How's A White Girl Supposed To Love Rap?

When this article was first conceived, I intended to make the argument that my love for rap is pure and therefore should be allowed to thrive unchallenged.
Publish date:
March 7, 2013
music, race, entertainment, cultural appropriation, rap, cultural tourism

After writing my first xoJane article, I began to rethink my views about rap cultural tourism and cultural appropriation.

Before writing that article I never had the medium to articulate my frustrations and anger at having my (a minority in terms of sexual orientation) -- space invaded by the majority. After examining my understanding of cultural tourism a little more closely, I began to wonder if it was something I am guilty of myself.

When this article was first conceived, I intended to make the argument that my love for rap is pure and therefore should be allowed to thrive unchallenged. I was going to tell you how my love of words in any form makes rap’s verbal acrobatics existing and, sometimes, more emotionally rewarding than any other musical medium.

I’ll still lay a case for why this white girl loves rap, but now I’d like to ask how to go about loving rap as well. How can I profess to love for something that does not -- and should not -- belong to me? Isn’t it OK to love something without possessing it? Can’t I appreciate rap without somehow detracting from rap? What about relating?

In my case, I’m talking about appreciation rather than participation; I don’t want to make rap, I just want to listen to rap and maybe have a conversation about it.

I love rap because I love words and rap is the most verbal medium in music today. Hearing a clever turn of phrase is to me what seeing a free throw might be to a basketball fan. (I don’t know anything about basketball so pardon that analogy.)

Rap today is simply revolutionary, not to mention incredibly popular and lucrative. Millions of dollars are poured into the rap industry every day and rap songs (of varying quality, like any other type of music) dominate the airwaves. With all that money, effort, and attention being poured into rap, why shouldn’t it be good and why shouldn’t I like it? 

Another appealing aspect is the acceptance of anger in rap -- being angry is not only tolerated but encouraged, because the world is fucked up and unfair and it’s OK to be angry about that. You should be angry about that. No one says “You’d have a valid point if you could only be a little sweeter, sweetie” to rappers. Good rap makes its case pleasurably, letting the beat pause your mind long enough for you to hear, really hear, what the artist has to say.

Other music makes me feel; rap makes me feel and hear.

Even emotions aside from anger like angst, hope, frustration, giddiness, arousal, attractive, bitterness, and acceptance seem a little more tangible in rap because when I listen to rap I’m listening to the stories behind those feelings, not just the feelings themselves. Whatever it is rap leaves behind, it’s a hell of a lot more real than whatever indie-alt-rock mixtape Urban Outfitters has carefully curated to my demographic.

As a lesbian, I respond to the common themes of alienation and frustration commonly expressed in rap. This is doubtless not the intended effect, much like I am doubtless not the intended audience.

Sometimes I wonder if a rapper’s bravado might be a way of hiding the fear they feel when facing a world that doesn’t seem to want them the way my bravado sometimes basks mine. I’ve never harassed by the police for the color of my skin, but I’ve been harassed by men for my gender more times than I can count and I still can’t hold my girlfriend’s hand while walking down the street without feeling a twinge of terror so deeply ingrained I know it will never disappear completely.

The relationship between white people and rap has been a rather explosive issue in the media recently. The catalyst for much of this debate comes from a surprising source: Chief Keef, the twee yet vicious Chicago rapper who rose to fame when "I Don’t Like" became an Internet hit.

When Chief Keef’s first studio album "Finally Rich" dropped in December 2013, white critics were gleeful; African-American critics decidedly less so. It didn’t take too long for someone to point out the discrepancy and gauntlets were thrown on the blood spattered virtual battleground were so many had fallen before: Twitter.

Dave Bry of New Republic did an excellent rundown of the whole affair, but essentially what went down is this: Brian "B.Dot" Miller, an editor at Rap Radar, took issue with Spin Magazine’s Jordan Sargent awarding Chief Keef’s album an unusually high score of 8/10.

Incensed by Sargent’s cultural tourism, he sent a series of infuriated tweets, saying, “Please stop writing about my culture. Seriously. Thank you,” and, “There’s nothing worse than cultural tourists writing about the music of MY culture.” He explained, “MY culture is hiphop and I’m sensitive about my shit. It’s defined by cultural experience and it's clear that the writer’s ‘just visiting’.”

Sargent responded, people on Twitter responded, bloggers responded, everyone seemed to be really RESPONDING to the notion that black culture and rap are so deeply entwined that the two cannot be separated far enough for white people to be able to accurately judge the respective worth of a rap album.

I’m not a music critic (although I have written for a music magazine before, doing mostly interviews) so I don’t feel licensed or even tempted to analyze whether or not B.Dot is correct. I think his argument has real merit, much as I wish it didn’t, because I’ve been pretty pissed off by straight cultural tourists in my time and I’ll never have the audacity or arrogance to tell a minority that what they’re feeling about their culture is unwarranted.

Like Bry, I am “a person who likes to think that I can compartmentalize various elements of artistic expression, and appreciate music without any agenda." And, as he goes on to write, "It’s worth ruminating on how deeply and insidiously white privilege and black lack thereof infect every aspect of life in America -- even something as simple as enjoying a good pop song... We want it to be different, us well-meaning white people... We don’t want to be outsiders; we don’t want for there to be such a thing as outsiders. We want it to be different, but it’s not.”

Women and rap is always a complex issue, and recently one (white) female rap critic and ardent fan wrote a post for Vice’s Noisey to ask: Why Are You So Intimidated By Girls Liking Rap Music. In the brilliant and often hilarious article, Meaghan Garvey took the boys at Complex to task for publishing a sexist as well as painfully unfunny list called “10 Signs Your Girl Listens To Too Much Rap Music."

Garvey takes her white male rap critic & consumer peers to task for relegating women to the "outsider" role in rap that they find so insulting when applied to them because of their whiteness. Garvey is on point when she says “... protectively fencing in a culture can only lead to stagnation. This doesn’t only conveniently apply to your white middle class childhood guilt; it also means that women’s opinions on rap music are actually pretty important, because the crazy thing about circle jerks is that they are circular... The irony of white men, who are-perhaps for the first time (which may actually explain a lot here) -- forced to repeatedly defend their place at the table of contemporary rap discourse, turning to apply a similar stubborn, protective exclusivity on women’s place in rap, is not lost here.

So there’s the catch 22 of this whole debate: On the one hand, there are the concepts of cultural tourism, ownership, infringement, sanctity of minority spaces, and authenticity of response. I think any quasi-enlightened person can agree that white people should be allowed to like hip-hop, as well as any quasi-enlightened man can agree that there is more than enough room at the rap discourse table for women.

Yet as a sexual minority myself, I can understand why black people might get pissed by a white person judging their culture, and have felt my own fury when someone from a majority comes into my minority space and treats it as their own. That’s fucking ridiculous and unbearably privileged -- not to mention straight-up rude.

To me, what it all comes down to is intent and will of the artists themselves. Sure, they create songs for the sheer artistic pleasure of it all, but ultimately rap (like any kind of music) is being produced in order to profit from the American population. You can’t profit from people who haven’t listened to your music, and white people buy music like anyone else.

It’s the risk of exposure that all artists have to take: wanting someone’s money but not wanting to put up with the bullshit that comes from taking pretty much anyone’s money. Once you sell someone something, they become a customer, and as anyone who has ever worked in customer service can tell you: customers always come with mad bullshit.

We all come up against critics who don’t understand our work because they don’t have our background, but they’re still going to react to what we put in front of them. All they (and I) can really do is learn how to react thoughtfully, and only after being absolutely sure to listen.