A New Shad(y) On Cultural Appropriation

Lauryn Hill, Run-DMC, Nas, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G.

For many, these names exemplify the best of a musical genre known as hip-hop. As an amalgamation of the blues, reggae, jazz, and spoken word poetry, hip-hop 1) represents a momentous artistic achievement for the African American community and 2) has become an integral part of black culture in the United States. At its origin, hip-hop allowed minorities to engage in critical discussions through means not easily satisfied by any other musical genre. As seen through songs such as “Changes”, by Tupac and “Hard Knock Life” by Jay-Z, hip-hop can be used as the impetus for serious discussions critiquing the United States’ political and socioeconomic systems. In recent media, there has been a plethora of questions raised about its appropriation by white artists. Such artists either refuse to accept how white privilege grants them substantial access to mainstream success (Iggy Azalea) or are just completely blind to the significance of race entirely (Taylor Swift). However, the aim of this blog is not to speak about the appropriation of hip hop in a negative sense. Rather, I would like to show how its use by another white artist, Marshall Mathers, allows for a positive discussion concerning the notion of “whiteness”.

Leopold Senghor, in “What is Negritude?” writes,

“Our Negritude no longer expresses itself as opposition to European values, but as a complement to them. Henceforth, its militants will be concerned, as I have said, not be assimilated, but to assimilate” (Idea of Race, 138).

Although Senghor specifically speaks about African Americans here, Senghor accentuates that no individual has to forgo their cultural, economic, social and political values when confronted by those belonging to another race and holding different beliefs. Significantly, he suggests that individuals of a particular race should welcome outside values as means to “fertilize” and “re-invigorate” their own values as such an “appropriation” can have beneficial cultural impact. Mather’s “White America” epitomizes this ideology as he lends the unique perspective of being a white American male in a world formerly thought to belong to African Americans.

Elucidated through the imagery of the music video alone, “White America” delves into the political and social issues of race and white-privilege in the United States. I was personally shocked at imagery that not only suggested that the culprits of school shootings are oftentimes white but also revealed that drug dealers tend to be white while the drug users (the ones that end up dead) are black. Immediately, Mathers criticizes popular beliefs and forces our eyes to take in a reality we are often ignorant of. Nonetheless, Mathers also writes,

“Look at myself!

Let’s do the math

If I was black I woulda sold half

I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that”

Coming from the perspective of a white male who attracts both black and white audiences, the artist’s matter-of-fact tone emphasizes the blatant socioeconomic inequality that exists in the United States. Simply due to his “whiteness”, Mathers understands that he is in a much better position to succeed over his black counterparts despite not even having a high school diploma. This self-reflective statement compels society to recognize how race alone can either augment or curtail the success of one race at the expense of another. Similarly, Marshall states:

See the problem is I speak to suburban kids

Who otherwise woulda never knew these words exist

Whose mom’s probably woulda never gave two squirts of piss

‘Til I created so much muthafuckin’ turbulence

Straight out the tube right into ya livin’ rooms I came

And kids flipped

When they knew I was produced by Dre

That’s all it took

And they were instantly hooked right in

And they connected wit’ me too because I looked like them

Here, the artist accentuates how his position as a white male allows his lyrics to reach more than just black communities. In other words, Marshall argues that his whiteness allows hip-hop, and its expressive abilities, to convey political, economic, as well as social issues to white communities in ways that a black artist simply could not. By doing so, he implicitly reveals how “whiteness” grants him access to a wider audience and, therefore, allows him to have a better chance at being successful in the hip-hop industry.

To Senghor, “White America” would represent the beneficial assimilation of a culture. The song crosses racial boundaries as it is by a white artist who uses the ability of black artistic achievement to discuss how society legitimizes “whiteness” while criticizing how that society demonizes “blackness”. In other words, Mathers portrays how white individuals have higher social status and worth just for being white, while black individuals are constantly treated as second-tier citizens. Unlike Iggy Azalea or other white artists, Mathers does use hip-hop to “act black”; He uses hip-hop to criticize social inequalities and hypocrisies but understands that he is a white male and is well aware of the inherent privileges that are afforded to him. By doing so, he tackles issues of race in a manner that could not have possibly been replicated by someone who was black. Through this song, and many others, audiences are able to observe how Eminem incorporates his whiteness and the expressiveness of hip-hop to bring about his own unique style while still applauding the fact that it came about through the use of such an incredible black artistic achievement.

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One thought on “A New Shad(y) On Cultural Appropriation

  1. Pingback: What justifies appropriation? | The Concept of Race

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