Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Hip Hoppers

By Cynthia Camacho

In Celia Cutler's article, Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop, and African American English, Mike, an upper middle class white teenager breaks away from the societal norms of his upbringing and opts instead to associate himself with the urban hip hop culture.  He appropriates many of the traits associated with this culture such as speech using AAVE (African American Vernacular English), style of dress, and also course taste in music.  Cutler portrays Mike as feeling disconnected from what would normally be considered his peer groups in the Yorkville section of Manhattan.  As one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York City, Yorkville represents a very different demographic from the inner city poor urban neighborhoods where the hip-hop culture emerged and developed.  Kids like Mike, according to Tricia Rose, Professor and Chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University, are "fascinated by [black culture’s] differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions [of black culture] … as a forbidden narrative, [and] a symbol of rebellion".  

In my opinion, Mike represents one perspective across a broad landscape of whites that have adopted the hip-hop culture.  In fact, it is very clear that individuals with an affinity to hip hop music and culture represent a broad cross section of society.  In fact, hip-hop, once considered a very underground culture, continues to move into the mainstream.  As it becomes more accepted by the mainstream, the issue of who and what is “authentic” begins to crop up.  When it comes to hip hop, it seems that the “authentic” tag is defaulted to individuals who grew up in the inner cities and specifically in poor neighborhoods.  Additionally, the “authentic” tag often gets associated by race, with anyone who is a Caucasian being excluded by default from the “authentic” category.  Also by default, African American youth’s who dress and outwardly portray membership in the hip hop culture are often accepted as authentic without any further confirmation, while members of other races such as Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian bring lower levels of authentic acceptance moving from left to right across that list.  Of course in an interesting turn of the tables, these individuals often claim discrimination by the very subgroup to which they are attempting to associate themselves.  This is ironic, considering that the hip-hop culture itself owes most if not all of its origin to a subgroup (African Americans), who have long been victims of racial discrimination.

When it comes to the most successful appropriators of hip hop culture, Marshall Mathers is the man of the year.  Having now achieved what is known as a media double play in the movies and on the radio with 8 Mile and its pervasive soundtrack, M.M. (Eminem) has achieved icon status.  As amazing at it sounds, this “white rapper” and appropriator of AAVE/hip hop culture has become the one of the standards by which success in the entertainment business is now measured.  In September of 2010, Eminem co-headlined a show at Comerica Park in Detroit with legendary rapper Jay-Z, who has been practically canonized by the press over the years as the king of hip hop, raising his credibility and authenticity among both rappers and the mainstream even higher.

The novelty factor of a very talented white rapper explains why critics and baby boomers, who are not in hip hop's main demographic, but who are still purchasing Eminem records, started listening to his music and got hooked. While his songs signal of class oppression, sexual frustration, homophobia, and misogynies, the mainstream music buyers have nevertheless rewarded his talent with the dollars from their wallets.  Urban street culture, hip hop and rap are typical associations with the black poor, but somehow, a “white” poor guy raises questions that are disconcerting, and at the same time fascinating, to Mainstream America.

Eminem is certainly not the first commercially successful white rapper (that would be the Beastie Boys) nor is he the first artist associated with the “whitening” of hip-hop (that would be Vanilla Ice).  He actually fits more closely into a collection of white artists that includes more modest successes like Third Base and House of Pain.

Right now, Eminem finds himself in the drivers seat, because he is, in reality, probably the most talented white rapper to yet emerge.  His cadence (or flow) is infectious; Em definitely has a lyrical gift.  He has without a doubt proven that race and the perception of not being authentic can be overcome with talent and success. 

I though it was interesting to compare and contrast Mike from the Cutler article, and Eminem.  Both are white Anglo-Saxon males, and have appropriated hip-hop culture starting at a very young age.  For Mike, now a 19 year old boy from New York City, the first noticeable appropriation began at age 13 when his family members and friends started noticing that he was beginning to identify with hip hop culture.  This was initially manifested in the clothing that he chose to wear such as baggy jeans, reverse baseball caps, designer sneakers, and a growing taste for rap music.  Eminem, in stark contrast to this, grew up in what seems to be similar and parallel world to many poor youths living in the inner cities.  His father abandoned his family when he was 18 months old, and his mother raised him in poverty.  His affinity to hip hop began at around the same age as Mike, and he was publically performing RAP’s at the age of 14 after settling down with his mom in the Detroit suburb of Warren, MI.   Eminem eventually parlayed his appropriation of hip hop into a multi national career, bringing him fame and fortune, but Mike at the age of 19 has largely shed the gangster/ghetto image associated with hip hop, and now sports a “preppie” look.  He attends a conservative private college and is in his sophomore year of study.  Cutler correctly points out in her article that “the language, the music and fashions of black culture have long provided a rich source of inspiration for whites and others in the US and around the world” and not withstanding the very different places that they ended up, both Mike and Em owe much of what they have experienced to this fact.  The stories of Mike and Eminem help us to see that appropriation and the adoption of cultural identities can and should be viewed from many perspectives and should also be recognized for the unique situations, motivating factors, and often interesting stories that are behind each one.

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