Upon mention that Eminem was white, Dr. Dre famously remarked, “I don’t care if he’s purple, as long as he can rap.” His defense of Eminem’s ability in light of his race is notable: Hip-hop, a predominantly African American genre with ever-increasing nationwide popularity, presents a valuable opportunity to examine how racial tension still manifests itself. By working in an overwhelmingly black genre, white rappers must justify their positions in an industry that evolved out of serving African American communities.
From its origin in the South Bronx of the early 1970s, hip-hop represented an expression of rebellion and discontent. Adam Bradley, an associate professor of African American literature and culture at the University of Colorado as well as co-editor of The Anthology of Rap and author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, explained to the HPR that hip-hop emerged in the successive decade in cultural centers that “tended to be urban and tended to be poor.” The genre originated and grew out of crime-ridden neighborhoods languishing in urban poverty.
Due to its roots and prevalence in African American communities, the American public has long associated hip-hop with a particular demographic. Yet, Bradley argues that the entrance of hip-hop into the “marketplace of ideas and style” also created the opportunity for artists who did not encompass that stereotypical background to “pick up the pen.” Regina Bradley, a professor of English at Kennesaw State University specializing in hip-hop and black popular culture, told the HPR that the prominence of white consumers of hip-hop is certainly not a new phenomenon, alluding to the popularity and profitability of gangsta rap in the late 1990s among suburban white teenage boys. As the understanding of what constituted a rapper evolved, hip-hop became more accessible to other classes and races.
More than Just Another Neo
The pivotal moment occurred when a white rapper firmly cemented himself within the upper echelon of rap. Of course, Eminem was not the only one there. In an interview with the HPR, Emery Petchauer, an assistant professor of Urban Education at Oakland University, author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives, and former DJ, said there have “always been white rappers of different iterations.” Although those less familiar with the genre usually only think of Eminem as the seminal white individual in hip-hop music, the industry has long included white people either behind the scenes, within recording studios, or actually rapping. Individuals, from Mr. Freeze to Third Base, and groups, such as the Beastie Boys, achieved varying levels of respect and success.
Petchauer enumerates multiple typologies of the white rapper that have historically proven profitable: “angry white boy rap” (such as Eminem, YelaWolf, or Jedi Mind Tricks), the “egalitarian, social conscious” artists (such as Macklemore), the college frat rapper (such as Mac Miller), and the “white guy coming from the spoken word tradition” (such as Watsky). Fundamentally, each of these categories stems from a market orientation that targets a particular consumer demographic since hip-hop, like any other industry, relies on interests, not values.
The hip-hop industry has been forced to adapt to the tastes of a wealthy, white population of fans that adore its music by creating music characterized by carefully enunciated flow, catchy beats, and relatable stories. Ever since the industry acknowledged in 1991 that white, suburban teenagers consume 80 percent of all hip-hop, mainstream rap culture’s emphasis on characteristics appealing to white men has resulted in slow gentrification. In order to make money, hip-hop shifted from its earlier nexus, namely political and social commentary that characterized A Tribe Called Quest or Mos Def, to its more current form, emphasizing sexuality and violence, because that stimulates white listeners. As a consequence of this carefully crafted notion of “blackness,” white rappers feel disadvantaged when it comes to deserving a place in the hip-hop scene because they generally have not witnessed the violence, crime, or social issues central to more modern hip-hop.
Since hip-hop exists so prominently within the lives of many African American teenagers, there is an insidious cycle of over-hyped machismo instilled within them as a result of this faux or scripted “blackness.” A study done by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found a correlation between listening to hip-hop and alcoholism and violence. Youth in these communities internalize the lyrics of rappers who promote a limited notion of African American experience that subsequently becomes vogue. Dr. Carolyn West, associate professor of psychology at University of Washington, bemoans the sexualization of women within hip-hop that “sets the foundation” for victimization, objectification, and teen pregnancy. Whether it is the hoodie or gang culture, the qualities demanded by white audiences feed back and impact, quite frequently negatively, the evolution and identity of the young black population.
Much of the skepticism about white rappers stems from perceived lack of authenticity or suspected voyeuristic motives. Due to the genre’s frequently violent themes, audiences question how many middle-class white rappers can truly talk about socioeconomic burdens or objectifying women. Further, commercial rap tends to blur the line between race and class, which only exacerbates the anxieties associated with white rappers since they carry, in Regina Bradley’s words, “a middle class sensibility associated with whiteness.” In order to differentiate himself from white rappers who play the “cool card,” Lil Dicky, an aspiring emcee who gained quite a bit of attention through his creative YouTube videos and impressive first mixtape, incorporates his vulnerabilities, fears, and flaws in order to portray himself—including his middle-class background—genuinely. By accurately depicting his Jewish, middle-class identity, Lil Dicky successfully justifies his position within the genre by claiming a niche.
That said, Eminem continues to rise above the rest as a paragon of the white rapper.
As the first successful white solo rap artist, Eminem gained a unique distinction. His technical ability to lyrically engage the hip-hop community developed into a tremendously high level of success completely separate from his race. Ultimately, this transcendence of race formed the foundation of Eminem’s career. Lil Dicky explained to the HPR, “all rappers in general [not just white rappers] are compared to Eminem” because of his incredible mastery of the medium. Eminem’s epic, decades-long success results far more from his talent than anything else. But, ironically, part of his appeal stems from his ability to resolve the tension existing between being white and speaking about issues relevant to poor African American communities.
Eminem’s background gave him credibility on both sides of the industry’s racial divide. On the one hand, because he grew up in a trailer park with a single, drug-addicted mother, his story is a seeming analogy to the black ghetto experience. At the same time, as Dr. Dre said in an interview with VH1, Eminem’s whiteness allowed him to “get away with saying a lot more.” Instead of turning off the radio or boycotting his CD sales, fans are able to ignore or minimize Eminem’s extremely controversial statements. When speaking with the HPR, Regina Bradley pointed to Eminem’s first commercial release in 1999 as opening up a conversation about “hip-hop as a multicultural space,” that had not existed for previous white artists.
Eminem pioneered a “shift” in understanding: what Bradley calls “whiteness in hip-hop.” He blazed a new path for white hip-hop artists by rejecting the commercial representation of white identity in the rap industry, as had been the case with Vanilla Ice, while demonstrating that the white emcee did not need to be constrained by a particular track.
Although white rappers existed before Eminem, his entrance into the industry led fans to question the assumption that white rappers were attempting to co-opt a genre so important and influential in African-American communities. In the fifteen years since Eminem’s arrival, the industry, in Bradley’s words, “is no longer considered a strictly racialized or black space.”
The Technological Downspin
Despite Eminem’s impact on the industry in welcoming and accepting other white artists, it would take a new platform to increase their visibility: YouTube. The rise of the Internet and the ubiquity of YouTube dramatically affected the dynamics within the modern music industry. With today’s insatiable desire for information and access, social media and video-sharing sites are paramount for establishing and growing a fan base. YouTube further facilitates fame acquisition and exposure due to the easy ability to find fans. Although Petchauer maintained that the entanglement of the music industry with YouTube began a “complete erosion” of the music industry, the popular website also made it easier to enter the genre.
Lil Dicky epitomizes this exact phenomenon. He posted his first video, titled “Ex-Boyfriend,” on YouTube with a link to his free mixtape online. As the music video went viral, he gained fans and attention from a particular demographic, namely white male college students who appreciated and enjoyed his witty, impressive rhymes and creative videos. Now, he has completed his first mini-tour and continues to keep his fans entertained through uploaded monologues, recaps of the concerts, and new videos. In fact, he relied on Kickstarter to crowd source his foray into rap, testing the waters on a new relationship between fan and artist.
According to Petchauer, successful white rappers who start out on YouTube, such as Lil Dicky or Watsky, represent the effects of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was the first major telecommunications law overhaul in over 60 years. Ironically, the FCC’s stated goal was to “let anyone enter any communications business,” even though the promulgation of the act led to a significant decline in the number of independent radio station owners, which in turn led to a consolidation of the industry. With big media conglomerates controlling a larger share of the airwaves, musicians found their market power declining.
According to a study done by the Future of Music Coalition, the industry’s oligopolies interact with the five major label companies such that 80 to 100 percent of radio charts play singles and hits produced by those corporations. The inability to get airtime without a major label contributes to the erosion of the music industry that Petchauer believes enables more opportunities for white rapper visibility: Since rappers are forced to choose between a label or autonomy, the accessibility of the Internet allows many to select the latter and still achieve success.
More than just black and white?
Viewing rap through a racial dichotomy tends to offend or disappoint those who see that division as too simplistic, preferring to understand differences as a consequence of cultural background and upbringing. Lil Dicky told the HPR that following such a rigid philosophy is “archaic” since what differentiates rappers, especially white ones, is socioeconomic and cultural class. To Lil Dicky, it is a “grave mistake” to focus on skin tone: “It always comes back to culture and class.”
The continuum of experience for both black and white artists influences their music and story substantially more so than race. As Lil Dicky notes, an artist’s upbringing matters. Negative stereotypes persist for all middle-class rappers, white and black. However, Regina Bradley’s contention that, regardless, “race and identity is very much how we understand hip-hop culture” raises a valuable point: irrespective of de facto upbringing, judgment is often race-based. Ignoring this reality or diminishing its importance is practically impossible, especially because disregarding race can lead to neglecting to acknowledge white privilege.
When speaking with the HPR, Lil Dicky addressed the claim that it is easier for white rappers to enter the hip-hop industry than it is for black rappers. While he attributed some truth to this claim, he maintained that because he could have had “an extremely comfortable life” without ever rapping into a microphone, his occupational decision, which to him meant he had everything to lose, demonstrates his passion and appreciation for hip-hop.
The Grammys have strongly elucidated race relations in the music industry: aside from Macklemore’s ridiculous Album of the Year victory in 2013, no hip-hop song has ever won Record of the Year, and Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below is still the only pure hip-hop album to have won Album of the Year. Rap albums made up a meager eight percent of all the Album of the Year nominations in the past five years. Even Jay-Z has yet to win a Grammy.
Despite the existing disparity in accolades and Grammy totals, rap can still serve as one of the purest forms of meritocracy in the United States. Hip-hop’s “show and prove” philosophy is present and strong. Adam Bradley concisely summarized the underlying truth of hip-hop as, “If you can spit, you can spit.” While non-African American rappers might face initial scrutiny during open mic sessions or rap battles, rappers have ultimately been judged on skill, not race or class. Industry sources that the HPR spoke with confirmed that the “show and prove” mentality exists throughout the industry: among producers, talent scouts, and publicists. Lil Dicky corroborated that skepticism initially persists within the industry for white rappers, in that an artist “may have to prove [himself] more,” but being talented enough and adopting “the landscape of hip-hop” will lead to acceptance.
Hip-hop no longer speaks exclusively to the marginalized populations within the United States. The genre is now not solely about expressing discontent or serving as a mouthpiece for the powerless.
However, hip-hop still contains powerful cultural, social, and racial associations that speak to the racial divide in America. It has been over five years since the United States elected its first African-American president. In just over a month, it will mark sixty years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. While many hoped that the election of Barack Obama embodied the new, modern view about race, recent history, from the Birther Movement to the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases, demonstrates that, despite our historical accomplishments, questions of race persist.
Within the hip-hop genre, racism and classism still persist. But hip-hop can potentially serve as a model for minimizing the impact of race and removing discrimination. Certainly, it is better than no model at all: No racial divide will be bridged by pushing uncomfortable subjects to the periphery of discourse. We are not colorblind.