White Like Me: Loving Hip-Hop from the Outside

Posted on December 29, 2009 by


It’s the holiday season, and like so many of my 20-something counterparts, I’ve spent the past week at my childhood home, surrounded by family, old friends, good food, better drink,…. and absolutely nothing even remotely related to hip-hop culture. I grew up in the mountains of Western MD, where the dominate musical culture is caught somewhere between 1970’s rock, The Grateful Dead, and the auditory assault that is country music.

And it’s reminded me that, despite my obsession with and love for hip-hop, I wasn’t born into it; I wasn’t raised on it. If I’m honest, I can’t passionately call it my own, as much as I would like to. No one from my childhood days would ever associate me with hip-hop culture of their own accord.

I was raised on Bob Dylan, Joan Armatrading, James Brown, the Beatles, Nina Simone, and Joni Mitchell, among many others whose music I consider timeless and extraordinary and beautiful. But in my tiny mountain town, almost no one listened to hip-hop, absolutely no one talked about hip-hop, and you can be damn sure no one was interested in teaching a scrawny white girl about it.

I remember being briefly introduced to it: I was 10 or 11 years old, and my best friend at the time — Ugonna Ibebuchi — played tracks from The Fugee’s The Score for me. I remember thinking how different it was from everything else – how much faster, more specific, more serious it was – but at that young age, I didn’t know enough to listen closely. And I spent my teenage years being something of a vintage music snob – I explored 60’s rock, 40’s and 50’s jazz and blues, funk, soul, everything/ anything; but I scoffed at anything “pop”, which in my head, included hip-hop.

But here I am, and all I can do is read about, write about, talk about, and listen to hip-hop. The music is goddamn infectious, and it’s infected me to the core. I love it. And I think essential to that love is my acknowledgment that I’m NOT from it; I WASN’T raised on it.

I CAN’T truly call it my own.

And part of the reason is that I didn’t grow up with it; I’m relatively new to the hip-hop game. Part of the reason is that I’m not immersed in hip-hop culture; I sure as hell can’t rap, DJ, or break, and my one foray into graffiti almost got my ass kicked out of Chile. And part of the reason is that I’m a white, middle-class girl from rural MD.

Now, plenty of people from both sides of the race equation would argue against that last point. Music is music, they’d say, and there are no laws prohibiting people from embracing music. And they would be right. At the same time, voluminous voices would be stating that hip-hop isn’t just music, it’s a culture, and that it represents far more than, say, country or rock. And I’d be inclined to agree with them.

I don’t need to go into a drawn-out history of hip-hop. We all know where it came from, what its origins were, and who’s done it best. The fact is that hip-hop is a Black musical and cultural form, and we live in a country that had and continues to have a horrific history of oppression and discrimination towards its African-American citizens. And then black people create this entirely new art form, that is borne (in part) out of American apartheid and speaks (in part) to the Black experience, and all of a sudden white people want to join in and make it their own. Sorry, but I wouldn’t be so down with that either. And it’s true: white people have committed some atrocious crimes against hip-hop. From Vanilla Ice to Brian Austin Greene to the White Rapper Show, out attempts to infiltrate the genre haven’t always been successful, and instead perpetuate the idea that we can never belong.

So what do I do? How do I, who recognizes this dichotomy, continue to love and engage this amazing creative force when really, it’s had very little to do with who I am or where I’m from? How do any of us white, middle-class hip-hop heads operate within this culture?

I don’t know the answer; it’s not really for us to decide. But there are some things I think we can keep in mind:

Be aware of, open about, and ok with our middle-class whiteness.
It sounds simple, but I’ve seen too many people down with hip-hop trying to avoid at all costs the fact that they are white or that they come from the ‘burbs. This needs to stop. As HQ pointed out in the comment to this post, our attempts to unnaturally adopt clothing/language/mannerism that are not our own can become mockery, even if they’re intended to be homage. By ignoring or otherwise denying our own background, we implicitly attempt to whitewash (no pun intended) the fact that we all come from a history steeped in racism and white supremacy, and that that legacy still survives in multiple forms of economic and social inequality, whether we mean to or not. And really, we just look stupid.

Figure 1: This is not a good look. Please stop.

Recognize the unearned privilege that our whiteness affords us.

I will argue this point to the death with anyone: Being white in the United States in 2010 STILL means that we get a tote-bag full of free hook-ups that we didn’t do shit to earn. Being white means that we have easier access to housing, credit, healthcare, education etc than most of our minority counterparts. Our skin color is an asset in this world, and the better that we understand that, the more we can do to end this kind of inequity.

It’s usually around this point in the conversation that someone will argue that discrimination is not limited to minorities. “Whites are discriminated against in the United States, too!”, s/he’ll say. And that’s true. But let’s be clear:


Figure 2: But some can!

Figure 3: Now you're being kind of mean.

Figure 4: Eh, they were right - JStiles can't hang.

Does not at all equal this:

Figure 5: Seriously.

Figure 6: Shut up.

Understand and embrace your obligation to the culture that gave us hip-hop.
We are enjoying, participating in, and using something that has a cultural ancestry distinct from our own. In doing so, we implicitly recognize the value of that culture, and we should do so explicitly as well. Sorry kids, but just because Obama is in office does not mean we are in a post-racial society. And just because white folks are listening to and participating in hip-hop doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation to help advance its historical agenda: that is, the uplift of the black community. We need to be deliberate about this.

Understand and embrace the fact that there’s probably a lot about hip-hop and it’s references, contexts, and history that we don’t know. And be open to being educated about it.
Basically, let’s try not to be that kid. We all know that kid. The very devoted, very enthusiastic, and usually very knowledgeable white kid who thinks he knows all there is to know about hip-hop. He doesn’t. We never will, because a big part of hip-hop is the African-American experience and, nope, we are not African-American. This should be an easy one: Approach the situation humbly.

There are probably many more things that should be added to this list, and I’d love to hear what others think. What else should be considered? IS this even an important discussion? Am I creating an issue where there isn’t one? Let me know.

I think we can all agree that we should try not to do this (though I may steal that chain-saw move):
Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Hulu – Chelsea Lately: Hip-Hop Handler“, posted with vodpod

And maybe aspire to this (please skip to halfway through-ish):