Black Art, White Voice: Navigating My Identity as a Hip-Hop Writer

By | one week ago
How can you comprehend what hip-hop is all about when you aren't the intended audience?
2017-05-15-navigating-my-identity-as-a-hip-hop-writer
Photo Credit: Chi Modu

It’s four in the morning, it’s too hot in my apartment to sleep, and I’m listening to Illmatic again. An empty beer bottle is sitting on my windowsill. Nothing new under the sun. Primo’s knocking; I’m caught in a wrinkle in the space-time continuum straight out of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s wet dreams, some glitch in the matrix where I find myself often, transported by this perfect work of art into another moment in another universe.  

Aside from the obvious reasons, that’s why Nas is my GOAT; every time I revisit Illmatic, I can feel his world. Taste his ambition. See the streets he walked in.

Hip-hop at it’s finest throws us into a new time and place and State of Mind. And every one of these portraits, the stories I’ve digested at countless 4 o’clocks on countless mornings, all of these moments in young Nasir Jones’ life, they’ve shaped me.

But they aren’t my stories.  

I can live there in my head for 39 minutes while Illmatic spins, but I’ll never fully understand my favorite rappers’ realities because all it takes for me to escape those New York City projects is unplugging my headphones.  

Which is why this piece can’t be about Nas and has to be about me. And hip-hop. And what my identity means to me as a white voice in a black culture, why I care about all of this stuff so much in the first place, and why as a listener and lover of rap, you have a responsibility to care too.    

I was born wayyyyyy off the grid, deep in the mountains in Northwestern Montana. Thousands of miles and thousands of degrees removed from Queensbridge, New York. But I still actively identified with hip-hop’s undercurrents of struggle from a very young age; for most of my childhood, everyone I knew was dirt poor. The Native American Reservation I grew up on made Eminem’s trailer park in 8 Mile look like Beverly Hills.  

I remember very clearly the first time I pushed play on my Walkman CD player, in fifth grade, with the first rap album I ever owned loaded into the chamber: Nelly’s Country Grammar.  Earlier that day at school, I’d swapped a Toys “R” Us skateboard for a jacket of bootlegs, a trade I’ve never regretted for a minute.

Nelly was in that first sleeve, Em in the second, followed by a procession of every hot drop from Hard Knock Life through Power in Numbers that you could find on Limewire (RIP) without downloading a skin flick or ringtone. That night, hiding under my covers with a Calvin and Hobbes collection, a flashlight and that jacket of hand-labeled CDs, I didn’t sleep a wink. Nothing new under the sun.  

By the time I’d made it through Luda and OutKast and Absolute Power and God Loves Ugly, there was no turning back. I was all in, my parents’ classic rock collection had lost its allure. Middle school me knew every word to every track on Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and thought that meant I “got” rap in some important way.

Looking back at that G-Unit sporting, bleached hair styling, pierced ear flaunting 13-year-old, I’m caught between laughing and cringing at the naivety. True story: until I moved to California at the start of high school, I’d never even seen a black person in the flesh.

Yeah. Rural America.

With such a far removed experience and no frame of reference to realize why that mattered, how in the hell could I really comprehend what hip-hop was all about?

That’s not to say that in order to understand the nuances of this art form and movement you need to move more weight than Jay or rep gang colors harder than Snoop or count more baseheads in your family tree than De La Soul. But if you want to contribute to hip-hop culture in a meaningful way, like I currently aspire to, you sure as shit need to dig a level deeper than 50’s glamorized lyricism or even Nas’ gritty portraitures.

The second time that I was completely certain that I had it all figured out, almost a decade had passed since the Slim Shady-lite era. In this installment of Blissfully Ignorant White Guy, I'm a sophomore in college at the hippy-dippy liberal-pinko UC Santa Cruz. And after a year of pre-reqs, I’m taking my first “cool” political science class that I actually give a fuck about; “Poli 121, Black Politics.”  

For our final paper, we could write about whatever our curious young minds fancied, as long as we could make it about the history and the politics of the Black experience in America. Naturally, I called dibs on N.W.A.  

The pieced killed. Solid A, the professor talked about it in class on our last day, golden star. What an evolved, unique, interesting young intellectual the dirty white kid from the rez who never tied his shoelaces had grown up to be. Except I didn’t have any albums down word for word anymore and hadn’t come even close to the level of understanding I thought those As on my transcript bestowed upon me.  

Even if you’re reading all of the right books, thinking about them in all the right ways, questioning and learning from them as you touch each page, it’s just as easy to flip those texts and tomes closed as it is to unplug your earbuds and walk away from Queensbridge. A stack of Poli-sci theorems and an artistic analysis of “Fuck tha Police” is just as far removed from the day-to-day experience of being black in America as that G-Unit fresh middle schooler in Montana was.  

And if you really want to “get it,” like I’ve consciously or subconsciously been chasing for my entire relationship with hip-hop, this is important. Acknowledging and defining the separation between my life and my struggles and the life and struggles of every rapper I look up to has been at the crux of my flawed and ongoing evolution in thinking about identity thus far.

Understanding hip-hop requires understanding the music’s place and roots in the black community’s long struggle for equality in America; the songs you hear on the radio today might feel far removed from the Black Panthers and the legacies of slavery, but those foundations and influences are always going to be relevant.  

Because this is fundamentally black music, black history, black art, black culture.  

And because as a white man who thinks and writes and immerses myself in this culture as much as I can, it’s important to me that I never wander far from those truths. Figuring out who I can and should be and what I can and should say as a white writer commenting on a black art form has been as much about hitting the history books as it’s been about staring in the mirror and keeping it a buck with the idiot staring back.  

One more story, this time from the much more recent future, will illustrate where I’m at now, and make this rant’s elusive punchline crystal clear. Deep in the heart of DAMN. mania, I wrote a piece called "I Quit My Tech Job Because of Kendrick Lamar" that I felt great about before submitting, and horrible about almost immediately after my editors clicked “publish.”  

In redux: I walked away from a potential career in Silicon Valley because To Pimp a Butterfly was just that magical for me in one particular moment, but the way that I told the story rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. For many, the whole narrative was really about white privilege and the blessed position I was in, where stepping away from a nice salary was even an option.  

Now, if the 1,500 words up to this point have clarified anything, I hope it’s that I do in fact spend a great deal of time thinking about my skin color and the privilege that it bestows. Probably too much time. But I made the same mistakes in telling that story that I’ve been making since day one; juxtaposing my experience as a writer in this culture without fully considering or acknowledging the divide within that experience.

And you have to acknowledge the divide. You have to. I have to. That’s where I’m at now; being a white voice in a culture birthed from the black experience is always going to be problematic. Always. But there’s far too much here that I can’t live without for me to ever walk away.

I love hip-hop. I live and breathe it, as much as I can considering my limitations. Which means I feel a responsibility to speak about real issues and tell my real stories and use my voice to cast light on society’s larger realities, whenever I can. But I’m also learning that there are a time and a place to raise that voice, and a time and a place when my skin color and my experience will obscure the reception of anything valuable that voice has to offer.

After that last Kendrick piece I wrote ran, I called DJBooth kingpin Z, who’s been thinking and writing about hip-hop since before I knew what an 808 was, and who also happens to be white. I was hoping that those years of experience in a position similar to the one I find myself in would mean Z had some sort of answer for me.  

His conclusion was that there is none. There is no answer. This is a black art and I’ve got a white voice, and I always will. Always. Navigating that identity requires submitting yourself to the unknowing, being comfortable getting uncomfortable and pushing yourself to understand more, but constantly remembering that you can’t and won’t understand it all, and that’s okay too.  

I’m going to keep thinking about it. I have to. I’m going to keep navigating all of this—life and hip-hop—because there’s no other option for me. But from here on out, I’m doing so based on the fundamental premise that I don’t, in fact, get it, and I never completely will, and I have to be okay with that too.  

It doesn’t mean I will stop raising my voice. It doesn’t mean I can’t contribute something. It sure as hell doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop closing my eyes and drifting off into the Illmatic. Nothing new under the sun. All it means—my identity—is that I have to keep doing the work, and keep looking in the mirror.

And that just makes me thankful for the challenge and makes me love hip-hop even more.

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