Fight the White Rap History Rewrite.

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I don’t know how, until this very morning, I missed the April 15 New York Times profile of white rapper Asher Roth by former VIBE music editor Jon Caramanica. (“To Be Young, Rapping and White,” it was near sacrilegously titled.) But it was certainly worth the wait.

eminemRoth is not yet the white-hot name check Eminem, right, was at his peak or even in his ascension. (As might be expected, Eminem is the artist with whom Roth is most often compared, and whose legacy many apparently expect him to inherit.) However, Roth’s certainly building buzz for himself and his just released album, Asleep in the Bread Aisle. Much of this is due to the agreeable, 3-a.m.-warm-beer texture of his hit single/future golden oldie, “I Love College,” above; the marketing skill of his label, SRC, whose founder, Steve Rifkind, cut his teeth on street promotions and Wu-Tang Clan records; and, certainly, receptive press: New York Times pieces, Philadelphia Inquirer pieces, and their ilk. “College” achieved a peak position of 12 on Billboard’s Hot 100, has reportedly sold nearly a million copies, has been streamed more than 36 1/2 million times on the artist’s MySpace page, and its video has been viewed over six million times on YouTube. Not a bit shabby.

51p-ebwh7tl_ss500_Almost all white hip-hop artists have made records I enjoyed, and sometimes even loved—Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” comes to mind, “Intergalactic,” by the Beastie Boys, as well as earlier cuts by them, and I dig Roth’s new “Lark on My Go-Kart.” Yet I’ve rarely found any white rapper’s work gripping enough on its own terms to merit more than a few listens. (An exception may be Muslim albino rapper Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth, above, which I thought uniquely compelling.)

This could have something to do with deficiencies I often perceive in these artists’ work, or styles—the varied shortcomings of “blue-eyed soul”—though probably not mostly. More, I’m guessing, it has to do with the framework hip-hop holds in my thinking; the reasons why I think it’s here—on Earth—and what I think it’s supposed to be doing. That is, what it should be doing for Black people—producing justice—and what I think it’s supposed to be doing for white people—creating an irresistable, utterly compelling set of reasons for them to produce justice on behalf of non-white people.

That is, from a certain angle, there’s just a shade of difference between white people rapping and white people telling nigger jokes. (I know that this framework, though immediately clear to a certain number of Black people, if only on a gut level, isn’t obvious to others, and is completely offensive to many white people. I elaborate on it, more, in two other works: (1) “White People and Hip-Hop,” which I recorded with both Racialicious‘ Carmen Van Kerckhove and writer Jason Tanz (Other People’s Property) for Van Kerckhove’s “Addicted to Race” podcast, and (2) “The Unbearable Whiteness of Emceeing: What The Eminence of Eminem Says About Race,” which I wrote for The Source. [As well, I also spoke about this during an episode of Oprah I taped with Michael Eric Dyson, Sister Souljah, Sister 2 Sister's Jamie Brown, and others in the fall of 1997, though Harpo never aired the piece.]) Both behaviors form a set of inadequate, insufficient white responses to the system of white supremacy, formatted, here, as “entertainment,” or “fun.” Of course, any fun, carried out over a long enough period, starts to look like making fun of to the one not in on the fun, as does any insufficient response, carried far enough, in the midst of a dire situation.

In spite of, or maybe because of, the generally unsatisfactory artistic role white rap has often played when considered this way, I’ve gotten far more out of it by studying the social networks around it; i.e., how it makes white people act. (To a great extent, this is what “The Unbearable Whiteness of Emceeing” is about.). Toward this end, a few choice details jump out of the Asher Roth New York Times piece and land in my lap:

1) It never fails to amaze me how much better white people’s jobs are than Black people’s jobs. In the piece, Asher Roth’s father, whose name is David, is described as “the executive director of a design firm.”

It just sticks out. First of all, so many rappers grow up without fathers at all that to hear of an artist with one is unusual. But, here, there is a father, in the home, and he executive directs a design firm.

2) That a rapper is white is often enough to get them major media coverage. One sees this over and over in the coverage of white rappers, from at least the Beastie Boys to the present. Take away Asher Roth’s whiteness, and is there a story here? Even more, is there a career here? Roth’s now famous XXL cover, as one of ten “freshmen” rappers expected to do great work in 2009, is often mentioned, but Wale and Charles Hamilton sure aren’t.

Which reminds me:

3) White rappers frequently appear as though being handed off from one set of white hands to another. Here, narratively, Roth is handed from his parents, first, to his manager, Scooter Braun, who discovered him, to Steve Rifkind, his label owner, to the Times author, Jon Caramanica, to the fans.

And, most of all:

4) History is often rewritten in the interest of prizing white people, of which white rappers are, of course, a subset. In the piece, Caramanica, who, as a former editor at VIBE and a long-time writer covering hip-hop, should know better, says this: “Whether they talk about it or not, plenty of rappers are from the suburbs, but not one has created an aesthetic around it until Mr. Roth.”

Really? What did De La Soul do, then? What did the Dungeon Family do? Heck: What did Public Enemy do? (I wrote about P.E.’s suburban roots and worldview at length for The Village Voice in a 1988 piece, “Strangers in Paradise.”)

Lately, I’ve taken to likening hip-hop, at this point, to a massive, aircraft hangar-sized attic, filled, overwhelmingly, with objects put there by Black people, particularly Black males.

But what, exactly, is in this attic? What do its contents mean, all together, when one studies them? Toward what conclusions do these materials all press? And, most of all: What will we miss, or fail to understand, if we imagine that the people with the most important statements to make in hip-hop look like the people with the most important statements to make everywhere else?

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30 comments ↓

#1 pierre bennu on 04.22.09 at 1:45 pm

good catch. lets hope that 30 years from now there is no need for a “black hip-hop coalition” because of a suppression of history

#2 Kyra Gaunt on 04.22.09 at 10:02 pm

Major props. Perfectly written! Love the last line!!

#3 Iron4rm on 04.23.09 at 2:59 am

Harry Allen,

Someone had to speak up and not just for the sake of being controversial.
Good piece. I’m sure you could’ve been more in depth and made it more of an expose of the plight of black music everywhere. For instance since the eminence of Eminem, black music, much to our chagrin, has become Urban Music out here in the UK. However for the sake of space it encapsulates the compelling issues nicely.

Best regards,

Iron4rm

#4 myke forte on 04.23.09 at 4:48 am

this touched me and left me with not much to say as i think about this everyday. I to am a well educated black man from the poorer areas of england, uk and feel that my voice will be suppressed immensely, although i make music from the heart. I will be reading more of your writings, where is a good place to start?

#5 ssstrutt on 04.23.09 at 10:08 am

good read

#6 Jim on 04.23.09 at 3:30 pm

Harry, is that PE article online anywhere?

#7 ak on 04.23.09 at 4:06 pm

thank you, thank you, thank you for this cogent, compelling piece.

#8 Trackstar the DJ on 04.23.09 at 5:57 pm

A+.

#9 Cage on 04.23.09 at 11:06 pm

I’m up against the machine like Rage

#10 E.A.R.T.H. Crew on 04.24.09 at 6:10 am

very well thought out written piece that deserves praise.

#11 Me Me on 04.29.09 at 3:25 pm

White rappers, Black President sounds like a fair swap to me. Should be taken as a complement ever heard the phrase if you cant beat them join them

#12 CDF on 05.05.09 at 2:27 pm

Good points!

#13 Poindexter on 05.05.09 at 6:40 pm

Um, methinks that by definition you consider a white rapper deligitimate. I agree that I have heard a few firsts (first suburban rapper) attributed to the kid that just are true, but other than that you didn’t really make a compelling argument (or an argument at all for that matter) against the kid. I mean come on, what conspiracy is at work by mention the dad’s occupation?

#14 Miles Ellison on 05.05.09 at 8:22 pm

Excellent article.

The suppression of history has happened in every genre of music that blacks have been involved in. In 30 years we will be reading about how Vanilla Ice invented hip-hop.

#15 jimmy johnson on 05.06.09 at 2:36 pm

I listened to the podcast and think you make some good points, but sometimes your arguments suffer from the same imprecision in definition of terms that you point out when asked the question of whether or not rap is black music. In general, the angle with which you approach these issues in the podcast seems to be consistently macro, leaving little room for individual nuance and certainly little hope for change.

“That is, from a certain angle, there’s just a shade of difference between white people rapping and white people telling nigger jokes”

So to the above quote, I would ask:

From this angle that you mention, is there legitimate space for biracial people in rap? What if skin color has caused my lived experience to be black in America, but class and social context have been more akin to what most people think of as typically white? What if these factors were reversed? In either case, if I dedicate myself to rap and live it with as much passion as the next (black) person, am I still a few too many shades away from black to avoid being a shade away from “telling nigger jokes” when I rap?

I’m not assuming that you have not considered such complicating factors, but even so, the above quote conceals a lot.

#16 Dallas on 05.08.09 at 2:40 am

Who stole the soul?

Jon C. quoted me in his article because I posted some early video on the internets about Asher Roth. Whom I hadn’t met until recently.

Asher, Kid Cudi and Bobby Ray form a triumvirate of artists that cut their teeth on MySpace prior to finding the (somewhat) mass appeal they now enjoy as major label artists.

Asher Roth was opening for acts like Heltah Skeltah. That was as impressive to me as it was curious. That seemed like an odd pairing to have boom bap rap veterans follow the set of the tight jeans frat rap crowd.

Why won’t rap end up like everything else? Blues, jazz, rock and roll. A rap documentary will be hosted by some narrator with a British accent just like those National Geographic specials. Asher Roth has now made rap music from the middle class enclaves of the suburbs acceptable.

De La who?

Wasn’t Public Enemy from Brooklyn?

You will be the Stanley Crouch of our generation if you let the reactions of the oppressed get to you.

Why else they call this ish supremacy? It seeks to always rewrite history and absolve itself from the guilt of oppression.

You don’t think the native Americans actually shared Thanksgiving with the settlers do you?

#17 Tyler on 05.08.09 at 2:06 pm

Or a better, more recent, example:

Kanye West.

His whole aesthetic and background is middle class black. But I suppose in the context of an Asher Roth article, Kanye’s blackness erases this fact.

#18 bee on 05.08.09 at 11:22 pm

hi harry,

you are the best!

(and i’ve always thought cracamanica was condescending and lacking context.)

#19 Mighty Rhino on 05.09.09 at 11:52 am

I’ve been making this critique, or something similar, in private for a long time now, and hadn’t found the words to articulate it publicly on a blog or someplace. I’m glad to see it being voiced.

To the casual surface observer, it looks as though hip-hop is the only sphere of American life where the traditional rubric –”Folks of colour have to work twice as hard to get half as much as is handed to white folks on a silver platter” — is reversed. It seems like the one place where Black folks have a permanent advantage, and white privilege doesn’t apply.

Black rap folks naturally take issue with whites seemingly appropriating what belongs to them, so it’s an uphill battle for “cred” for white rappers. But over time, powerful white folks have started to notice this, and realize that it’s the one main area where white privilege is not granted by default. So they’ve constructed a system that allows white privilege to be perpetuated in the midst of an environment that wouldn’t have allowed that if it could help it. And this was true whether the white rap cat had the respect of a Black audience (which Eminem gradually got, especially, I think, once Black rap heads realized he’d had a legitimately rough life growing up) or not (Asher will probably never get it, unless rap heads’ taste goes out the window.)

Not acknowledging the system that’s been put in place to privilege white rappers seems like cowardice to me. I’m a white rapper in Toronto, rapping because I love it way the hell too much not to give it a shot. But for all the talk about hip-hop being “universal” and “color-blind” and “all about skills”, which might bolster a white rapper’s confidence about treading on Black territory, I don’t really see it as legitimate to think of rap as anything but a Black thing first, and a universal artform second. It was born of poverty and suffering of a kind that somebody like me (my father’s the founder and CEO of a chain of jewelry stores up here) has never known, and never will. ‘Cause it’s RACIALIZED poverty and suffering. And the system presently in place makes sure that whatever suffering I have to deal with, it’s not that.

Now, DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaaataa have decided to endorse the idea of hip-hop as a universal artform, which as I see it, essentially means I’m allowed to come in here (to rap culture), try to make some really excellent rap music, and see what happens. Some Black rap folks may appreciate it, some might mock it or rail against it, but I can’t afford to worry about that. Ultimately, what I don’t forget that it’s really only Herc and Bam’s generosity that allows me to be here. And as for hip-hop acting as a vehicle to convince white folks of the rightness of standing up for the well-being Black folks, I’m with that. BUT… I don’t necessarily feel it’s the most righteous thing for people like me to do. Because as a white man in general and being a privileged kid from Canada in particular, I don’t think I have the tools to offer a sound critique, one that could prove useful to Black folks striving for justice. Especially not in a rap song.

Where I or my fellow white rappers have the capacity to say anything insightful, it’s probably a good thing for us to try. But many of us simply aren’t in a position to be taken seriously as critics of white privilege, even as we might try to defend ourselves from charges of trying to exploit the culture, Elvis-style.

Being in love with the music and the culture doesn’t automatically mean we have the right to liken our suffering to Black suffering. It also means we shouldn’t claim to know how to talk about that suffering intelligently enough to speak out against it. Even if some rap folks want us to try to do that, most of us can’t.

Some of us white rappers will get there eventually. Brother Ali did. But Brother Ali had already been largely raised by Black folks and learned much about their experience; not all of us have. Eminem obviously cares about that suffering too, but he’s never really gone there. There’s a reason.

I see rap music as an artform first and tool for the promotion of justice second. Which is why I support and defend a lot of street rappers who rap about nothing other than drugs and guns, but rap about those things with skill. And I grow frustrated with ‘conscious rappers’, both white (like Asher) or Black (there are many), who get angry at those street rappers for somehow abandoning their duty, by not trying to uplift the consciousness of their listeners. If a rapper is good at rapping, I don’t care that he seldom tries to fight the power. All the better when they do — Killer Mike is exceptional for having the capacity to speak brilliantly about political issues but also do coke-talk with the best of them — but if they don’t, I don’t think it’s our place to get mad at them. A ‘conscious rapper’ who’s not good at rapping is no better than a ‘gangsta rapper’ who’s not good at rapping.

But when it comes to race, the dynamic gets manipulated by white privilege, which means that right now, the going concern in the music industry is a white rapper who’s not good at rapping but whose social position much more closely resembles mine and those of millions of young white music buyers than any white rapper who’s ever been on the scene before. Beasties included. Ultimately, I can’t come down against white tappers being a part of this culture, for the sake of white folks who love rap music and are good at rapping, and want to find some equilibrium where Black rap cats don’t feel they need to shun us or scorn us. But as I see it, not acknowledging the white privilege apparatus that works in our favour is stupid and dangerous. And Asher’s current ascendance exemplifies it better than it’s ever been exemplified before, and so it’s good to see someone bring that to light. Thank you.

-Mighty Rhino
Toronto, Canada

#20 Shane Morris on 05.13.09 at 12:24 pm

In my career as a hip-hop morning radio show host, I never attempted to portray myself as being “more hip hop” than I actually was. In fact, my listeners all knew I was a skinny white guy. And they embraced me for being exactly who I was. I was raised in a largely black community in Atlanta, yet I didn’t really embrace the typical “hip hop” ideas.

None of the rappers I spoke with seemed to care that I openly mocked their “hip hop culture”, not because I dislike it, but because I love it. I’m a young white male that completely embraces hip hop, but has no interest in the baggage that the community has attached to it. I don’t understand why we have to draw lines about what color people are.

Isn’t that the antithesis of what hip hop is trying to accomplish anyway? Isn’t hip hop about breaking down false barriers? Why can’t a young white man make hip hop that appeals to a different audience without being judged for being handed from ‘white hands to other white hands’? As I best recall, most black rappers I know go from ‘black hands to other black hands’.

That said, I don’t really care for Asher Roth’s music right now. Maybe it will grow on me, but really – I don’t think it will. I believe that Asher Roth is getting press for being different. So I’ll just be honest: Asher Roth won’t be famous 6 months from now. He probably won’t exist.

Why? Because my demographic is his demographic, and we don’t want to listen to music about beer pong and house parties. We live that – we don’t want to hear about it. He won’t be popular because he doesn’t indulge a lifestyle that doesn’t exist. If Asher Roth releases a song about “pouring a bottle of Belvedere over b*tches in da club”, maybe he’ll be a hit.

#21 whiterapmuseum.com on 06.01.09 at 3:29 pm

Very interesting and well written article. Thanks also for the link to that podcast… I look forward to listening to it. Also a huge fan of your article “The Unbearable Whiteness of Emceeing”.

#22 Americana on 07.16.09 at 6:06 pm

Shane I think you are full of CRAP with a capital C! The difference is is that someone like a Daruis Rucker or Cowboy Troy WON’T be welcomed and admired and slobbered over being black in a predominantly white genre. In fact it’s the EXACT opposite for further proof look at the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods the hate for them wether subtle or blatant is so papable it’s pratically DRIPPING off the media,fellow players,supposed fans,and people like you so seriously who do you think you are kidding?!

#23 Spy on 08.11.09 at 12:40 pm

Don’t want to sound too “we are the world” here, but I genuinely don’t have a problem with White dudes in Hip Hop (The Alchemist, Ill Bill, etc.)

However, when their presence gets more and/or ‘better’ attention from the (so called) Hip Hop media than their Black/Hispanic counterparts simply because they’re White that’s what pisses me off big time.

#24 Rob on 10.01.09 at 3:35 pm

This column is quite discriminatory. The guy is making music that he likes, that inspires him, and because it happens to be rap, something you think belongs solely to blacks, you take discriminatory, disrespectful stabs at him. IT’S MUSIC! Music belongs to everyone. The media isn’t involved in a vast conspiracy to suppress the black man, the white kid gets coverage because they’re the media and a white rapper is an interesting angle they can make money on. M-O-N-E-Y. That’s the name of the game. Rapper’s should know that all too well. You keep chasing after racism your entire life and you’re going to keep finding it. Take a step back and enjoy the world and the people around you for a moment. Anyone is more than welcome to lambast me for being a “blind cracker-lover” if you would like for I shall not be back to see it. This column is not directed at forward thinkers. Again, music, all music, belongs to everyone that can hear it, feel it, and be changed by it. May the music set you free.

#25 bikerchrish on 01.28.10 at 10:43 am

lol, if a black guy goes to harvard, is very educated and smart, and becomes president so any black man can be president and competition for that job from blacks bothers some whites, tough. If black guys play sports and the competition from them bothers whites, tough. If whites fight in mma and boxing and take the belts and that competition bothers black, tough. If whites rap and sell more records and that competition bothers blacks, tough. Stop saying “this is ours” or “we have nothing but this”. stop trying to seperate us, we are not as seperate as the racists on both sides would like. Theres are more people now who feel we are all together and eventually the racists on both sides will grow old and die out. Ideas like black men cant golf or be quarterbacks or fight mma, or arent smart enuff to be president, Ideas like white men cant dance, or run track, or play basketball, or are nerds, will all be proven wrong. Saying rap is our culture and belongs to us is just as bad as saying nascar is our culture and belongs to us. you can use the n word for effect and say they are just not good at it and its all we have left. you can back it up with stupid facts like “nascar started with southern whites running moonshine”. but ultimatly its a racist idea and fewer people buy that racists crap in todays world. whoever wroye this article is playing on black peoples pride as a race and using it to stir up feeling and emotions so they can be manipulated into racism. This tactic is used often by racists on both sides and needs to be seen for what it is.

#26 Brian Frederick on 03.17.10 at 8:34 am

A Good read here, but it is a bit disconcerting. Having been able to interview Asher Roth myself a few months after his album was released, I can say that he never has put himself into any category other than hip-hop. In his own words he told me that he didn’t think his first release was a good idea and that he knew he would have to struggle from now on to be a legitimate artist in this industry, not only because he now has a stigma, but also because people (such as yourself) would never take him seriously. I hate to bring up the fact Rick Rubin and all of the Beastie Boys are white. If they don’t have enough clout then I’m not sure who would?

To pass someone off because of his color is far from progression and I know someone like you already knows this. If hip-hop shouldn’t let white people rap because it’s a strictly black environment, then why should we let a black man be president? White males not only started the government here in America, but also ran it for quite some time. Integration is a part of life and a part of this crazy world we live in now because as more and more people are born, the more we have to live with one another, and, let them into said ‘cultures’ if not for an understanding, but also an acceptance.

#27 Keisha Davis on 07.04.10 at 4:46 pm

Maybe it should be about uniqueness and not race– Can someone BE a dope rapper w/ their whiteness being irrelevant? Krs-One, one of hip-hop’s greatest BLACK emcees just put out an album “It’s All Good “featuring a talented white emcee, Greenie– who also has a father at home etc;–but a whole entirely unique and different set of stories–ranging from rapping about getting women to sign prenups to going for a vasectomy– and Greenie seems to put positive spins on everything instead of playing the victim role–plus a guy like Krs-One is behind him– nowhere does he need to exploit his whiteness–except, perhaps, in the song “My Son, The Schvartze” where he turns on his racist, Jewish father..but c’mon really–why do white rappers even have to be labeled as white rappers ? Eminem came from a unique place w/ a unique story, Roth does too–and so does Krs-One’s Greenie- – sure, there are fakes and frauds in between–but there R black fakes and frauds too

#28 V on 08.10.10 at 3:33 pm

I would add that Hip Hop is for Blacks first.The others come later.No more W.A.S.P.S. lIKE eMINEM.But in another hand,we must have Whites to destroy racism because those Whites are hated by their racist brothers and sisters.But those Whiteys should keep in their minds that Hip HOP is for us first.African Americans should think to break Gangsta Rap too and listen to Public Enemy,Dead Prez,Erykah Badu,X clan,Immortal technique to be conscious and break White supremacy which is capitalism.

#29 listen to other white rappers on 01.26.11 at 6:50 am

White rappers better them Eminem
1) EDAN
2) PROMOE
3) LAZARUS JACKSON

MTV got rid of good rappers like Canibus, Mountain Brothers, KRS One, by 2001 all good rappers were wiped out from MTV and replaced by Southern rappers who have horrible English this allowed Eminem to seem to be better because he has better lyrics than a Lil Jon or Little Wayne.This allowed a generation of kids to grow up hearing bad black rappers and EM, of course they are going to think that he is better than anyone.

#30 Black Quebecois on 10.23.11 at 11:55 am

It’s like in Montreal , if you’re white rapper , you’ll get a record contract with Quebecor who exclusively distribute white people music . On the other hand , if you’re black , you’ll be labeled as a gangster and be automatically elligible of 48 months of prison .
Here in Quebec , we are living in this reality . It’s the perfect exemple of modern age white supremacy .

Just the other day they convicted a bunch a negroes under the anti-gang law for juvenile prostitution . None of the whites peoples who were clients or investors in that dirty enterprise got jail time . We see it live and direct .
I see exactly the effects , 80% of black youths in Quebec are listed as gang members or affiliates .

Try to set up a legitimate business in those conditions and then , talk to me about we live in America and we have to put racism behind us .

Over here there is definetly a white and non-white Hip-hop scene , what can we do ?

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