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Performing Whiteness - Race and Hip Hop Culture

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Transcript of Performing Whiteness - Race and Hip Hop Culture

Performing Whiteness
in Hip Hop Culture

We have focused on Black Masculine Identity in America and how the “proper” performance of that identity serves as a baseline for all other identities within the culture and a stringent gauge of “authenticity” across those identities.
Riff Raff on Race

Lloyd on Race

The Game on Race (1:45)


V – Nasty back to Riff Raff


David Banner #1

David Banner #2

emier Speaks on White Rappers and the N Word

Too Short

Talib Kweli

Gangsta Boo
The History Of White Celebrities Using The "N" Word

By Shanté Cosme | Jun 14, 2012 | 1:42 pm


Date: Nov. 18, 2003

Eminem's lyrics became the subject of scrutiny when The Source produced recordings that contained several instances of him rapping with racial slurs. On the first, which was allegedly recorded in 1993, a pre-fame Eminem is heard rapping: "All the girls I like to bone have big butts/ No they don't, 'cause I don't like that n***er shit/ I'm just here to make a bigger hit."

On the second track, recorded in '88, Marshall Mathers spits, "Blacks and whites, they sometimes mix/ But black girls only want your money, 'cause they dumb chicks."

Eminem responded to the tapes and their implication that he was racist by arguing that he was only 15 when the songs was recorded. "Ray Benzino, Dave Mays and The Source have had a vendetta against me, Shady Records and our artists for a long time," he said a statement. "The tape they played today was something I made out of anger, stupidity and frustration when I was a teenager. I'd just broken up with my girlfriend, who was African-American, and I reacted like the angry, stupid kid I was. I hope people will take it for the foolishness that it was, not for what somebody is trying to make it into today."
Here we want to continue teasing out the complex matrix of identities within Hip Hop culture and the social issues that impact those identities. We began with Black Masculine Identity in America and how the “proper” performance of that identity serves as a baseline for all other identities within the culture and a stringent gauge of “authenticity” across those identities.
In the coming weeks we will take up the notion of “Whiteness” in Hip Hop America. Learning from Bikari Kitwana’s Why White Kids Love Hip Hop (2005) we will follow the ascendency of Eminem and other White rappers as they attempt to have White masculine identity recognized as an authentic identity for a rap artist, the most profitable position to hold within the culture (practitioner).
To be sure, Eminem invokes existing stereotypes and seems to be quite adept at creating new ones (especially misogynist depictions of women). One might go so far as to say that the bulk of his work is overly occupied with challenging or creating stereotypes. Even so, in spite of his almost refreshing irreverence for both the sacred and the profane, it is a bit surprising that he has steadfastly shied away from one taboo. With the notable exception of a pair of songs produced when he was 15, Eminem has shied away from race as a theme and has not used the "N" word in public performances or in recordings since then.
One must wonder aloud at how usage of the “N” word has come to serve as a marker of authenticity in Hip Hop culture...officially, only Black artists are allowed to use it...in fact they are expected to use it...

We are at best naïve if we believe that the term does NOT enjoy wide currency outside the Black community. The public utterance of the term remains "complicated."
What happens when a White artist slips…better yet…what happens when a White artist claims that they have a right to use the term?

What would happen if they used the term openly with Blacks within their inner circles? ...in public?

And what would it mean if Blacks within those circles argued that the term was not offensive anymore...that we have arrived at a moment when people should be allowed to use any term that they so desire?

And what then would happen if that White artist decided to use the term in public - when they were not flanked by their Black friends who cosigned on their usage of the term?

What do "Emcees" feel about "White Emcees" using the N-Word?

Fortunately...or perhaps unfortunately...

Thanks to VLAD TV we don't have to guess at these answers...
What would happen if a White rapper adopted the same posture and language as Black rappers? Would this be acceptable? Black identity remains contested terrain – profoundly complex and hotly contested.

No word signifies these complexities better than the dreaded “N” Word and one is hard pressed to find a word that is as volatile in the whole of the English language.
Central to our current effort is our review of a set of interviews that will help us to mount our discussion of “Whiteness” in Hip Hop America.
Personal Identity and Contemporary Social Issues in Hip Hop Culture and American Society

Class Forum

Weekly Journal

Brother Ali (Forrest Whitaker)

Eminem (Without Me)

Riff Raff


Where does the future of Hip Hop lie?
Our identities are first and foremost “performed identities,” meaning that our individual identities are constructed (some more conspicuously than others, but nonetheless constructed).

We live these identities in a world shaped by rules, regulations, laws, customs, and traditions that are ever in conflict with our personal identities.
As individuals, the level and nature of that conflict depends on the degree to which we countenance the expectations and demands of society and the degree to which our identities mesh with these expectations and demands.

Me might go so far as to say that our performance of the various aspects of our identities moves us closer to or further away from the intersection of who we are and who society expects us to be.

Some of us are more conscious of this process than others. Some of us embrace performance and use it to move us as far away from our true selves as possible while others insist on “keeping it real,” as real as possible.
The notion here (especially in the economy that is Hip Hop culture) is that performance is not real or true and that the closer ones performance is to one’s true self, the better. The closer the performance is to reality, the more “Authentic” that performance is taken to be.

Hip Hop consumers demand "Authentic" performance...
We recognize this, of course, as a gross oversimplification of the complex set of actions and reactions that make up human identity and its role in society ("society" is in and of itself a grand performance – but that is for another course).

For our purposes, we are concerned with the performance of identity in Hip Hop culture – more precisely, we are interested in a very specific set of expectations regarding Black masculinity that are rooted in a long history of discrimination and exploitation and how those images and expectations are skirted, embraced, ignored, mimicked, or flouted in White performance in Hip Hop culture - especially in the role of Emcee.
This course began with this particular subject position because the culture’s roots are firmly rooted in Black cultural history and the most important early practitioners and innovators in the culture were Black males. More than that, society has come to see the culture as it is presented through the voice of the Emcee. This is, as we know in this class, a problematic reduction of the culture that ignores the existence and nature of other cultural "elements" within the culture.
In the United States and in many spaces abroad, the culture is mediated through Black masculine identity even though Black women and people from virtually every walk of life participate in, build, deconstruct, reconstruct, and otherwise “live” the culture.

In the United States, we understand the “iconization” of Black masculinity in Hip Hop in the context of performance – performing Blackness in America – the troubled and dysfunctional history of race, racism, White Supremacy, ritual violence, and race relations in the United States.
Throughout this history, there has been considerable tension regarding the disjuncture between what Black men were imagined to be in America as a group and who they have been as individuals - what Black men are and have been as opposed to what America has "needed" them to be.

Perhaps it is perverse to imagine it this way, but to some degree, Black men continue to lobby for the expansion of the American imagination; an expansion such that expected or demanded performances move closer to the reality of who they are and always have been – which is to say that Black men are human while expectations of them have ranged from the sub to the super human - from beasts of burden (Thomas Jefferson) to sexual super men (Robert Mapplethorpe) – but never exactly human.
Many critics of Hip Hop culture use the imagery of Gangsta Rap to indict the culture as a whole. While great attention is paid (and blame laid) to the propagation of stereotypical images of Black men and the rote objectification of Black women, less attention is paid to the conspicuous consumption of these images and who is consuming them.

The demand for them is as strong as they have ever been – in fact, the strength of that demand can be measured to some degree through the juxtaposition of artists with similar abilities who deliver very different messages...
“Conscious” rappers find themselves at the margins if we measure success by record sales.

Common’s critically acclaimed "Like Water for Chocolate" was released in 2000. In five years this award winning album sold 785,000 copies (March 2005 (RIAA)).

The Game’s debut album "The Documentary" was released in January of 2005 and sold nearly 600,000 in its first week and was certified double platinum in less than three months (March 2005).

The cover of Like Water for Chocolate features a famous Gordon Parks photo from the Civil Rights movement.
The Game's CD provides a very different set of values and significantly different messages than what we find in Common's work.

The public images of Blackness in these two albums are starkly different – one reminding us of a painful past that most of America would prefer to forget, the other of youth, power, and unchecked consumption.

We are left to argue about which of these two sets of images is more “authentic” or real than the other...

What we know is that these two artists demonstrate very different performances of Black masculinity. They show us that there is no one way to be a Black man or to be an Emcee... But consumers clearly prefer one over the other...
The Game's album came on the heels of a most impressive and unprecedented run by one Marshall Mathers who won three Grammy awards for best rap album on three consecutive releases:

The Slim Shady LP (2000)

The Marshall Mathers LP (2001)

The Eminem Show (2003)
Eminem’s success was the result of a number of factors that included virtuosity, novelty, marketing, and timing. Even so, some critics challenged his legitimacy as an artist because he was
Vanilla Ice is the penultimate representative of the pitfalls that Eminem has successfully navigated thus far. Whereas Vanilla Ice gained credence by claiming “authenticity” by claiming life experiences that were not his own...

Eminem gained credence by using his own life experience as if they were as authentic as any others at the root of personal identity.

Essentially, he claimed White, lower-middle class, life in the United States as a viable place to rap from...
While we are interested in the performance of identity across the culture, none of those performances has as much at stake than the performance of the identity bound up in being an Emcee – the not so reluctant ambassador of the culture.
Given that it conjures up so many related yet divergent issues regarding race and difference, White artists, following Eminem's lead perhaps, have wisely refrained from using the term in their lyrics and during public performances. This does not suggest a foreclosure of that usage in private where the epithet seems to be used with significant frequency, both as a term of endearment AND as a racial slur. Long gone are the days when the term could be used in the public square by public officials...the only actors allowed to use it in public are Blacks...
We continue to interrogate Hyper-Masculinity, Violence, Homo-sociality, and the persistence of misogyny as part of the ethos governing this identity.
Indeed, for more than a decade now, accusations have continued to swirl regarding Eminem's place in Hip hop history and his skills as an Emcee. And while there has been much to object to and much to praise with this artist, we know that he has shied away from performing the carefully crafted and historically inflected stereotypes that Black male performers are expected to adhere to during their public performances of Black masculinity...

Eminem has never "pretended" to be Black...
These critics recognized that Eminem's talent as an Emcee, but that he was not so talented as to warrant the level of attention and acclaim that his work received. More than that, they openly observed that Eminem's success was attributable to Whiteness - not superior talent; that his success would not have been possible if he was not White... a point of fact that Eminem almost gleefully accepts as an obvious truth.
This of course was a "none" response...but it points up how difficult the question can be when we do not have a viable response... When we developed our taxonomy earlier on - Fans - Consumers - Practitioners...this is what I meant by a "Consumer" response... And his is not the only such response...
In the next video the Game fields questions from 105.1 FM DJs regarding his life choices and productivity...what happens when a rapper makes enough money to improve his or her family's circumstances?

The Game's assumptions about race as well as the DJs are difficult to reconcile. In fact, he is hard-pressed to explain how enrolling his children in a predominantly White and ultra-private school does not defy his notions of the street as classroom and the idea of not forgetting "the Hood" once you have made a fortune. The viciously racist dig at Tiger Woods (the originator of Cablanasian identity and culture) is especially telling...

Please watch through time stamp 3:45 (the mention of Interscope Records) before proceeding to the next text...
Just in case you have no idea what they are talking about...
Please be prepared to share your thoughts on this debate beyond "yes" or "no." Do you believe that this debate / dynamic is the same across Hip Hop culture? Turntablists? B-Boys? Writers?

If we add spoken word poetry to this mix -- how does the dynamic change or remain the same? Does gender tend to heighten the tensions on these debates? If so how?

Food for thought...
In terms of technical proficiency and critical acclaim, Common’s work would appear to be superior yet the Game outpaced him significantly in record sales and then in a very short period of time (3 months as compared to Common's five years on the same record chart).

Why is that?

At least part of the answer may be found in the album covers...
...while the Game is pictured sitting on a set of car tires with tricked out rims.
The Eminem Show

Verse #2
Look at these eyes baby blue baby just like urself
If they were brown
Shady knew shady sits on the shelf
But Shadys cute
Shady knew Shady's dimples would help
Make ladies swoon baby
(ooo baby)
Look at myself!
Lets do the math
If i was black i woulda sold half
I aint have to graduate
From Lincoln High School to know that
But i can rap so fuck school
Im too cool to go back
Gimme the mic
Show me where the fuckin studio's at
When i was underground
No one gave a fuck i was white
No lables wanted to sign me
Almost gave up, i was like "Fuck it"
Until i met Dre
The only one who looked past
Gave me a chance
And i lit a fire up under his ass
Helped him get back to the top
Every fan black that i got
Was probly his
In exchange for every white fan that he's got
Like damn we just swapped
Sittin back look at this shit wow
Im like "Does this skin work for my benifit now?"
Full transcript