On last night’s Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert pulled the old “it’s funny when white people who aren’t rappers rap” bit by joining Alicia Keys in an updated rendition of Empire State of Mind.
Now, I kind of like this. Stephen Colbert is endearing anyway, and his rapping comes off as humble: he looks nervous, is slightly out of breath, and seems like he’s trying his utmost not to mess up the rhymes. And come on, his flow is not great. I also love how he REALLY gets into it after his verse is over (hands in the air, disco two-step spin and all); it’s as if he’s relieved that his very difficult task of spittin is over. [I also love the hoodie-under-the-blazer look.]
But generally, I find this gimmick yawn-inducing. And we see it everywhere. Colbert’s done it before. Jimmy Kimmel gets advice on rapping from Eminem. In 2008, some guy made a parody of Senator John McCain rapping about his controversial choice for vice president over Snoop Dogg’s “Murder was the Case” (HQ pointed out that this guy goes so far as to say n*gga; suffice it to say that we don’t condone this, and think it’s really really ridiculous):
Amy Poehler did her now-infamous Sarah Palin Rap on Saturday Night Live:
Ok, we get it. Senator McCain is white, rich, Republican, and old, and therefore it is unexpected that he would spontaneously break out into a hot sixteen. Amy Poehler is a short white woman from Burlington, Massachusetts, but—check it out—she’s cuffing the mike and spitting like MC Lyte. Isn’t that hilarious?
Just because something is counterintuitive doesn’t automatically make it funny. Sure, several people have, in recent times, had success with this gag (sorry, I think the Natalie Portman spoof is funny because it’s an obvious play on ridiculous assumptions, ie, that Natalie Portman is a sweet, innocent woman and hip-hop is essentially fighting, fucking, and cursing). But unless you’ve got an angle deeper than “Hey, a white person is rapping!”, that joke’s already been told.
And how counterintuitive is it, anyway? We know there are white people that rap and rap well. And even those that we wouldn’t expect can surprise us sometimes:
So why are we still trading on the old ‘white folks got no soul’ paradigm? It’d be like being expected to laugh every time a white dude picks up a basketball, or a woman serves in the military, or a black guy gets a decent job and moves to the suburbs.
We shouldn’t be narrowly defining hip-hop (or any music, really), how it should work, or who it’s about. That’s what the healthcare debate is for.