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.
Roth 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.
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?