Asher Roth and the Politics of Race in Hip Hop

by Latoya Peterson

I am officially a hip hop curmudgeon. After a weekend spent in Houston listening to “Da Stanky Leg” and “the Halle Berry” on local radio, I am officially declaring myself one of those annoying ass old heads who is always waxing about the good old days. Notice here, I’m not talking about the “back when hip-hop was political” nostalgia – oh, no no. Party-hop, politics, whatever – I miss lyrics and lyricism. When a song had multiple verses and a chorus for me to memorize, not just some hollerin’ and foolishness. After listening to my homegirl V-sheezy explain why Lil’ Wayne may very well be the best rapper currently in the game (and she made a compelling case after explaining the current crop of voices on the mainstream airwaves), I retired to the Verve Remixed 4 and decided that I needed to embrace the fact that while I love hip-hop culture, I’m over rap. Just give me the production and let people who can really sing do their thing.

So it kind of goes with out saying that I had negative interest in listening to the latest flash in the pan, Asher Roth. Someone young, white, and privileged, rapping about being young, white, and privileged? Man, I could go watch that Smirnoff Tea Partay ad for that. At least that was intended to be comedy.

But apparently, Asher Roth has been busy.

In addition to inadvertently exposing some of the more interesting racial dynamics in hip-hop, he’s also been running his mouth about a few other things – like what African rappers need to be doing while he’s talking about how much he loves college or how he’s hanging with “Nappy Headed Hoes”. Here are some of the best bits from the Asher-pocalypse:

M. Dot, Model Minority – Asher Roth x Don Imus x Nappy Headed Ho’s

Apparently, Asher Roth was recently on the Rutgers campus and tweeted that he was hanging out with some “Nappy Headed Hoe’s.” He then tried to clean it up and recant by saying that “he was trying to make fun of Don Imus.” He apologized as well.

Recently my post, “Michael Baisden is a Misogynist Pig“, ran on Racialicious. The post is about the fact that Michael Baisden stated on his radio show that a wife “should just lay there and take it”, if her husband want’s to have sex and she doesn’t. One of the commenters, “Nina” who was open, honest and thoughtful in several her comments, said that she felt that Baisden was being hyperbolic. She writes,

    Perhaps because I think of him as being like Chris Rock, someone who exaggerates but often has a bit of wisdom at the core of the shit talking, what I hear is the kind of thing many men say when alone. And there is the risk that he goes to far OR that listeners will take it as gospel and not hear it as hyperbole. I hear it as hyperbole, my brother and friends hear it as hyperbole but that doesnt mean everyone does.

I responded saying,

    Let me ask you this, do you think Don Imus was being Hyperbolic when he called the Rutgers women’s team Nappy Headed Ho’s?

    If he wasn’t being hyperbolic and was being racist, why should Imus not be tolerated but Baisdens comments are hyperbolic?
    Often times, I have found that people hide behind the defense of laughter when in reality it constitutes hate speech.

    Can’t sprinkle sugar on shit and call it ice cream.

Having just wrote these comments on Wednesday, you can imagine my surprise at seeing Asher Roth say the same thing,
on Twitter, on Thursday.

Why should Asher Roth be singled out when Black men call us hoes all the time?

I am not saying that Asher should not be criticized for what he has done but we need to keep it even and acknowledge that many Black rappers and Black men, and for that matter Black women, refer to Black women, reflexively, as “hoes.”

Harry Allen, Media Assassin – Fight the White Rap History Rewrite

[F]rom 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.”)

Jeremy R. Levine, Social Science Lite – Asher Roth is the Anti -”White Guilt”

Interestingly and quite arrogantly, Roth is harnessing a shtick of white privilege as he claims the authenticity of the…erm…suburbs. You know, because suburban kids can’t relate to hip-hop in its contemporary form. Why? Well, that’s a little unclear. Roth’s basic claim is that white kids in the suburbs have been consuming hip-hop for years, but have never had some one they can relate to, some one to represent them and their voices. You know, because white folks can’t relate to black folks. And, of course, because only white folks live in the suburbs. Comparing Eminem to Roth, the blog No Trivia wrote it better than I could have: “But Eminem’s use of his whiteness came from a desire to prove himself in spite of the unfortunate reputation of white rappers that came before him, not some strange sense of privilege because he’s the person actually buying rap CDs.”

In the most blatant example of white supremacy in hip-hop, Roth is absolutely obsessed with his whiteness. He doesn’t problematize his whiteness, like when Em forced us to re-think what it means to be white in his deeply personal discussions of growing up poor. No, instead Roth wants us to realize that we should like him because, well, he’s white and privileged just like us! His most recent song leak (which you can download here) details the trials and tribulations of being the next great white rapper and the subsequent comparisons to Eminem. Simultaneously, Roth reminds us that while he is no Eminem (he is from privilege and proud of it), he is unabashedly white (and therefore more relatable than those black rappers we thought we liked). Quoted in a recent New York Times piece, Roth explains the difference: “Culturally, Em was almost a black guy. My background is more stereotypically white.” That’s just great, Asher. How astute. It’s one thing to be aware of your racial identity; it’s an entirely different thing to embrace a privileged identity as your claim to superiority in a culture dominated by minority artists.

In an article from 2005, Brother Ali poignantly discussed white fans’ relationship to underground white rappers. “One of the hardest things we’re dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs,” says Brother Ali. “They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are Black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from Black people, but [their fans] don’t want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it’s the white MCs who created the styles they like. This isn’t an underground-versus-mainstream thing—it’s a racist thing.” My emphasis.

Brandon Soderberg, No Trivia – Asher Roth is a Problem

It’s never explicitly said—because if it was, he wouldn’t even be afforded the minor fame he has right now—but Roth’s rapping is not an alternative to mainstream hip-hop or capitalistic corpo-rap, but an alternative to blackness. It’s not entirely clear if Roth even realizes this (probably because he’s not thinking as hard as he thinks he is), but his contempt for most rappers mixed with statements about how he’s the kind of guy buying the music—again, and therefore not black people—sound contemptuous.

When I twittered about writing something on Asher Roth, NattheDem came back with a link I had missed. In an interview with the AP, Roth is quoted:

Roth addresses poverty and greed on the song “Sour Patch Kids.” And at his fans’ behest, Roth uploaded to his MySpace page “A Millie Remix,” a freestyle rhyme over Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” beat, criticizing rappers who boast about having millions of dollars but “don’t share, don’t donate to charity.”

“When I dropped that … (I thought) ‘You guys are always going off about how much money you have. Do you realize what’s going on in this world right now?’ All these black rappers — African rappers — talking about how much money they have. ‘Do you realize what’s going on in Africa right now?’” Roth says.

“It’s just like, ‘You guys are disgusting. Talking about billions and billions of dollars you have. And spending it frivolously, when you know, the Motherland is suffering beyond belief right now.’”

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? A lot of things came to mind when I read that quote, but none of them are printable.

Last month, Marisol LeBron sent me a video of Asher Roth covering D’Angelo’s How Does It Feel:

At the time, I had not heard of Roth, but the video twisted my stomach. Everything that was so right about the video had been perverted into all kinds of wrong.

Now, after doing a bit of reading and seeing how Roth is being championed as someone who is just expressing himself, I understand my reaction a little better.

And simply because it amuses the hell out of me – The Green Tea Partay, Smirnoff’s fake rap beef sequel: