Blacking It Up: Hip Hop, Race and Identity

By Guest Contributor VC, cross-posted from Postbourgie

Not long ago I had the pleasure of seeing a documentary released by California Newsreel entitled Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity by filmmaker Robert Clift. The film opens by taking us on a kind of behind-the-scenes look at white american suburban culture in a way that mass media rarely does.

We see high school dance team routines that include bandanas and hip-hop-inspired choreography. We’re introduced to white people who have dealt with harassment from their white peers for allegedly  “acting” black. We hear from personalities of different occupations and opinions (from Paul Mooney to Russell Simmons) concerning their thoughts on race in hip-hop and the ways in which white participation plays into the racial history of music in America. It is basically an entertaining and very well-thought-out exploration of the racial, residential and historical aspects that influence how we begin to consider the complex and ever-enduring question of where to “draw lines” when discussing white enjoyment and/or consumption of black cultures.

One of the things that stood out to me about the documentary was that it historicizes white involvement in hip-hop in a way that many critics and commentators fail to do. White people have long had a fascination with black people, hence the whole “blackface” thing, and all of its earlier and later, sometimes-not-so-subtle manifestations. There was Amos ‘n’ Andy and Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman — people who are not only well-known in their fields but even hold titles of “king,” for example, amongst a host of talented performers and in some cases, originators, of their styles. At one point in the doc, Amiri Baraka recites what he calls a “loku” that is something along the lines of, “If Elvis Presley is King, who is James Brown? God?”

It was only apt that I happened to see this documentary shortly before discovering this video of two girls imitating rapper Lil B’s video for “I Cook”. (For the Record, I found this while I was on Lil B’s website, which I frankly had no business being on and have henceforth concluded is brake fluid for brain cells. But I was there because this guy had a sold out show at the Highline Ballroom a few weeks ago and has been gaining a (cult-like) following with his puzzling balance of over-the-top vulgarity and endearing sincerity.) On his site, the rapper encourages people to submit videos of themselves remaking his videos. And while this can disguise itself as a harmless thing, there is something to be said about a figure such as Lil B, a black male rapper to say the least, encouraging people to perform him.

Upon being appalled at a couple of the Lil B fan videos — and since my very exciting meditation on white people and the blues —I began to reflect on these matters of white people and hip-hop, white people and the blues, white people and blackness. And it has crossed my mind that these matters, like many, have a lot to do with privilege and entitlement — neither of which is generally a conscious influence, but the fact is white people (at large) have the option to pick from identities.

As the black female lead said to her white lover in Memphis: A New Musical, “You can go back to being white whenever you want to.” And even the implication that one ever “leaves” their whiteness is a bit misleading, because truly, skin privilege is something that one cannot dress/sing/dreadlock/punk out of (although there are surely ways to consciously address it and perhaps even eschew it). In the documentary, there is a clip where pop singer Empire Isis, a blonde-haired girl with dreadlocks, laments on the rigidity of identity. She stresses how people always want things to fit into a box. The amusing thing is, the “box” she refers to hardly applies to her with the same strictness and consequences that it does Other people. She enjoys a kind of fluidity that comes with power: rebellion within a privileged class. Hippies, punks and “wiggers” all jiving on a thin line over the safety net of whiteness.

Then there is the entitlement,  which reveals itself in very profound ways. As a friend pointed out to me during a discussion about blues music, white people have a history of wanting to be able to enjoy certain parts of folks’ artistic and cultural production, while being reluctant (or downright unwilling) to engage other parts of their experiences. For example, many people may be comfortable buying certain CDs or hanging certain posters on their walls — typically because they feel a genuine connection to the expression — but are unlikely to attend a speech by a black intellectual or to have read works by black writers.

It’s an odd (and virtually impossible) endeavor to divorce a people’s cultural production from their *culture*, including their intellectual production, and the social and political climates that cradle it. And in a place where all of us are used to consuming art, people have a really huge problem with the notion that some art *may* not be produced for “public” (meaning their own) consumption. And what’s more, people are oftentimes adamantly adverse to educating themselves about the intellectual or political climates that shape the art they so easily enjoy.

This all to say that when we are looking at something as multidimensional as white involvement with black music, there are many, many particulars to ponder, raise eyebrows at, and in some cases, outright detest. Things like privilege and entitlement, which I consider two of the most common inhibitors to people understanding race, racism and their role in things, are just a couple of forces to keep in mind when contemplating the questions Clift poses and so carefully inspects in his illuminating film: When is it adoration and when is it mockery? What’s individuality and what’s stereotype? When is it fun, and when is it “blacking up“?