For three weeks now I’ve been pouring over this concept, trying to clearly define my stance. I’ve spent hours writing, elaborating, dissecting and then spiraling way off topic. It's complicated for me to write this, and it should be - I'm a non-black artist who actively participates in black music. I’ve sat and stared blankly at my laptop screen searching for the right words to delicately touch on the subject of white cultural appropriation while at the same time separating myself from any possible criticism I may face as a result of my perspective.
But if you’ve read any of my previous articles, or listened to any of my songs, you know I don’t do well walking on eggshells. I’m more of a ride the nuclear bomb all the way to the ground while wearing nothing but a tinfoil helmet kind of guy.
So I’m going to avoid going back over the conversation that occurred some four weeks ago as a tearful Azalea Banks expressed her frustration in regards to being a black female artist in a genre currently dominated by a white female artists, that grounds now well tread, and cut right to the heart of the issue; is hip-hop being whitewashed?
Of course, by this time everybody from Lord Jamar to Rittz has weighed in on the issue and all have made some great points. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly depending on your daily media intake, Charlamagne Tha God has stepped forward and, in my opinion, made the best argument (my favorite clips can be viewed here and here).
Whenever the topic of white appropriation of black culture comes up, there are two examples that everybody references: Rock and roll and the connections between Eminem and Elvis Presley.
In regards to rock and roll, what a lot of those who draw the comparison fail to understand or convey is that rock and roll was absorbed into popular culture a lot faster than hip-hop was. The time period between the emergence of Chuck Berry and subsequent success of Elvis Presley was very short. Yes, Elvis Presley was an exact, white replica of his predecessors, but rock and roll was created and ruled popular culture while it was still in its infant stages at a time when racial segregation was still very prominent in the United States. If anything, it should be considered a massive feat that Chuck Berry’s music even reached a white audience in the first place, let alone become the standard art form that would represent American culture for the next 50 years, and arguably even to this day. While rock and roll should be considered a black creation with its roots firmly planted in blues, boogie woogie, jazz and gospel, it was the addition of western swing and country music that ultimately rounded out the modern sound of the genre, making it a black and white collaboration.
So what happened to the black artists? Where did they all go?
Considering the racial climate in the United States at the time and the evolution of rock and roll, I would have to conclude that black artists were traded for their white counterparts in favor of “universal appeal” and profitability (more on this later).
When drawing the comparison between Eminem and Elvis Presley, there are a lot of commonalities between the two. Both artists absolutely dominated their respective genres almost immediately and were the highest selling solo acts of their time. But while Elvis Presley more blatantly stole from black artists, Eminem was the opposite - he worked within a genre that was predominantly black and carved his own path. The glaring difference between the two is that by the time Elvis Presley arrived in popular culture the complexion of rock and roll was already changing, whereas Eminem was a rare anomaly for his time.
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If there were a true comparison in regards to white artists finding success within black music, I believe that Eminem and Eric Clapton share more cultural parallels. Both artists were lone figures who worked with and helped to evolve other genres, the blues and hip-hop respectively. They were the white boys who got a pass and were respected by their black peers for their mastery of the craft itself. In short, they were so good at what they did they were undeniable. Did they benefit from white privilege? Absolutely. But they were both very careful of how much they took from the culture and were active participants in its evolution, while at the same time sharing their platform with black artists rather than pushing them out of sight.
So when drawing comparisons, I completely understand how the common thread between hip-hop and rock and roll can stand as an example of how black music has been appropriated and subsequently commanded by white artists in the past. But I also find more cultural commonalities between the essence of hip-hop and blues, which upon deeper analysis further proves that hip-hop music could never be whitewashed.
Both genres rely very heavily on a specific level of authenticity and credibility that comes out of poverty and struggle. Because of this, the core of the music itself will always be, and most certainly has to be, predominantly black in order for it to maintain its heart. Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of America’s inner city populations are black and hip-hop and blues (and jazz for that matter) are the voices of this struggle. These genres of music and the cultures they’ve created require a particular type of pain and angst, one often rooted in the pain of disenfranchisement. Once you remove the essence of these genres, they become something else altogether.
The truth is, artists like Iggy Azalea, Mac Miller and G-Eazy will always be considered novelties within hip-hop music and culture. They may sell millions of records, but they can never be the face of the genre because they lack the authenticity required. Macklemore will never replace Mos Def and Machine Gun Kelly could never be Chance The Rapper. White artists like Iggy Azalea find success in the mainstream because they are “safe” versions of their black influences, but they aren’t viewed by the community at large as being an accurate representation of it. In Iggy’s case, she's a pop artist with hip-hop elements. Nobody within even the outer circles of hip-hop culture even remotely consider her an emcee, and rightly so.
My answer to those who are sincerely concerned about the complexion of hip-hop music as it is portrayed in the mainstream, is to look further up the ladder beyond the artists. Hip-hop is a multi-billion dollar industry controlled mostly by white executives. These are the people who determine the culture’s mainstream direction and they could care less about race, except to the extent that race relates to the size checks they're recieving. White artists are more relatable to the larger white audience, therefore an Iggy Azalea will generate more money than an Azalea Banks. Cultural preservation is not on their list of priorities. At the end of the day, the bottom line is what counts and if singing Japanese clowns become the next trend, then buckle up and get ready for a bizarre ride.
The closest I’ve ever seen to a black owned record label come to true independence was in the early 2000s, when Dame Dash was attempting to jumpstart his own distribution company. Dame, being the brilliant mind that he is, knew that despite the power that Roc-A-Fella Records yielded, they would always be reliant on much larger companies to market, manufacture and distribute their albums, and as long as they were still tied to those larger compaies, Roc-A-Fella would always be beholden to them. Although Dame never did succeed in achieving his goal, this was the first step towards creating an industry that very well could one day be completely black owned and controlled.
My message to the young black entrepreneurs of the world is this: think like Dame Dash. As long as companies like Universal, Sony and Warner control the hip-hop industry, the idea of black music will be a façade. Sure, black artists will remain the face of hip-hop, but the industry that surrounds it will be white owned and operated. Independence is key. The distribution channels are there now (something that Dame Dash never had access to during the Roc-A-Fella era) so use them. While having the power of a big major label behind you may seem appealing, the future of hip-hop music is completely reliant on young visionaries who can steer and guide the culture with care while ensuring that the genre itself stays black. We don’t need more rappers, we need more leaders.
I'm sure it’s kind of weird hearing this from a half-white, half-Native American underground rapper, but it’s the truth. The future of black music is happening now, and as it stands it’s only black on the surface. You have the opportunity to take control of the industry that surrounds it, you just have to go out there and take it.
[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for DJBooth.net. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo." You can also contact him here and here.]