The Whiteness of Hip Hop

Published in the Daily Eastern News
Issue date: 4/24/07
Section: Opinions

As you probably know, talk-show host Don Imus recently polluted the airwaves with a racist and sexist description of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." The Reverend Al Sharpton quickly spearheaded a campaign to fire Imus, which succeeded when his show's advertisers started bowing out.

Money rules the airwaves, and another way to drive up ratings was to show us talking heads shouting at each other about issues raised by the case. Part of this second wave of controversy has been the common charge of "black hypocrisy," which basically says, "Black rappers call their women bitches and hos all the time, and black people call each other nappy-headed too, so how can they complain when a white person uses those words?"

One problem with labeling the misogyny of mainstream rap and hip hop a "black" thing is that this kind of entertainment is only black on the surface - it's an Oreo with a lot of whiteness at the core. Surveys of those who consume rap music and images repeatedly show that about 80 percent of them are white males, and the percentage of white men behind the scenes making the biggest money from hip hop is even higher.

The Village Voice recently quoted Boots Riley of the rap group The Coup: "'My audience has gone from being over 95 percent black 10 years ago to over 95 percent white today. We jokingly refer to our tour as the Cotton Club,' he says - a reference to the 1920s and '30s Harlem jazz spot where black musicians played to whites-only audiences."

Actually, The Coup's lyrics are more politically revolutionary than misogynist or demeaning. And that's another problem with attaching simplistic labels to all of hip hop - so much of it does not contain the objectionable content paraded across our mainstream radio and TV outlets.

Many white male rap fans are like those legions of white females who flash gang signs when someone's pointing a camera at them. Media-generated depictions of blackness provide them with a sexy, slightly dangerous edginess, something they can't find in the relative blandness of whatever "white" culture seems to be.

It's not that black people don't like rap too, nor that some black stars and producers don't get rich from sexist and racist material. However, it's easy to overlook how the forces driving mainstream hip hop - which consist of primarily white corporate executives at one end and primarily white consumers at the other - are not black. Thus, blaming black community leaders for failing to condemn sexism and racism in "their own music" doesn't really make sense.

Pointing out this logical inconsistency in the common charge of "black hypocrisy" is also not another way to "blame whitey," as conservative Fox News pundit Michelle Malkin recently put it to her guest on the Imus controversy, black talk-show host Opio Sokoni. Rather, as Sokoni pointed out, we shouldn't limit our blame for the excesses of hip hop to its black performers, when it's actually a realm of entertainment where the biggest earners and the biggest buyers are white folks.

- Tim Engles, Associate English professor

back to home page