Rap Game Christopher Columbus

A look at pop’s colonization of hip-hop.

Two summers ago, the 2013 Video Music Awards drew a live audience of 10 million viewers who, at 9:22 p.m. on a Sunday, were treated to the spectacle of a skinny white girl twerking on national television. It was a disastrous scene, as horny, renegade Foot Locker employee Robin Thicke swung his rhinestone pelvis to the buttplate of one Miley Ray Cyrus, who, in a fit of tongue-wagging and wanton flat-assery true to the tune of “We Can’t Stop,” then proceeded to ruin everything.

In the year that followed, twerking became a pop phenomenon that was almost immediately exhausting to read or talk about. Much as Columbus “discovered” the Americas, Miley Cyrus discovered a style of dance that Southern black dancers and DJs invented in the early 1990s. Likewise last year, Lily Allen discovered satire. Katy Perry discovered Giza. Like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry is lately resilient in her provocation of progressive cultural critics. "I guess I'll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it," she told Rolling Stone in response to criticism of her walking on stage like an Egyptian. "Can't you appreciate a culture?”

Gwen Stefani asked the same question just last week, eight years after comedian Margaret Cho accused her of putting on “a minstrel show” for her touring “art project,” the Harajuku Girls.

To caricature an ethnicity is one thing. It’s tough to argue, however, that hip-hop, a largely sample-driven artform, is off-limits to tourists and scavengers. Whether pop stars, white rappers, and white fans have given more to hip-hop than they’ve taken is a loaded question these days.

Veteran Atlanta rapper T.I. is notoriously credited with the discovery and cultivation of blond, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, whose dogged, unlikely ascent bugs the shit out of people. Not without occasional provocation on Azalea’s part: In her 2012 track “D.R.U.G.S.,” which interpolates elements of Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Look Out for Detox,” Azalea raps, “When the relay starts I’m a runaway slave-master.” That won her a digital black eye, naturally. New York rapper Azealia Banks called her Australian rival out for the lyric. “I’m pro black girl,” Banks tweeted. “I’m not anti white girl, but I’m also not here for any1 outside of my culture trying to trivialize very serious aspects of it. In any capacity.”

Iggy is signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint, a fact that's lead many critics to cast T.I. as Iggy’s unfortunate co-sign and sellout benefactor. “I would like for you to raise a significant reason why [Iggy’s ascent] should be any more controversial than any other rapper,“ T.I. told Rolling Stone last August in an interview with music writer David Drake. “‘Fancy’ would have been a hit record whoever did it. It's just that she was the first one to think to do it.”

“Fancy” is the hateable breakout single from Iggy’s debut album, The New Classic. On the strength of “Fancy” featuring singer Charli XCX and “Problem” featuring singer Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea was nominated for eight VMA awards this year, more than any other artist of any genre. At the American Music Awards last month, Iggy Azalea won the fan vote tallies for Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album and Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist. “She’s tal-en-ted,” insists T.I.

At this point, now that she’s a pop mainstay, few will deny Iggy’s enviable hustle. When critical interest and commercial investment severely discount black female rappers, like Banks and Angel Haze, in favor of a white, mass-market, avowedly anonymous entertainer like Azalea, serialized frustrations are understandable. Dr. Aimee Cox, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Fordham University, wonders: “What does [appropriation] mean in terms of black women artists—and I’m not talking about Beyoncè but specifically about rap—what does it mean for the black women who have been shut out of the industry?”

​It’s tough to argue, however, that hip-hop, a largely sample-driven artform, is off-limits to tourists and scavengers.

Houston rapper Scarface described the ploy to make “Elvis the face of hip-hop,” presumably referring to Oakland rapper G-Eazy, whom Scarface has named and dissed in other recent interviews. (Through a spokesman, G-Eazy declined to comment for this article.) What’s a white rapper to do? “I just think whatever classic hip-hop is,” Azalea mused to Billboard, “the classic image of that? I don’t think that’s what it is anymore. And I’m a good example of what it could look like now.”

Hip-hop is black art. Yes, sure, there’s Rick Rubin, there’s the Beastie Boys, there’s 3rd Bass and The Cactus Album, there’s Lyor Cohen, there’s Eminem—as with any artform that’s ever sought to flourish commercially, hip-hop’s got white pioneers, engineers, and experts aplenty. Yet from inception to present day, rap is an artform that’s primarily fluent in black culture, marginalized perspectives, the accents and vernacular of the oppressed. Still, it’s an irrepressible fact of modern commerce that white kids, insufferable or not, are helping Pusha T, Bun B, and Juicy J pay various car notes.

The digital tonnage of open letters and outraged essays dedicated to white media in general, and to Miley Cyrus in particular, won't be letting up anytime soon. Three years ago, the villain was Kreayshawn, the Oakland rapper with bold earrings, brash diction, and a viral hit, “Gucci Gucci,” and fellow White Girl Mob-sters V-Nasty and Lil Debbie. In 2012, V-Nasty collaborated with Atlanta trap godfather Gucci Mane on a joint-concept mixtape titled BAYTL. At least Ke$ha had the decency to be white trash. V-Nasty for real thought she was black.

A couple years after the White Girl Mob fell out and disbanded, and now following this so-called Summer of Iggy, it’s Bay-bred rapper Lil Debbie who’s sustained the longest beyond the White Girl Mob’s initial hype off “Gucci Gucci,” with her own series of popular projects. The highlight of her latest tape, California Sweetheart 2, is a song called “Work the Middle,” a ratchet riff on late R&B singer Aaliyah’s crucial sex jam “Rock the Boat.”

As Kreayshawn has taken a sort of maternity leave from hip-hop infamy, Debbie is recording, touring, collaborating, destined to break out of L.A., a demographically tense, image-conscious city where she hardly fits in. “I’m a odd-looking girl,” Debbie tells me. “I’m short, I’m little, I’m 103 pounds, and my music is based off of people telling me I can’t make it. I think people just connect with that no matter what race it is, because it’s so relatable.”

Lil Debbie, a party rapper, isn’t so wrapped in gangsta mythology. She’s not cruising for a new, exotic persona. “I rap,” Debbie says, “but I’m not this voluptuous, thick girl with big titties and a big ass. I’m not crazy out there rapping about shooting people and shit.” Debbie is hood insomuch as she is, indeed, irrepressibly working class. Drawl, cornrows, and all.

Jezebel, a popular online platform for feminist critique of popular culture, frequently calls white artists to account for the appropriation of marginalized cultures. Recent targets include Lana Del Rey, Macklemore, and Miley. “Dressing up like an entire culture and calling it ‘fashion’ is offensive,” Hillary Crosley writes of Del Rey’s imitation of “Latina Gangsta Girl” chic for her 2013 art+music video project “Tropico.” In the website’s definitive essay on all contemporary manners of appropriating black culture, former Jezebel editor Dodai Stewart argues that Miley Cyrus is using her black backup twerkers as “props,” which seems a loaded way of saying that she’s using her backup dancers as backup dancers. Of course Miley’s the star of the show. That’s how solo pop stardom tends to play out.

Fordham’s Dr. Cox stresses that the offense is in the disparity of consequences: thuggishness and “dyke” aesthetic work punkish wonders for white, female performers, in contrast with the stigmas and perils that black women face when they wear similar things. “It’s tricky when we use the word appropriation,” she says. “We just use it to say they are stealing something and making money off of it, but I think there is something more dangerous that is happening. Not only in terms of the music industry—there are already limited spaces for black artists—but it does something dangerous for the creative potential of black women that has virtually disappeared.”

Banks has said as much about her own stature, which has diminished since her breakout hit, “212,” in 2011. “The whole trend of white girls appropriating black culture was so corny,” she recently told Pitchfork while promoting her newly released, independent debut album, three years in the making. Banks, a hardened Harlem rapper who’s rather unflappable herself, stresses that she isn’t necessarily offended by the career successes of Azalea, Gwen Stefani, and Fergie. “All the things I’m trying to run away from in my black American experience are all the things that they’re celebrating,” Banks said. “If they want to be considered oversexualized and ignorant every time they open their fucking mouth, then fucking take it.”

"WHAT I SEE IN WHITE
CRITICISM OF RAP IS AN UNWILLINGNESS/INABILITY
TO DEAL WITH BLACK ARTISTS
AS WHOLE BEINGS."

—KRIS EX

Lil Debbie is avowedly ratchet. Even after the great White Girl Mob backlash of 2012, Lil Debbie doesn’t regard herself as apart from or displacing of black artists; she is hyphy by nature. “The only people that I was fan girl for were people who were local artists. Husalah, Jay Stone, the Jacka, Goapele—people from my hometown,” she says. “I was like 12 and my step-sister’s cousin was playing Mac Dre. That’s just how you grow up. The Bay has such a thick culture, and it’s such a small area. You enrich in it, you take part, and you live it. We’re really ghost-riding the whip. Everybody from the Bay has taken part in those Bay activities.”

Lil Debbie wouldn’t be the first rapper to insist that her music is true to life, a sincere reflection of her lifestyle, her complexities, and her community. “Hip-hop is not about mimicking blackness,” Dr. Cox says. In the course of our conversation, Dr. Cox and I agreed that hip-hop is rather driven by a desire to provoke, to reflect experiences of otherwise marginalized people, and to tell certain truths. “I remember growing up the hardest black boys in the hood were bumping the Beastie Boys,” Dr. Cox tells me. “Jewish boys from the East Coast who were rapping about what they knew.”

Like Katy Perry (and rather unlike Miley Cyrus), Lil Debbie acknowledges that even the most daring musical genre must draw lines of respect, if not full-fledged maturity. “If you’re fucking out of line, you’re out of line,” she says. “If what you say is offensive, it’s offensive.” Still, the broader angst concerns whether, and to what degree, Lil Debbie’s dress and slang and mannerisms and very presence are offensive. In any case, I can’t imagine her apologizing.

Earlier this year, legendary Roots crew drummer Questlove, in an effort as exhaustive as it was quixotic, launched a six-part investigation of hip-hop and black cool via Vulture, the Millennial web stake of New York magazine. In a year where banner rap magazines XXL and the Source shuttered their print editions (for now, at least) as they struggle to renew their credibility and cultivate their online readership, Questlove’s decision to launch a historical argument about black identity in New York magazine, of all venues, is a rather distressing abandonment of black media and hip-hop culture’s native channels. (The six-part essay ran unedited by New York, possibly because no editor employed by the magazine had any clue what Questlove was on about.)

It’s a strange coalition of black reactionaries (e.g., Lord Jamar) and progressive pop media that’s committed its snark to the cause of clowning white people out of hip-hop. The blacklash to the whitewash is perhaps a reaction to rap’s critical landscape, which is significantly whiter than the genre itself.

Kris Ex, an L.A.-based music critic who first started covering hip-hop in 1994 for ego trip, suggests that cynical industry hype and rap criticism have both failed hip-hop in ways more damaging than the cluelessness of any one artist. “They don’t understand black intelligence,” Ex says, indicting several mass-market publications—Noisey, Complex, the New York Times. “What I see in white criticism of rap is an unwillingness/inability to deal with Black artists as whole beings.”

“Migos are all about the flow, but no one’s having the discussions around what it means when some kids from Atlanta who are barely in their 20s are posing with thousands of dollars worth of cash for photos," Ex says. "I see a lot of digital ink about the ‘Migos flow’ and almost none about the Migos mindset.”

“Black cool,” “black intelligence”; these concepts hint at the breadth and complexity of black experience that, in most cases, is diluted and muted in U.S. pop culture. While mainstream critics may feign progressive sympathy for the socioeconomic context that produces a Chief Keef, or the ethnic pride that animates a song like Kendrick Lamar’s self-esteem anthem “i,” the biggest publishers of rap criticism seem removed, by several degrees, from marginalized life in American projects.

The breadth and complexity of black experience, in most cases, is diluted and muted in U.S. pop culture.

The murders of Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice at the hands of brutal police have rekindled fan and critical desperation for hip-hop to stand for, well, something. Without wanting to turn homicide vigils into celebrity spectacle and album promo, critics like Kris Ex and artists like Azealia Banks and Chuck D have warned that hip-hop’s integration has, to some extent, muddled the genre’s voice and sapped its radical mindset. In her latest rant against Iggy Azalea, Banks criticized Iggy’s limp embrace of black culture. “its funny to see people Like Igloo Australia silent when these things happen,” Banks tweeted. “Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren't huh?”

“Rappers owe us nothing but music,” Ex conceded in a recent essay at Pitchfork. “If there's to be a call to hold rappers and hip-hop blogs accountable, that same call has to extend to Pitchfork and sites like it, as well. The world around us is not disconnected from the art the we make and ingest and entities that pretend otherwise don't deserve your time.”

The frustration isn’t just that musicians and critics fumble these considerations of black experience. Kris Ex rather suggests that the infectious whiteness of hip-hop and rap criticism, and the resounding whiteness of pop culture, is an end run around black perspective altogether. “Kim Kardashian is [U.S. media’s] way of championing a black woman without having to deal with a black woman,” Ex says. Azealia Banks, for one, might agree.

As the most scorned and marginalized demographic in the U.S. (and in hip-hop itself), black women are the most creatively endangered by hip-hop’s gentrification. While the intramural rivalries of Iggy Azalea vs. Azealia Banks and Nicki Minaj vs Lil’ Kim are ego battles, for the most part, it’s true that, in both cases, the superstar is the more pop, more accessible, more universally beautiful rapper, and the underdog is the grittier bitch. “If we talk about black women who perform in the same way [as Iggy Azalea],” Dr. Cox says, “they are viewed as thuggish, dyke-ish, in ways that are very much negative.”

Dr. Mark Naison, a retired political activist who now also teaches at Fordham, hadn’t even heard of Iggy Azalea until I sent him my request for an interview. By the time we spoke via phone a week later, Dr. Naison had found his way to the music video for Iggy Azalea’s earliest, pre-”Fancy” hit, “Pu$$y,” which features a black boy draped over Iggy’s shoulders as she sways on a project stoop and narrates stages of intercourse, from oral foreplay to orgasm. “Appalling,” Dr. Naison spat before I’d asked him my first question. We then discussed strip clubs.

Within the past year, under circumstances that I’ll be so kind as not to disclose, Dr. Naison found himself in Vegas, in lively nightclub company, face-to-face with a stripper pole installed for patron use, DIY. “The whole scene was mostly middle class men and women,” Dr. Naison recalls. “As many women as men, letting go their inhibitions in the most astonishing way, some of which I can’t even talk about, to this music, which was all eroticized, rather boring hip-hop filled with ghetto-centric eroticism and artists varying in race, nationality, and gender.”

Even white artists who do agonize such good faith and privilege-awareness, a la Macklemore, risk a general backlash to their existence unless their talent is unprecedented, a la Eminem. Music critics fond of rappers who are exotic and/or bizarre turn stingy when the beat switches to Lupe Fiasco, J. Cole, Talib Kweli, Cormega, or other rappers who’ve dedicated much of their songwriting to earnest discussion and defenses of black culture. While adored street rappers like Jeezy, Boosie, Freddie Gibbs, Lil Durk, and Dreezy offer a balance of turn-up, vengeance, and proletarian pathos, the overall climate, including the mainstream, is less receptive to conscious, protest-driven rap than hip-hop culture was in Public Enemy’s heyday.

“This is club music,” Dr. Naison complains. “To which young people, mostly with some money in their pockets, the majority white though, very global, Latin Americans, Asians, all letting loose- getting drunk and letting loose to this music. The next day, they got a cabana at the pool. It’s the same music. So I’m thinking, this is the audience of Iggy Azalea.”

If you think it all through to terminal logic, Dr. Naison’s observation suggests the audience of Iggy Azalea includes (1) a reformed ATL dopeboy, (2) a proudly black, immutably radical rap critic, (3) a white, Baby Boomer professor of rock and hip-hop history at Fordham University, and (4) aforementioned white professor’s Gen X son. And (5) 27-year-old me, I suppose. We are all hip-hop now.