That DAMN. Rap: At the Cross Streets of “White” and Hip-Hop
For the entire month, I’ve been fixated on the new Kendrick Lamar record DAMN. and have been listening to a chunk of it every day since my first listen through. And I have to say, it’s an incredible record. Lamar fits a 9mm clip’s worth of unified themes throughout the entire album, keeping up with his output throughout the decade. It’s a street opera, it’s a late-night head-trip, it’s a media war on wax, it’s the raconteuring of a Compton sage having survived his 20’s, it’s the sound of a man closer to God but looking behind his shoulder for either the trigger-happy LAPD or one of his reckless and suicidal brothers. It’s a landmark record for our time.
With an afternoon as idyllic as this in New York, it’s practically involuntary to blast that shit, windows open, embracing life. I drove by police cars, stopping at red lights and refusing to ratchet down the volume one iota, driving down middle-class white streets, Hispanic barrios, and finally my own neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, a historic stronghold of African-American street-culture. If you’ve watched a Spike Lee film or listened to Biggie you’ve been an audience member of the milieu, a neighborhood as iconically black as Harlem for most New Yorkers.
Which was what finally made me self-aware of my actions and appearance. In living vicariously through Lamar’s beats and bars, I suddenly found myself feeling guilty of exploiting something, something real, not my white culture’s penchant for irony and parody larded with paranoia and allusion. This more real feeling grounded itself in self-emancipation, still fighting for human rights, victories yet to come, just as the ‘60s and ‘70s fought against censorship and political injunctions. Because of this impassioned real I found in the music, I had been drawn towards it like most white people, drawn towards images of urban black power, burping bass and lyrics spit with frightening velocity, a refusal to sing to the tune of the past.
Back home in Montana, blasting hip-hop at worst seems obnoxious, but for these impoverished neighborhoods, mobile bass was something that created a new set of rules, an environment that overruled the dynamics of the block. Be it a rival gang’s turf or a white strip mall, the music proved you were finally right without the need for violence. It represented an attempt at transcending the day-to-day reality of being powerless, having power in at least the radius of your subs, however chimeric it may prove in the grand scheme of things.
And here I was, a standout bespectacled white guy driving a minivan with a dashboard covered in VHS copies of Speed, wearing a hipster’s pastel button-down amplifying : “I don’t do it for the gram, I do it for Compton / I’m willin’ to die for this shit, nigga / I’ll take your fucking life for this shit, nigga / We ain’t goin’ back to broke family sellin’ dope.” Yeah. There was something vastly incongruent with my publicized tableau.
On one hand I was adulterating the intentions of hip-hop by publicly watering down its image, in the same way kids trying to be hip with punk devalued its non-conformist purpose and social telos, the posers. My participation seemed to tone down the suffering, made it palatable to others as white bread as imaginable, wearing Wu-Tang shirts out of some ironic attempt at a destabilized identity, introducing the rest of suburbia to a culture in the midst of fighting a social war. Yet was I supposed to not support the art form, was I not supposed to listen to it? Obviously, the message is intended to be heard over all frequencies: the dilemma then, surrounds the ownership and gestures that white’s ultimately have to make. The music is rooted in racial and political expression and this can be forgotten in the anthemic choruses and polished production. Somewhere between the wide berth of these extremes was a goldilocks zone I felt needed to be delimited. The question: how do “whites” listen to hip-hop responsibly and without devaluing its beauty and power?
The fountainhead of American music derives its most innovative forms from black America. The foundation of the American songbook along with folk and country (though folk and country are its bedfellows in white poverty) has been principally black and has functioned as a sufficient place for jubilation. The music and culture that “black” Americans have used as a mechanism for surviving a bigoted country take on a life of their own, a style filled with an energy not permitted in mid-century America. This culture contradicts much of white culture’s propensity for methodology and staid participation. With the 20th and 21st centuries’ descent into an eternal codification of emotions and limited avenues of expression, the freedom of hip-hop entertains the uptight white hordes, incapable of living as freely as the rappers and musicians encompassing black art. Much like gentrification, these once inhospitable cultural landscapes become desirable to a youthful market wanting a slice of the pie, and thus the exploitation of hip-hop begins.
Hip-hop originally began as a fairly clean-cut fun mode of delectation with songs like the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and the syncretic meeting of rock and rap in collaboration’s like Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk this Way” or Public Enemy and Anthrax in “Bring the Noise”. And it really wasn’t until Public Enemy that America felt threatened, that a genre of music could be this politically menacing in the same way the Sex Pistols said “fuck” and sing about a hospital abortion while ranking at #1 on the charts. Except now it wasn’t about decrying propriety or aristocracy, it was an oppressed minority’s response to a history of slavery, crack, and arguably genocide. With hip-hop’s golden age, the genre reclaimed itself, the ‘80s being the decade where an American minority used the capitalistic machine against itself, generating sales and widespread dissent against the dominant culture for blacks and whites. From then on rap wasn’t just black music, it was anti-white music. Whether you listened to Ice T., N.W.A., Biggie Smalls, or Tupac, the music’s message defined success outside the parameters outlined by white America’s latent racism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent book Between the World and Me has been a #1 New York Times Bestseller and something of a dominant text in popular racial studies, functioning as soul-searching epistle and race theory discourse. Coates’ book deconstructs the American Dream and its relation with what it means to be “black” and what it means to “white” stating, “race is the child of racism, not the father” (7). He says white people are a modern invention commensurate with racial dominance, that they “were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish…” (7). Later, he describes how the importance of certain identities had been extenuated then lost, how what we call “white” now was once a blight on civilization and culture, adducing the Irish: “Perhaps there had been other bodies, mocked, terrorized, and insecure. Perhaps the Irish too had once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named ‘black’ had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah” (55). Interesting that Coates chooses the Irish, a race of people so disenfranchised that in the closing words of his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce writes “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (275-76). With this line any Joyce scholar could deduce that the novelist’s life work realized that modernism was about dovetailing art and social justice, Ulysses emphasizing how our quotidian experiences are dictated by a cultural or racial consciousness. Art like Kendrick’s too serves a cultural or racial emancipation, and not just an emancipation from slavery, debt, or servitude but an emancipation of the mind, to see things from a viewpoint that no longer sees yourself as the object but the subject, the actor not the acted on. For “whites” that downplay race, their greatest wordsmith of the 20th century seemed to elevate it to a prerequisite concern of freedom.
But ironically enough, Coates seems to deny his race, equating race as the necessary construct to justify dominance, the dominance of our epoch distinguished as a racial one: “I have not spent my time studying the problem of ‘race’ – ‘race’ itself is just a restatement of the problem” (115). One could deduct that Coates, while interested in how violence towards the black body keeps African-Americans incapacitated, recognizes an identity like “black” as simply a perpetuation of identity not founded by “blacks” but by those that see themselves as “white.” Kendrick explicitly proclaims on “YAH.”: “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no mo’ / That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo.’” The sentiment is further reconciled by Coates’ phrasing: “…I knew that we were something, that we were a tribe – on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real” (56). Is the propagation of the culture of a people, not of a race, the healthiest and most effective form of resisting a dominant race’s culture?
All throughout my youth, I’ve grappled with racial arguments, knowing that I would never fully understand the struggle, knowing that I was severed from total solidarity. I believed that the more I studied it and the more confident I became in my comprehension, the easier it would be to become deluded in identifying with the struggle. It was for that reason I shied away from those kinds of dialogues, preferring aesthetics, epistemology, or cold science over being another guilty white person proclaiming my shame with the fervent penitence of a flagellating ascetic. The paradox to much art in our political era of art is to feel something in the oppressed’s lamentations but to not identify with their suffering, not to worship their pain. Art has always been designed to help us emote and relate, but our political aesthetics demystify much of universal experience, bringing to light the bind between victims and spectators – the audience not always synonymous with the victim. We should almost always root for the dispossessed protagonist, but not always see our dispossession as mutual.
I see it differently now. I have to. Racial identities exist only to relate to a dominant race, identities which steer and sometimes force actions within preconceived boundaries convenient for the dominant race. Racial distinction has no other purpose than to divide. I don’t think I should feel guilty as a white person, nor harbor what Rudyard Kipling labelled “The White Man’s Burden.” Instead I should understand how my constructed “white” race benefits me over others and how that affects others around me. My guilt would only be a manifestation of my consciousness of wrongdoing and an inability to act differently in the future. My guilt would in many ways be a romanticization of suffering and a glorification of the biblical dictum, “the meek shall inherit the Earth,” a belief that I too am a victim, the victim of irreversibly being a repressor. I think this is a self-defeating mentality that precludes actions of reversing the reversible. As Coates says, “To awaken them [whites] is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans” (143) and to cite James Baldwin as a sapient supplement, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
As a “white” I don’t find my role as spectator responsible, nor do I envision any “white” serving as the movement’s mouthpiece. I balk at the idea of racial purification and an organization of race, even if it is the interest of black Americans. To do so would presuppose a fallaciously ideal “black” person. Where do North Africans fit in, Hispanic Americans with a mixed heritage, and mixed races everywhere? Can we really say a race, per se, can own a genre?
Fighting the “white” power structure is to fight the idea of race, and to enforce the identity of “black” race empowers and purifies the “white” race. To always support the interest of what “black” Americans demand would be contradictory to respecting black individuals outside of the majority’s ruling. The medium of representations, art, can still universalize our experiences, and it can still penetrate the dusty inscape of our subjectivity and the cloudy ether between ourselves and the other. Art and music create joy, relate experiences, and communicate the external. When all of this is forgotten, it’s too easy to view art through the political lens so severely that the art quickly fails to realize an agenda and the process of weaponizing our opinions takes up the foreground. At the most basic universal level, art reminds us of our underlying unity, our existence, our reality, or as Kendrick’s father says on the track “Real”: “Real is God, nigga.” We’re all here and art reminds us of that, whether we realize it or not, we all must live and die.
So the question has been begged for too long. How do those who fit within the category of “white” or perhaps “non-black” listen to rap music? Keeping in mind Coates’ commentary about racial ambiguity in that “’black’ people already are beige,” (115) we have to extrapolate how race has no quantitative definition. We find the relationship between blackness and rap music in the latter’s undeniable status as the soundtrack of a race’s castaway experience, the chronicles of expression that record a detuned culture’s impossible attempt to fulfill expectations. The nature of the blues emphasized defeatism in the face of existential bankruptcy, and soul took the optimistic path in effusing a strength in expressive beauty, seeing music as its ends. Yet hip-hop has slowly come to represent a rebellion against white supremacy and its dominant culture in lines like Kanye’s “Crack Music” rapping, “Crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland. / We invested in that, it’s like we got Merril-Lynch / And we been hanging from the same tree ever since / Sometime I feel the music is the only medicine.” A far cry from Holiday’s metaphorical “Strange Fruit”.
The power of rap music is something that belongs to the marginalized, and specifically the racially marginalized. Latinos have seen it as an expressive medium that extenuates that which is considered “uncivilized”: the sensual, the direct, the loud, sensibilities diametrically opposed to much of Christian-European culture’s preference for guilt, sublimation, and utility. Rap’s message finds an audience with many young, white people because of its playfulness, its political energy yet to be subsumed by a European value system. Of course we should listen to it! It’s fun, it’s joyous, it’s educational – all at the same time! And like all great art, you become an occupant of another’s viewpoint, entering the consciousness of the other and arousing empathy. These musicians want everyone to play their music, they want it to be spread wide and far, both for commercial and artistic motivations. As the novelist Haruki Murakami wrote: “The reason that people sing songs for other people is because they want to have the power to arouse empathy, to break free of the narrow shell of the self and share their pain and joy with others”. The more difficult question then asks: how far do we take our joy?
The idea of restricting what is a genuine response to music, whether it be emulation, exaltation, or inspiration is a hard thing to put down. One can look no farther than “Helter Skelter,” Catcher in the Rye, or wiggers to see how art has been misinterpreted in terrible ways. What is allophilia to some is appropriative to others. With rap, the problem is difficult when some lines or moods appear as universal feelings of struggle and oppression. A good example is Kendrick’s “FEAR.” which specifically speaks to the fear of violence being foisted onto African-Americans, be it the streets or home life. Yet by the time we reach the chorus, “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that motherfucka up / And then I’d take two puffs” the song becomes vague enough that in a vacuum, any white teenager or dejected stoner could find a deep universal meaning beyond race -- even though the song is explicitly racial. I don’t find this accidental. Ultimately the song’s chorus speaks to humans’ dealings with fear, but specifically the fear of having your black social situation devour you without the prayers of others to carry you.
A similar scenario arises with K-Dot’s “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly also reaching a melodic climax with the recursive “We gonna’ be alright,” a line that could apply to any class, nationality, or hurdle. In many ways then, and not just because of capitalism, I think that the best rap is still not totally about race; it’s about a human condition and what it means to suffer at the hands of a dominant oppressor, the same as all art. It’s about making it relatable, not just for the sake of capitalism’s need for an expansive market, but because it lets the rest of the message disseminate at a global level. Otherwise, the genre would only seek pity and observation, the poetic elements lost.
And maybe the vocabulary and verbiage of African-American culture is powerful in the sense that it disseminates its aural imagery and influence in the same way that women as the masters of their own image and cultural diffusion empowers them. The language and style makes its way into the general culture and people sing along because the songs are inherently catchy and melodic. Is it sexist for men to blast feminist political anthems like “I Will Survive” or “Rebel Girl”? At best it’s comical and at worst it’s annoying. Even if the singing is ironic, the enjoyment and influence of the song is there, sharing the airwaves with cock rock and Michael Bolton. I won’t make the claim that songs about race and gender are interchangeable, but there is something telling here. In cases like this, the anti-group (e.g. men, white people) are being influenced in a way that is under the dominion of a black or female art form owned by that oppressed group.
Let’s examine the opposite with my introductory anecdote driving in black neighborhoods. What if I were driving through Bed-Stuy or Harlem blasting Nirvana or Merle Haggard? Immediately this appears as a bigger Fuck You to the community than any Biggie or Tupc song. The community is being altered in a form akin to gentrification. Playing Wilco or the Talking Heads with the volume cranked at 11 is the musical equivalent of putting up an eight-story condominium between a Baptist church and ramshackle brownstones. I won’t assume that all members of the community are going to be grinning ear to ear seeing a white boy reppin’ Goodie Mob, but I see white boy rock as far less graceful.
During the writing process of this very essay, I spoke to one of my students while substitute teaching. For the past few months I had been working at a school consisting mostly of African-American students. I have only seen three white-passing students in the entire student body. Ironically, what had bonded the student and I previously was my recognition of him singing lyrics from Kendrick’s song “ELEMENT.”. I asked this student the question of this very essay, running over the bullet points made earlier. His and another student’s response? “Just be respectful. Know where it comes from.” The simplicity of the attitude startled me. Maybe what it comes down to is that black artists are making music for the world, and the fact that other races and peoples coming to it is in itself a major accomplishment. For these teenagers, my very question and interest in responsibility, ipso facto, proved that I was respectful. The respect for me as a fellow listener came from my apparent appreciation of the music and the acknowledgment of my race in a genre predominately black. Maybe the now established dictum of “check your privilege” would be sufficient for my question.
In the end, appropriative treatment of rap as a white person involves one’s attitude when acting or speaking about the music. To drive around with what Tupac called a Thug Life attitude drives the nail in the coffin regarding respect to the music. Embodying some pseudo-black attitude in public can be damaging and insensitive. As far as behavior at a private level, that’s up to the individual and those around them. What is important is exhibiting racist behaviors towards strangers and creating conflicts. You can love the music and vibe all you want, but exploiting the aggressive mood of rap as a means of promoting your own tough guy performance exploits the “gangsta” attitude of racial survival and a culture outside white culture. Conversing about the music as well necessitates an understanding that the music is black music. The music can’t be spoken of as if you’re a brother if you’re white. The two realities of lived experience are vastly different and to attempt “colorblindness” only exacerbates the oppressed condition rap attempts to amend or empower.
Ultimately hip-hop comes from black culture but I can’t say that the “white” artifice of “black” owns it; rather, the oppressed culture of urban African-Americans created a genre of music that should continue to serve purposes of social, racial, and cultural justice. I feel uncomfortable making the distinction that rock is for white people and rap is for black people. Both are for everyone, but as of now, only rap represents a struggle espoused to the impoverished soul of what we call “black” America, a fight that is drained of its vitality when the construct of race is ignored. While grounds have been made, we can’t close the book on white appreciation and participation with black culture, lest it go the way of the dodo, apropos black involvement with rock music.
Yet the value of whites and blacks forming bonds around art like rap remains significant. Speaking to black members of the Brooklyn community, the fact that a white boy is even listening to rap with a voracious interest remains progressive and proves their culture’s salience. Music like this, particularly Lamar’s DAMN. bridges these divided worlds, challenging ideas of fixed identity and staying true to the sordid side of a black experience, questioning conventions. And of course, the music is just that damn good.