Leaning In To Discomfort: Being a White Fan of Hip Hop

Awhile ago, I asked for blog topic suggestions.

a screen cap of a post I put on Facebook that has a blue and purple gradient and the words -- I have to do a dumb thing. Please give me blog ideas/questions so I can do a fun thing too. Ask me anything or whatever--

I love my Facebook friends. The dumb thing is over and now it’s time for ANSWERS!! And this got really long, so I’ll be breaking every answer into a separate post.

Friend Derek asked: The etiquette of being a white fan of hip hop culture?

This is both a simple and complicated question. Hip hop culture and hip hop music are different things. And hip hop culture in reality is different from hip hop culture as portrayed by the media. If you’re regularly going to local shows, if you follow the local MCs, you’ll probably realize that its not all consumerism packaged as culture. And you’ll probably also realize that there are a lot of different genres of hip hop you can be a fan of. Are you hanging out with the political mind-fuck lyricists, the word nerds, beat experts or the million million other options and combinations? Lumping all hip hop into the same basket does the art form a disservice, which is the opposite of good fan behavior.

Saying all hip hop is misogynistic, homophobic or mired in consumerism would be like saying all rock is trans-phobic because of Aerosmith’s Dude (Looks Like a Lady) without acknowledging great trans singers like Laura Jane Grace and Lucas Silveira not to mention the history of Dude (Looks Like a Lady) as a song given the era in which it was created, even though it went on to serve mockery to the very community that inspired it’s creation in the first place.

So what’s the etiquette of being a white person in hip hop space? First and foremost, liking hip hop does absolutely not give you permission to say the n-word. Even if you’re singing along to a song and the singer says it first. Just stop talking when the person on the record says the n-word. Never call N-Words in Paris by it’s full legal name, and don’t write it down either. This applies no matter how many aaahhhhhzzzzzzs you add to the end of the n-word. No matter how many individual black people try to give you a pass (that’s called internalized racism and it’s a whole other blog). It’s not your word. And if that feels bad or uncomfortable, imaging 373 years of slavery on this continent followed by near-constant oppression that continues to this day. The n-word is a small concession to make.

Oh did you grow up poor? Still no.

Are you an illegal immigrant, queer-identified, made of 27 rabbits in a trench-coat you found in an alley? No, no and no.

There are some people who will say that white people who like and listen to hip hop can’t help but be appropriative. I agree that the more privilege we have, the more we are trained to take that which isn’t ours. Not because we’re assholes, but because other people’s labor, money and bodies have been given to us as if they were ours for the taking for our entire lives.

We are trained to devour everything we love. What makes us assholes in this equation is when it’s brought to our attention that we’ve reverted to training (again) and instead of going away to have a contemplative think about this statement, we blow up and say the first thing that comes to mind. Usually something cutting or derailing meant to belittle the other person’s feelings and gas light everyone into ignoring the fact that our greatest fear has come upon us. Namely the harm we do our fellow human beings when we revert to training, which we will do throughout out lives.

However, I don’t buy into the argument that being white automatically turns someone into a heat-seeking missile of destruction without the ability to change course. First of all, not all white people experience the same level of privilege. Second of all, if marginalized people believe we can break free of our training, I have to extend that belief to all humans everywhere or I’m in danger of committing the same racist fallacy that put us in this situation to begin with.

That doesn’t mean we can forget that we have been trained to be devoured. To climb in the lion’s mouth and beg him to crunch down until we too can be converted to pure whiteness through the miracle of digestion (for example, by giving your white friend a ‘pass’ to say the n-word because his approval means more than your dignity). We must be students of history. If you love hip hop, which you should do because it’s great, then you must respect the history of white appropriation of black culture and music. You can not ignore the fact that Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and so many others struggled for years, frequently not even allowed to patronize the white-only clubs they played while The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and others sold out stadiums with the same riffs they so willfully took from their fellows without crediting them for years, if ever.

Hip hop is black art and black culture. It was built by black and brown people in black and brown neighborhoods, some of which were literally burning while white establishment did nothing and offered no assistance to their constituents. White capitalists have stolen black labor and black culture and profited off it for centuries.

Music will open your mind. It will change your life. The one true rule of being a white hip hop fan is not to forget who changed your life for you when you so desperately needed it to be changed. Always remember you are a guest in a space you didn’t make and can’t take credit for. And if that’s uncomfortable for you, you might not actually be a fan of hip hop. Or you might be reverting to training (again).