and telling white people to stay in their lane. And, you know, I’m just about humans being equal. Everybody is equal. That shouldn’t even be brought up. That’s racist. Like that’s so foul. That’s equivalent to a white guy going, ‘Why are you in this fucking bathroom? You’re fucking black. Don’t ever [over]step your boundaries.’ When you hear somebody talk like that it gives you chills. Like, ‘Woah, is this mothafucka serious right now?’ It’s 2013, and somebody’s really talking like this right now?
He took it even further, voicing his desire to collaborate with both Macklemore and Yelawolf.
As one of the more popular up-and-coming rappers, I think Hopsin represents the current youth movement in Hip Hop. He is not from the Golden Era, so of course he and Lord Jamar have different values. But his words are particularly wise because he is sympathetic to the outsider role that is often attached to aspiring white rappers. Lord Jamar does not share this sentiment. To me, his frustrations are precarious, due to the “members only” attitude reflected in his belief that white rappers are guests in Hip Hop.
Perhaps my arguement is better articulated by N.O.R.E. who spoke with Vlad TV a month after Hopsin’s comments:
“I welcome white Hip Hop. I welcome that. You know what I’m saying? But I see where he’s coming from. As a person who’s—I’m 36. I think Lord Jamar he’s 46 or in his 40s. I’m a couple of years younger, but I see where he’s talking about. So, I know the era he’s speaking about and those people who was doing it at the time. Those four fathers [sic] would probably frown on this. You know what I’m saying? But look at it like this. I look at it like this, my father was anti-gay. He was anti anything that resembled gay. Like he had family members in his family he never spoke to because they were gay…What I’m saying is those people can’t be talked out of how they feel. They feel the fuckin way they feel. And that’s it.”
I agree that Macklemore’s intentions with “Same Love” probably wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms by Hip Hop’s forefathers. But more importantly, I agree that feelings and opinions deserve to go unjudged. N.O.R.E. never said he had a problem with Lord Jamar’s words. Instead, he abstains from the notion that Macklemore doesn’t deserve to speak his mind as a Hip Hop artist. I think N.O.R.E. has a unique perspective as a New York rapper that experienced success in the ‘90s, like Lord Jamar. Yet he too sees the generational gap at the root of this debate.
Wake Up: What Hip Hop Can Learn From Lord Jamar’s Media Tour
“This country's got us in a fix / America, your deadly habits, got us all up in the mix / War without, war within, holy war, mortal sin / Tell me huh, what's the origin.” -Gang Starr, “Deadly Habitz.”
Since the beginning, Lord Jamar’s comments have had the potential to be constructive. But they’ve been more dividing, as public discussions about race often are. We’re seeing mostly backlash and vitriol.
I think It’s too easy to play the race card here. I’m not condoning Lord Jamar’s words, but I understand their context, and why some people may have been offended. He’s stated time and again that he is a fan of several white rappers (MC Serch, RA the Rugged Man, Brother Ali, Apathy, Action Bronson, Asher Roth and Eminem, specifically). His biggest qualm is that Macklemore’s white privilege enabled for him to use Hip Hop as a platform to push for something not universally celebrated by the culture.
But it got lost in translation. The discussion could have moved along if participants wanted it to. We need to be better informed before taking the defensive.
I noted earlier that Lord Jamar is not entirely wrong when he said that Hip Hop was a black man’s thing, due to the history of the culture, and the miniscule longevity of most white rappers. But a lot has changed since Brand Nubian dropped One For All. For me, this debacle is both generational and cultural. Yes, it helps for white rappers to have a “co-sign.” No, white rappers are not guests in the house of Hip Hop.
Homer Johnsen is a freelance writer who has contributed to HipHopDX since 2012. He lives in Vista, California. Follow him on Twitter (@HomerJohnsen).