Sunday, April 19, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 9:47 PM
Remember when white rappers needed black legitimacy to be cool? Well those days are over, thanks to a young rapper from Pennsylvania named Asher Roth. For those that live under a rock of sorts, Roth is the (next) great white hope for white kids that love hip-hop. Or, more accurately, he’s the (next) great white hope for media giants and merchandisers looking to cash in on the newest form of white pride.
You can argue this phenomenon has already happened before, say, circa 1998. A brazen young Marshall Mathers took no prisoners as he radically changed the way we produce and consume hip-hop. Eminem’s trailer trash shtick was gloriously wed with a lyrical gift, producing an in-your-face, white-ethnic-braggadocio-but-with-black-friends type of style. The dude’s angst and lyrical mastery transcended the traditional categories of hip-hop music. But, importantly, we respected him as a hip-hop artist because black folks (Dr. Dre, Proof) vouched for him. It’s not a coincidence that Dre made a cameo in his first single off The Slim Shady LP.
Part of this was a marketing ploy—he had the black guy seal of approval, and therefore we could accept him as legitimate hip-hop. But a large part was also based on respect for a culture founded, promulgated, and dominated by black folks. When he murdered (lyrically) Jay-Z on “Renegades,” it was not a triumph of white over black, but rather a carefully managed balancing act between coming to grips with his whiteness and accepting his drive to be the best emcee in the game. What I mean is that Em wasn’t going to hold back and patronize black emcees, but he was also deftly aware of his whiteness. Later, Em played a key role in the commercial rise of 50 Cent, for a while dominating the airwaves with the Dre-Em-50 trifecta. He had successfully “darkened” himself, so to speak, and we stopped talking about him as a white emcee, but rather as a great emcee. In other words, in a culture dominated by African-Americans, Eminem showed deference and respect as he balanced his unique racial identity with his equally unique skill as a rapper.
Asher Roth, by striking contrast, wants nothing to do with this contrived legitimacy. On the one hand, you gotta respect the kid’s moxie. His disregard for the black-guy seal of approval seems to suggest that hip-hop has become youth culture, not black culture. And his whiteness should not, by itself, be damaging to his career as an emcee. There is a sophisticated argument about race and the transmission of culture buried somewhere in here. Potentially, hip-hop, unlike rock music, may resist being co-opted by whites and instead fuse into a racially heterogeneous youth culture (with racially homogenous roots, of course). What if hip-hop took this trajectory of racial diversity? Maybe this cultural form would stop being used as a proxy for racism, as critics would no longer be able to blame the music for perpetuating a dysfunctional black culture. I don’t know, maybe I’m just an idealist like that.
Yet, that is not the case. Interestingly and quite arrogantly, Roth is harnessing a shtick of white privilege as he claims the authenticity of the...erm…suburbs. You know, because suburban kids can’t relate to hip-hop in its contemporary form. Why? Well, that’s a little unclear. Roth’s basic claim is that white kids in the suburbs have been consuming hip-hop for years, but have never had some one they can relate to, some one to represent them and their voices. You know, because white folks can’t relate to black folks. And, of course, because only white folks live in the suburbs. Comparing Eminem to Roth, the blog No Trivia wrote it better than I could have: “But Eminem’s use of his whiteness came from a desire to prove himself in spite of the unfortunate reputation of white rappers that came before him, not some strange sense of privilege because he’s the person actually buying rap CDs.”
In the most blatant example of white supremacy in hip-hop, Roth is absolutely obsessed with his whiteness. He doesn’t problematize his whiteness, like when Em forced us to re-think what it means to be white in his deeply personal discussions of growing up poor. No, instead Roth wants us to realize that we should like him because, well, he’s white and privileged just like us! His most recent song leak (which you can download here) details the trials and tribulations of being the next great white rapper and the subsequent comparisons to Eminem. Simultaneously, Roth reminds us that while he is no Eminem (he is from privilege and proud of it), he is unabashedly white (and therefore more relatable than those black rappers we thought we liked). Quoted in a recent New York Times piece, Roth explains the difference: "Culturally, Em was almost a black guy. My background is more stereotypically white." That's just great, Asher. How astute. It’s one thing to be aware of your racial identity; it’s an entirely different thing to embrace a privileged identity as your claim to superiority in a culture dominated by minority artists.
In an article from 2005, Brother Ali poignantly discussed white fans’ relationship to underground white rappers. "One of the hardest things we're dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs," says Brother Ali. "They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are Black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from Black people, but [their fans] don't want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it's the white MCs who created the styles they like. This isn't an underground-versus-mainstream thing—it's a racist thing." My emphasis.
Race and hip-hop is a difficult subject to parse out, and I don’t mean to make any sweeping statements here. What I do know, however, is that Roth’s brazen racial supremacy is a unique development in hip-hop. And I hope it ends soon.