By Ted Jamison
What does it mean to be a white rapper? Where is their place in a genre whose origins they technically took no part in? Historically, when whites appropriate black music forms, conflicts arise. These conflicts are usually based upon the problematic influence or misuse of white privilege in the appropriation process. It goes like this: whites assimilate within the genre and employ their own inherent cultural capital and visibility to dominate it. We have seen this progression in jazz, blues, and even rock music. As we turn our eyes to hip hop, a genre in which artists like Eminem and Macklemore have been exceedingly successful, we are hit with a question. How do we handle successful white rappers while at the same time acknowledging and addressing their privilege as white males within the genre?
White Privilege: A Working Definition
What exactly is “white privilege”? In her text, White Women, Race
Matters, Frankenburg defines white privilege in terms of its inherent benefits such as, “race privilege…dominance…seeming normativity [and] structured invisibility” (Frankenburg 6). Similarly, in “Constructing ‘The Day After’: Goodie Mob, Exaggerated Radical Contingency and the Metaphysics of Supremacy,” Driscoll defines white privilege as “an ideological narrative of domination…that understands white Western values and mores…as normative and/or innately better than alternatives” (Driscoll 21). These definitions present white privilege as emblematic of race-based inequality in society. I actively identify this inequality as an injustice.
White Privilege in Music (and Hip Hop):
Having identified definitions as to what white privilege is, the next step is to examine its presence in music. Hip hop scholar Trisha Rose aptly states, “there is abundant evidence that white artists imitating black styles have greater economic opportunity and access to larger audiences than black innovators” (Rose 5). In other words, the benefits resulting from white privilege (as identified by Frankenburg and Driscoll) translate directly into profitability and listenership in music. Put in the context of hip hop, we see the potential of white rappers, who experience greater success and visibility as a result of their privilege, erasing those who rap from the margins of society. Given the importance of hip hop as a source of vocal validation to marginalized populations, the threat of whites silencing this voice with their inherent privilege within the genre is an injustice to be addressed.
Hip Hop’s Resilience and a Potential Solution:
We must not forget the potential of hip hop to withstand such problematic appropriation. Religious and hip hop scholars Smith and Jackson’s The Hip Hop Church, explain that, though hip hop music is “sold to 70 percent more whites than blacks…these ethnic groups have been able assimilate into each other through hip hop without watering down [its] style and message” (Smith 99). Here we have a statement attesting to hip hop’s resilience in the face of racial appropriation and its potential to withstand the influence and “musical colonization” of white culture. Regardless, I argue white privilege in hip hop remains an injustice that must be actively addressed for the benefit of the genre and black culture as a whole.
How do we address this injustice? Driscoll claims white privilege “require[s] deep reflection by whites of their own radical contingency if the metaphysics of white supremacy is to be dismantled” (Driscoll 24). But has there been any evidence of white rappers practicing this sort of necessary “deep reflection”? Macklemore is a white rap artist who exhibits tendencies of a well-socialized, middle class, privileged white male. For instance, he is open about having attended four-year Evergreen College and graduating with a degree. In 2005 Macklemore released an album that included a track bluntly titled, “White Privilege.” Throughout the song, Macklemore takes a critical look at his privilege as a white male rapper and checks upon the benefits of his cultural capital as a white male in the hip hop circuit. His analysis is straight forward and without euphemism. In the song lyrics Macklemore acknowledges, “white rappers’ albums really get the most spins” (Macklemore, CD). Not only does Macklemore identify his privilege in the song, but he also recognizes it as problematic. In the same song he raps, “the face of hip hop has changed a lot since Eminem, and if he’s taking away black artists’ profits I look just like him” (CD). Here, Macklemore draws attention to the potential of whites’ appropriation of the genre to erase its black originators. Later, he takes this critique of white privilege in rap to a whole new level when he states, “Hip hop is gentrified and where will all the people live…being pushed farther away because of what white people did” (CD). Here, Macklemore employs the metaphor of gentrification in his address of white privilege’s “residence” in hip hop music. Throughout “White Privilege” Macklemore does an admirable job of “reflecting deeply” on the injustice of white privilege in the hip hop genre, furthering the prospect of an eventual “dismantling” of white privilege.
While this is well and good, he takes an interesting departure from this approach later in his career with the release of The Heist in 2012. By this point, Macklemore had “blown up” in the hip hop music scene causing his visibility and cultural and economic capital to increase exponentially. Along with these heightened amounts of privileged capital came an interesting shift in his ideological content…a shift away from Driscoll’s theory of positive “deep reflection” on white privilege. In fact Macklemore uses both the lyrics and the images in the music video for “Can’t Hold Us” to flaunt his white privilege with no apparent checks or critique of its problematic significance.
In the opening of the music video, Macklemore (fully attired in a wolf pelt coat with elaborate wolf’s head hood) approaches an elderly, loin-clothed black man who offers him a folded flag with the album name “The Heist” printed on it. Macklemore proceeds on an epic quest for the duration of the video, ending with the flag’s placement on the Seattle Space Needle. The flag exchange as well as the flag itself bring up problematic colonial connotations. The image presents Macklemore as receiving authenticity and permission to progress and pioneer within hip hop for the greater good of the genre. However, the flag is not representative of progress or innovation within the genre, but rather its systematic colonization at the hands of white appropriation.
The overt colonial imagery continues into the video with repeat images of Macklemore and his posse on an old fashioned tall ship, as well as shots of Macklemore in full colonial captain’s dress. This is quite problematic when put into the context of the fixed narrative of slavery (slave ships, middle passage) that is continually referenced in hip hop lyrics. In no way does this use of colonial imagery provide any of the “deep reflection” that Driscoll advocates. If anything, this imagery works to strengthen the opposing side, glorifying the infallible white modern day colonist, claiming hip hop for his/her own.
In their work, religious scholars Pinn and Miller highlight the distress and chaos in the history of shifting black geography, whether transported in slave ships or evicted from soon-to-be razed buildings in the 70’s South Bronx. They argue that hip hop provides a coping mechanism for black culture to deal with such historic geographic chaos. In contrast, Macklemore’s lyrics in “Can’t Hold Us” flaunt his increased mobility, a product of his privilege, to the point of extravagance. For instance, in a fit of braggadocio Macklemore states, “labels out here can’t tell me nothing…we give it to the people, spread it across the country” (Macklemore CD). Of course Macklemore can easily disseminate his music due to his privileged status and increased social capital, visibility, and mobility. As he said it best himself in “White Privilege,” “white rappers records get more spins.” Furthermore, one cannot deny the colonial hints in the concept of “spreading” the music “across the country” like a form of geographic conquest.
It has been made clear that in the lyrics and in the images of “Can’t Hold Us,” Macklemore does not “deeply reflect” (via Driscoll) upon his white privilege as he did in the 2005 song, “White Privilege.” Instead, Macklemore actively flaunts his privilege in the form of over-colonial imagery and exaggerated references to his own opportunity, visibility and mobility. In doing so, Macklemore directly contradicts Driscoll’s solution to the prospect of dismantling white privilege, thus perpetuating white supremacy and its figurative immortality.