I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extravagant enough…I desire to speak somewhere without bounds.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (245)
See, some do hiphop and forget how it started
They claim their white complexion
Ain’t the reason why their record charted
Man, it’s so easy to see
When a white dude raps
The public calls it novelty
Even me, although I take it seriously
Some dislike me because of my r-a-c-e
But I won’t quit and I won’t stop
Cuz I do hiphop just because I love hiphop
I never claim to be vanilla
I’m Irish American
And never did I claim to be African American…
With respect to the Old School
That created this art form
It comes from the heart
Not from critical acclaim
Cuz that’s just the same as the political game.
— Marky Mark, “So What Chu Sayin’?” from his album Music for the People (1991)
White America, I could be one of your kids.
— Eminem, “White America,” from his album The Eminem Show (2002)
Hilton Als opens his new book on the white Detroit rapper Marshall Mathers III, White Noise: The Eminem Collection (an anthology of essays he edited with Darryl A. Turner) by arguing that Mathers is “a new kind of American. White on the outside, black on the inside, a boy in love with an ideal that he’s still searching for, out there in the Garden” (xx). Als’s approach to the nation’s Eminem obsession, however, is less iconoclastic than might be expected, as each of the essays in the volume advances the same basic thesis. Mark Cochrane crystallizes the thesis in his essay, “Moral Abdication.” “Whatever condemnation I might formerly have heaped upon Mathers for his views and lyrics about women and gays,” he writes, “no living poet confined to the page can touch what this bleach-blond brat has accomplished” (29). Eminem is a great poet, White Noise asserts confidently and repeatedly, who has had an “impact on our literary culture, both highbrow and low” (29).
No evidence is provided in the volume for this claim; but what is more startling is the total lack of awareness of Eminem’s particular hiphop antecedents, such as the magisterial Bronx lyricist Lord Finesse, as well as the whole dynamic lyrical tradition from which Eminem constantly draws in the making of his own exorbitant rap style. Moreover, if Eminem is really “black on the inside,” then an effort must be made to substantiate somehow this provocative claim. Is he Black on the inside because of a political identification with African Americans? Is he Black on the inside from a true knowledge and respect for African American literature and culture? Or is it simply that he is Black on the inside because Dr. Dre picked him, and that today Mathers focuses a great deal of creative energy on producing Black rappers (for example, the rapper 50 Cent)?
In all events, each aspect of White Noise’s problem—the unsubstantiated claim about Eminem’s greatness as a poet as well as the notion that he is really “black on the inside”—is enabling of a critical discourse interested in the complex relationship between white Americans and hiphop music and culture. The subject is extremely rich in what it could tell us about the unpredictable social relations in United States society today, to put it broadly. To be more specific, the topic is an easy entrance into a very hard situation to grasp, that of the strange coexistence of hegemonic “white identity” and the undeniable Blackness of U.S. popular culture. For instance, if one were to judge U.S. society solely by its main pop culture exports to the rest of the world, the conclusion might be easily drawn that the U.S. is a Black society whose white citizens are perpetually trying to emulate their darker brothers and sisters.
Before Eminem, hiphop music, with all its distinctive variants and styles, was recognized internationally as an African American contribution to world culture, much as reggae has been always recognized as a specifically Jamaican contribution, and salsa as Cuban and Puerto Rican. Artists such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, and Tupac, among many others, were treated as Black royalty in Europe and Japan during the 1990s, and they never left any mistaken impressions about where this vibrant culture came from. Globally, hiphop has been loved, appreciated, embraced, fetishized, and widely imitated precisely because of its boldly assertive African Americanness. To the world, hiphop is as brilliantly Black as blues and jazz, and just as important aesthetically.
Yet in the U.S., during the high period of hiphop’s globalization (roughly 1984-1995), there were no critical volumes published arguing for the greatness of its poetry. In fact, this type of appreciation came exclusively from Europe in pioneering works by the British musicologist David Toop (The Rap Attack) and the Irish cultural critic Brian Cross (It’s Not About a Salary). In the U.S., the approach to hiphop was mostly hostile and crudely reductionist in terms of aesthetic appreciation. There were a few exceptions, including one of the best treatments of hiphop music ever published, the essay by Timothy Brennan in Critical Inquiry entitled “Off the Gangsta Tip.” Still the fact remains that not until the arrival of Eminem in 1999 did poetry critics, the New Yorker, and the mainstream media begin to speak about “great poetry” and hiphop in the same sentence.
The conclusion to draw from this fact is fairly easy: U.S. society is still white supremacist, because it took a white rap lyricist to get people talking, finally, about hiphop’s great poetry tradition. But the more difficult questions have to do with the actual relationships between white Americans and African American popular culture, socially and politically. Is it true that the biggest consumers of hiphop are whites? How to explain the ubiquitous presence of rap music in white America, given the alarming resegregation of U.S. society? To what extent is the hiphop music heard over Top 40 radio, MTV, BET, and that sold in Wal-Mart an accurate reflection of hiphop culture itself? How have whites been changed by hiphop? Have they become “black on the inside”?
Each of these questions is sociological and requires a separate empirical research project. What I want to do in this essay is more straightforward: to de-sublimate hiphop in the age of Eminem. For after all is said and done regarding this engaging and enigmatic white lyricist from Detroit’s working class, the fact remains that he is part of a very long tradition of white sublimation of African American people and culture, and is emblematic of a peculiar problem of culture in U.S. society, namely the “whiteness” of its policies and social control arrangements (its social being) and the “Africanness” of its imaginative life (its consciousness). Eminem’s pellucid poetry casts a wide white shadow over these fascinating relations while at the same time bringing to the bright lights of center stage, in the form of the poor white man himself, the central and most enduring problem of U.S. history and society, the persistence of white racial oppression.
The White Shadow
One of my favorite television shows growing up was The White Shadow, starring Ken Howard and a cast of talented young African American actors such as Kelvin Hooks and Thomas Carter. It aired between 1978 and 1981. Howard played a white high school basketball coach, Coach Reeves, whose NBA career is cut short by a knee injury. One of his teammates on the Chicago Bulls persuades him to take a coaching position at Carver High, located in an all-Black working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles. An inversion of the fly in the buttermilk, Coach Reeves is a snowflake, the only white person in an all-Black environment. I liked the show because it was a mirror of my own life. My father was a religious worker on Detroit’s southwest side and a basketball coach himself; my mom was a nurse in downtown Detroit at Harper Hospital.
I was a snowflake, a skinny white boy swimming in a brown sea—all shades of brown, from the darkest chocolate to cinnamon and caramel. Yet unlike Eminem, who grew up in all-white Warren and then Roseville—both of these neighborhoods notorious white supremacist enclaves just across Eight Mile Road in the northern suburbs of Detroit, and very dangerous places for Black folks to travel through—I didn’t know I was “white” until I left my Black neighborhood much later, when I met white people for the first time. In Detroit, I was teased every day for my complexion, but then so was everyone else, no matter how dark or light.
I soon learned that African Americans and whites have two totally different conceptions of skin color. For whites, “whiteness” is a social color: it shows whose side you’re on, either the “white race” or “the blacks.” One must choose. In contrast, for African Americans your skin tone is your own individual skin tone and there’s nothing you can do to change that. More importantly, to be “black” or “white” has to do with your level of consciousness, since some African Americans were constantly being accused of “acting white”—trying to lord it over someone else. Later in life, when I was around white people, I heard the exact inverse. For example, if a white kid listened to rap (this was in the 1980s) he would be accused of “trying to be a nigger.” Both uses of “white” and “black” were criticisms, but in the white case the attack was meant to isolate and then exile a person for being open to other people and interested in their differences. In the African American case, the criticism was meant to teach humility and respect for others. Being raised by very religious parents, and later traveling between the white and African American worlds, I learned to associate kindness and decency with “blackness” and arrogance and violence with “whiteness.”
Many of the first white rappers shared my experience, and they produced good music, even though they never got any great hype for their rapping (Marky Mark, for example, and the rap group 3rd Bass, as well as Kid Panic, and Young Black Teenagers). Eventually a new term was invented, the “wigger” (“white nigger”). Truly ambivalent, the term is neither a good thing nor a bad thing necessarily; rather it seeks to explain the tremendous, irresistible pull of hiphop music and culture on a whole generation of white youth. I was neither a rapper nor a wigger, but I could have been either, or both.
As I reflect on the question today, it seems to me that it comes down to the radical objectification of “whiteness” I experienced growing up in an all-Black neighborhood of Detroit. Never being allowed the peculiar white privilege of assuming the entire world exists solely to serve my own needs and desires, I approached the “white race” not as a place of entitlement, drama, horror, pleasure, and absurdity but rather as a real social invention, and actual location, designed to repress and deform my individual desires, as well as everyone else’s. And this was the premise of The White Shadow television show, as virtually every effort on Coach Reeves’s part to be a useful teacher and a responsible coach to his African American students and players is either misrecognized or maligned, often unintentionally but sometimes willfully and destructively, by those around him, in particular the white authorities of L.A. Consequently he lived the life of a white shadow, free of race within himself yet always interpellated racially by the white supremacist society in which he lives and works, and in which he is trying in good faith to be a decent human being. In response he became a specter of white supremacy, a ghost haunting the guilty conscience of those living lives of white privilege in their white-only suburbs, in front of their televisions, presumably safe from poverty and crime yet always scared stiff, not so much of integration but rather reintegration.
The White Shadow was a fragment of the African American civil rights movement. It was a work of U.S. popular culture that tried seriously to advance a compelling idea, one enabled by the civil rights struggle: that African American people and culture constitute the mainstream of U.S. society not the minority, and that the real “race problem” has to do with how white Americans plan on “reintegrating” themselves (the term is from Langston Hughes) into a race-free American life, which is, at its heart, African American. It is a radical idea, which probably explains why the show’s producers changed course in the second and third seasons by making The White Shadow into a comedy. (The move spelled doom for the show.) It is a fertile idea proposed more than one hundred years ago by African American writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Martin Delany, down to Dr. Du Bois, Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes, and Amiri Baraka. Indeed, if one studies the African American tradition even cursorily, it becomes obvious that the only people who go on thinking that African American people are marginal to U.S. society are the white rulers who want it this way. Moreover, even a quick glance at U.S. popular culture reveals its deep African Americanness, from Bugs Bunny (Brer Rabbit) to the Terminator or “bad ass” (John Henry and Stackolee). Rapping is, of course, inarguably African American, as many commentators, black and otherwise, have pointed out, with its roots in the blues and jazz tradition as well as the shouts and hollers, the work songs, the spirituals, and the boasts and the toasts, which all preceded it.
But one of the most striking¾and deplorable, in my view¾aspects of the discourse on hiphop is its indifference toward the “reintegration” factor: the way in which hiphop music and culture has made the life of the “white shadow” much easier to bear but at the same time much more complicated and demanding. To put it differently, by neglecting the white relationship to rap, the discourse on hiphop accepts resegregation as inevitable, in much the way that Eminem, in the closing scene of the movie of his life, 8 Mile, accepts his “whiteness” as permanent and inviolable. In that gripping denouement, Eminem does two unfortunate things, from the standpoint of anti-white supremacism: 1) he boasts on stage that “I’m proud to be white trash”; and 2) he severs permanently the links with his African American colleagues and friends who had helped him to attain stardom in the all-Black hiphop environment of Detroit. Read this way, “8 Mile” is a synecdoche of resegregation itself, as the victorious and battle-weary white rapper from north of Eight Mile hurriedly abandons Black Detroit (south of Eight Mile) at the very moment he has courageously re-entered it.
Today, white students attend schools that are, on average, 80% white (Smith). The most racially segregated schools are in the north and west—New York, Illinois, Michigan, and California—where most of the privileged suburban schools are all-white and the vast majority of the inner-city schools all-Black or -Latino. Public education critic Sharon Smith notes recently in her article “Separate and Unequal: the Resegregation of U.S. Schools,” that “According to the Education Trust, New York school districts with the highest concentration of white students received $2,034 more per pupil in state and local funding than those with the highest concentration of minorities—a difference of more than $50,000 per classroom” (www.counterpunch.org/smith05162003.html). To crystallize the problem of resegregation most shockingly, Smith concludes her research article with several statistics: 1) 90% of all imprisoned drug offenders in Illinois are African American—in a state that is only 15% African American; and 2) in 2001, just 933 African Americans received bachelor’s degrees from Illinois state universities, while 7,000 were released from prison on drug charges.
So as we prepare to enter the world of Eminem and the white American society that has embraced the greatest African American art form since the blues and jazz, it is important to keep in mind two facts: that U.S. society is today more racially segregated than it has been in the past forty years; and that the centrality of African American people and culture in the U.S. is still disregarded, in the main, by critics, educators, and scholars of U.S. history and society. Yet the opening that Eminem has made for rational discussion and inquiry about these two social facts cannot be denied, and should be acknowledged with due respect to the rapper himself, even if he seems very far removed in almost every respect—for instance, today he lives in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a place which we in Black Detroit have always called “Sterling White”—from the implications of what he has let loose on those who keep eagerly listening to his music. So far, Eminem has sold 20 million albums, making him the top-selling rapper of all time, and The Eminem Show was the best-selling CD of 2002. 8 Mile has made more than $51 million in U.S. theaters, its soundtrack selling 4 million copies. Although sales figures are superficial indicators of a work of popular culture’s real effects on people’s social lives and their ways of thinking, in the case of Eminem they are clear symptoms of a dramatic change in the way whites and Black culture are feeling each other.
The Problem of “Reintegration”
As alluded to, one of the more poignant features of the “Eminem show” is that his proud projection of “whiteness” could have been avoided. For example, in the epigraph of this essay, a lyric by the Irish-American rapper Marky Mark, who is better known today as the accomplished Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg, the star of Boogie Nights and Three Kings, the idea is put forward passionately that the rapper is not “white” (“I never claim to be vanilla”). This was in 1991, at the start of his short-lived hiphop career. The same could be noted of Everlast, another Irish-American rapper of the popular group House of Pain, who also projected an ethnic identity (Irish) rather than a white racial one, and who also had a short career in the rap field. Yet ten years later Eminem is on the scene without an ethnic identity to speak of, literally; instead he puts himself in the thick of what Marky Mark referred to shrewdly at the end of his thoughtful rhyme as “the political game”—the game of “racial politics.” In “White America,” for example, which appears on The Eminem Show (2002), Mathers says:
Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself, if they were brown, Shady lose, Shady sits on the shelf, but Shady’s cute, Shady knew, Shady’s dimples would help, make ladies swoon baby (ooh baby), look at my sales, let’s do the math, if I was Black, I would’ve sold half.
Much has been said by music critics, as well as cultural theorists, about this rhyme—all of it uniform: Eminem is recognizing (in the words of the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau) “that at his level of stardom whiteness is an advantage” (53). It seems that precisely because Elvis never made this acknowledgment, critics today are applauding Eminem for recognizing his own white skin privilege. But this is usually where the critics stop in their analysis of Eminem and white skin privilege, perhaps because of the political terrors that lie beneath it. For instance, one aspect of his “White America” rap, which opens The Eminem Show, that has not been given nearly as much attention, is the beginning rhyme: “so many mutherfuckin’ people who feel like me, who share the same views and the same exact beliefs, a fuckin’ army marchin’ in back of me!” This rhyme, coupled with his point made later in the song that when he was coming up in Detroit’s Black rap scene his “whiteness” was used against him, raises the specter not of the “white shadow” trope of the civil rights movement but rather that of the archetypal Reaganite, the “angry white guy”: a “morbid symptom”—in the words of cultural critic and historian Fred Pfeil in his excellent book, White Guys—of the “steadily downward” plunge of the real earnings of white working-class men (235). Eminem says as much when in “White America” he spits: “I shoveled shit all my life and now I’m talkin’ it!” And even more clearly, when he says: “so much anger aimed in no particular direction, just sprays and sprays.”
For students of African American history and culture, and for African Americans who continue to live in the U.S. every day, the daily terrors of poverty and oppression that Mathers documents on The Eminem Show, which many critics compared negatively to the playful, lighthearted rhymes of his first two albums, could not be shocking in and of themselves. What is shocking is the fact that a poor white is finally acknowledging, without parody or absurdity (in the manner of, say, Saturday Night Live or Jerry Springer) that many white families are dysfunctional, sick and diseased, and psychopathic in the way they socially reproduce themselves. One of Eminem’s most talked about rap songs, “Cleaning out My Closet,” is, in this sense, a synecdoche of a certain collective white self-discovery: that white skin privilege, in addition to being an entitlement, could be one of the greatest bamboozlements of all time.
Mathers’s public denunciation of his white mother in this rhyme, for a range of bad behaviors, from child abuse and criminal neglect to theft, blackmail and drug addiction, is considered by one critic as a classic case of “transgressive literature” (Cochrane). Oddly, the critic does not mention any African American writers, such as Langston Hughes (see the very unflattering portrayal of his mother in Not Without Laughter) or Richard Wright (see Black Boy), as pioneers of this particular form of “transgressive literature.” Instead he compares Mathers’s testimony to the poetry of Sylvia Plath: “Like Plath, he achieves his effects through a discordant combination of singsong rhythms and harrowing imagery” (32).
The comparison is peculiarly misplaced and corny, since Mathers is a poor kid from industrial Detroit, not a middle-class bellettrist. The more logical parallel is with the young male writers of the African American tradition, who, going back to Douglass more than 150 years ago, have been exploring the interstices of the primal scene with great precision and pathos. Thus in the context of Eminem criticism—which is becoming immense—a resegregation at the level of theory is taking place in which white middle-class critics are attempting to claim Mathers as their own progeny, as yet another great white poet in the great tradition of great white literature. We can forget about them for now, for Mathers himself would doubtless show them all the middle finger if faced with their puerile ideas about his art. Yet this issue of resegregation is the fulcrum on which the whole Eminem phenomenon rests, I think, and by extension the relations between white America and African American culture. To frame it differently, resegregation is the great aporia of Marshall Mathers III—the first poet laureate of the white working class. And he is the first precisely because he is the first white writer to speak on behalf of poor whites not through a white ethnic middle-class immigrant art form but rather through the popular-democratic tradition of Black folks.
On The Eminem Show—12 of its songs produced by Eminem—the dangerous logic of Eminem’s aporia is felt in every rhyme and in the sounds of every track. The bass lines are eclectic yet always buoyant, funky and bumping, while the dissonant loops and hooks are melancholic; many come from 1970s white rock. Often Eminem’s lyrics rush past the beats, creating an unexpected feeling of disalienation, and then return manically, precisely on point. But what is the aporia all about, this impossibly singular manifestation of the absolute worst (resegregation) and best (reintegregation) that U.S. society has to offer? On the one hand, Eminem speaks for the suffering poor whites, and on the other he does it strictly through Black music and none other—“hiphop in its most purest, its most rawest, its most hardest, most honest,” as Eminem rhymes jubilantly in his song “Business.” This is the basic tension of his art, the powder keg of his persona, and probably the main reason, although generally unspeakable, he has frightened and titillated so many middle-class white people with his music. They are hearing about the ordeal of poor whites for the first time, not through stage-managed visual imagery nor through highbrow literary forms such as the psychological novel, but instead through Black people’s point of view, carried on the quick tongue of a white worker from Detroit. The closest thing to this experience could be Langston Hughes’s 1934 collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks, which received negative reviews and quickly dropped out of print. But of course Hughes was an African American writer and thus could be written off by whites as being “naturally” critical of white supremacy and its deleterious effects on white people themselves—the thesis of the collection. The particular power of Eminem is that he can never be written off by that specious argument.
Much has been said of the fact that more than 70% of all documented rap music sales are made to white people from the suburbs. The director of the Urban Think Tank, Yvonne Bynoe, has simplified the issue nicely. “For idealists,” she writes, “white kids buying rap music represents a level of racial understanding and acceptance unknown to their parents. However for realists, this phenomenon is nothing more than the re-emergence of the White Negro. True cross-racial engagement necessitates meaningful interaction, and buying a CD or dressing ‘hip-hop’ is not a substitute” (urbanthinktank.org/whiteboyshuffle.cfm). In fact, the special interest in white people buying rap is a red herring, since whites make up more than 70% of U.S. society anyway. Why would one expect white consumption of hiphop to be any different than white consumption of jazz music, or NBA basketball, or movies starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith? While Bynoe’s point that the consumption of rap music by whites is not a “substitute” for “cross-racial engagement” is unchallengeable, it presupposes that the pre-fixed social blocs of whites and African Americans (resegregation) are permanent and there is nothing we can do to change them. The best to hope for is “cross-racial” dialogue, a kind of peace treaty between the two warring groups. Yet what many progressive Black nationalist critics of Eminem, such as Bynoe, seem to misrecognize about the white social bloc is that, unlike the African American one, it depends on a class collaboration between poor whites and rich whites. The political terrors all come from this scarcely understood fact of the white identity.
Eminem’s working classness is foregrounded in the 8 Mile movie and aestheticized in every scene. No bling bling, expensive rides, or Cristal champagne. Instead Eminem (his nom de guerre in the film is “B Rabbit,” a clever troping of Bugs Bunny, a white variant of the African American archetypal trickster Brer Rabbit) drives what we call in Detroit a “hooptie” (a busted car ready to die any minute), and wears, completely unadorned, nothing but white t-shirts and work pants. The visual intonations are working-class, from the grey, barren deindustrialized cityscapes as he drives to work to the pounding noise inside the eastside stamping plant where Eminem is seen lifting and sorting heavy steel plates monotonously, one after the other, again and again. Switch to his lyrics on The Eminem Show and we find a microcosm of the whole:
Walking around with his headphones blaring, alone in his own zone, cold and he don’t care, he’s a problem child, what bothers him all comes out, when he talks about his fucking dad walking out, cuz he hates him so bad, that he blocks him out, but if he ever saw him again, he’d probably knock him out, his thoughts are whack, he’s mad so he’s talking back, talking black, brainwashed from rock and rap.
Eminem’s genius is that he consciously undermines the presumed liberty and sanctity of the white identity—the white ruling-class notion that White America is a road paved with gold. It is one thing for a middle-class novelist like John Steinbeck to show this and quite another for a poor white from Detroit to demonstrate it through a best-selling work of Black popular culture. Returning to Hilton Als’s thesis that Mathers is “white on the outside but black on the inside,” the truth of the claim lies in the mere naming of “White America” by a poor white, who makes this identification not from inside the “white race” corral but instead from the race-free interstices of hiphop music and culture—from the hiphop underground. That would make Mathers a defector from the “white race,” which seems to be the reason why Eminem, at the end of his rap song, “White America,” laughs playfully and whispers affectionately, “I’m just playing, America, you know I love you.” It is a strategic gesture, since the whole song has been about America’s “democracy of hypocrisy,” rapped by Eminem in a heavy voice, and culminating in a closing “Fuck you!”—aimed directly at White America. His parting “Fuck you!” forms a tight circle with the opening lines of the song, where Eminem howls in a wicked, dark voice: “How many people are proud to be citizens of this beautiful country of ours? the stripes and the stars, for the rights that men have died for to protect, the women and men who have broke their necks for the freedom of speech the United States government is sworn to uphold, so we’re told.” Over his scathing words can be heard the deafening roar of fighter jets. It is a juxtaposition of images, sounds, and ideas that establishes a new structure of feeling for white youth—the real prospect of reintegration—and that marks a radical new beginning for overthrow of white supremacy by poor whites themselves.
The Hiphop Underground
When a historically oppressed community takes hold of the right to accept or refuse those who come into contact (or claim to) with it, it has achieved the only true freedom: based on which, acceptance does not mean alienation.
— Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse
Shortly after the release of The Eminem Show in 2002, the New York Times sent one its journalists to the South Bronx, where hiphop was born and still thrives, to either confirm or deny Mathers’s mass appeal among the hiphop underground. Lynette Holloway, the journalist, spent a few days talking to African American and Latino youth of the Bronx River Houses about Eminem. “Not only is Eminem accepted as a supremely skillful practitioner of rap,” she reported, “many say he is the salvation of an art form that they say has been corrupted by a focus on Bentleys, yachts and Cristal Champagne” (October 30, 2002). To anyone who walks the streets of New York on a daily basis, Holloway’s report was unnecessary, because the entire summer of 2002 was the Eminem show, as boom boxes, trucks and cars were playing the CD at full blast every day. The faces behind the public airing of The Eminem Show were of all complexions, each as serious about Eminem as they are about Ghostface, Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, or the late Biggy Smalls. This acceptance of the white rapper by the hiphop underground was new—the same could not be said about the Beastie Boys, for example, who have always been considered by the hiphop underground to be punk music and not hiphop. The acceptance follows closely what the Martinican poet and theorist Edouard Glissant has noted about the “underground” poetics of Caribbean music and culture with respect to European contact with itself. Borrowing Glissant’s formulation, by accepting Eminem the hiphop underground “has achieved the only true freedom…based on which, acceptance does not mean alienation” (113). But what is the hiphop underground?
One of Amiri Baraka’s great insights in his classic work Blues People (1963) is that the blues, due to its social location, can be considered, ironically, the original “non-American” music of the United States. “Blues means a Negro experience,” Baraka wrote, “it is the one music the Negro made that could not be transferred into a more general significance than the one the Negro gave it initially.” The blues, he argued, is at its core a semi-autonomous Black music, standing in defiance of the fantasy-projections of white bourgeois culture, whose embrace and use of Black culture has always meant one of two things: either co-optation for ideological ends—an imaginary projection of “White America”—or a momentary freedom or escape from the banality of life in the precariously unstable U.S. middle class. For Baraka, the emergence of the blues as a structure of feeling—as a “blues impulse”—was linked to the crushing of African American emancipation in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and a response to the mass dissemination of white racial ideology, as in Thomas Dixon, Jr. and D.W. Griffith’s vision of America, throughout U.S. mainstream culture. “The Negro, during those few years after the end of slavery,” Baraka argued…
just before the exodus to the Northern cities, stood further away from the mainstream of American society than at any other time. It was also during these years that the Negro’s music lost a great many of the more superficial forms it had borrowed from the white man, and the forms that we recognize now as the blues began to appear. There were still black “ballit” singers who sang songs that used centuries-old classical Anglo-Saxon ballad forms and spirituals that were pure “lifts” from the Protestant hymnals. But in a few years after Emancipation, the shouts, hollers, yells, spirituals, and ballits began to take shape as the blues (59).
I quote Baraka to start a description of the hiphop underground because so much of what hiphop means to the communities that depend on it, that pledge allegiance to it, and live it, has to do with the culture’s struggle for a semi-autonomous Black music. Thus, the way that hiphop positions itself against “whiteness” or mainstream culture is essential to any understanding of the culture. There are many determinants involved in this struggle, beginning with the systematic ignorance shown hiphop by the same mainstream culture which makes billions of dollars a year off it, to the very unique contributions hiphop has made to U.S. popular culture, and indeed world culture—contributions summarized in what so many hiphop artists refer to as the “rare” form of rap. The special contribution of underground hiphop is that it has asserted itself in the face of total world culture. It is not that mainstream rap artists haven’t been favorably received and appreciated in London, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Senegal, and so on. Rather, it is the kind of relationship that exists between underground artists like Chuck D, Q-Tip, and KRS-One and Europe, Africa, and Japan that differentiates it from the mainstream. When Japanese youth begin sporting dreads, and express a new fascination with Rasta culture, which has happened in the last ten years, it implies a new change in hiphop culture. It is not unusual to hear Japanese DJs and MCs on underground radio in New York, which is not to say that mainstream rap does not encourage this kind of cross-cultural exchange. The point is simply that changes in hiphop culture—taken in the international context—have consistently found acceptance in the underground, and a place of critical reception for them, whereas in the mainstream they have been passed over, because of their counterhegemonic aesthetics.
For example, the Afro-Caribbean presence in New York popular culture has been deeply felt since the emergence of hiphop culture in the mid-1970s, and the roots of hiphop culture are planted in islands of the Caribbean just as they are on the streets of New York City. For the New York hiphop community, “America” is a whole sphere of existence, not an outline of the continental fifty states. The fact that New York innovators such as Smif ’n Wessun are virtually unknown outside New York is related to their cross-cultural identity: they are African Caribbean and African American at the same time. The mainstream does not lack cross-culturality, as the arrival of Chicano hiphop verifies, which has been richly documented in Brian Cross’s book on L.A. hiphop culture, It’s Not About a Salary. But the mass production of gangsta rap, along with the rap industry’s single-minded support and promotion of this genre, has come at the expense of L.A.’s vibrant underground scene. It is not underground artists like Ras Kass or the Pharcyde who are the best-known L.A. rap artists, but Dr. Dre and Snoop. This has severely limited L.A. hiphop culture’s role in the culture as whole, for the domination of a few artists over the rest implies a centralizing of the structures of communication and organization, and a marginalizing of community-based networks and circuits of production and distribution of the underground.
On the East Coast, where gangsta rap began—Schooly D of Philadelphia and KRS-One of the South Bronx are the originators—the genre is simply one style among many others. What is distinctive about the East Coast aesthetic is the diversity of styles and the preference for cross-cultural mixing and sharing of ideas and cultural forms (reintegration) over monocultural expressions like gangsta rap. All fusions of rap and R&B, rap and dancehall, rap and house, etc., as well as joint projects between white rappers and Black rappers have happened first in New York. This kind of cross-culturality is made possible by the underground structures of East Coast hiphop, which are semi-autonomous from the rap industry. New York collectives such as the DITC Crew (Diggin in the Crates) of the Bronx, Boogie Down Productions (also of the Bronx), Children of the Corn (Harlem), Boot Camp Clique (Brooklyn), Gangstarr Foundation (also Brooklyn), and the Wu-Tang Clan (Staten Island), have produced their own albums, their own artists, and established their own record labels. Authorial control remains in their hands alone.
The systematic ignorance that the hiphop community has come to expect from the mainstream is symptomatic of the U.S. white bourgeoisie’s domination of the social whole through white racial oppression. It is a well-known fact, discussed widely in hiphop fanzines and on underground radio, that the culture is treated with great admiration and respect in Europe and Japan. Cultural workers such as European American underground radio jock and hiphop DJ, Stretch Armstrong, who is simply unknown in the U.S. mainstream, and in the most prominent “cultural studies” circles as well, is an international celebrity in Tokyo, Copenhagen, Paris, London, and Amsterdam. Likewise, artists such as Q-Tip are invited to lecture and give performances in Europe far more regularly than they are in the U.S. A recent hiphop show in Copenhagen drew 90,000 fans, something unthinkable in New York, where hiphop was born. Examples like these are too numerous to mention all at once. Mainstream culture has consistently refused to recognize hiphop as a culture of resistance, because the acknowledgment would undermine the basic premise of white supremacism: the idea that American culture is something white people make, and something white people do. Hiphop will be allowed to exist so long as it continues to generate profits; but it must never be treated with respect and appreciation, as every recent U.S. Presidential candidate has made clear in their campaigns. And it must never be given a national forum in which these matters could be discussed, such as public schools, national arts councils, the university, etc.
But this is to state the obvious, for very few people seem upset by the discrepancy between hiphop’s reception in the U.S. and hiphop’s reception around the world, and will reply: “So? Aren’t they making money off it?” What is far more insidious is the way so many commentators on rap see no reason to actually substantiate what they say about the music. By this point, anyone can find a forum for attacking rap as misogynist, homophobic, and hateful, anti-social and reactionary. And they need cite neither names nor rap songs. But to speak about the culture as a whole will find the critic without a place to stand. It is not surprising, then, that the underground hiphop community sees itself as without any true defenders, as under siege, as embattled, and in danger of extinction—this despite the billion-dollar annual revenues generated by the culture, from the advertising of clothes and soda to the music itself. The whole hardcore aesthetic, the most recent development in the culture’s long history, is an expression of this attitude, and this way of seeing. Led by East Coast artists, the hardcore aesthetic sees Armageddon on the horizon. As Ol’ Dirty Bastard puts it in his rhyme, “Raw Hide”: “I teach the truth to the youth, I say, heh youth, here’s the truth, better start wearing bullet proof, arm yourself with a shield, before you get trapped up just like the children in the cornfield.”
But the difficulty at the current conjuncture faced by scholars of hiphop culture lies in the elementary forms of explaining that they are forced to undertake every time they take the floor. Unlike the scholar of, say, beat poetry, the scholar of rap can’t begin with a set of artists, an aesthetic trend, a historic moment, an aspect of hiphop production and technique, or the social structures of the art form. Instead, he or she must start from the beginning, and make the case for a critical appreciation of rap—that it is in fact an art form, that it has a complicated history, etc. This situation has created a massive disparity in the knowledge possessed by the observer of hiphop and the scholar who devotes himself or herself to it. It would seem that in the current conjuncture few options remain open for solving this dilemma.
Yet the drive for autonomy has produced a range of organic working-class intellectuals within hiphop culture, from underground cultural workers like Bobbito Garcia, Puerto Rican writer and underground radio host, to community-based artist-organizers like Afrika Bambaataa of the Zulu Nation. The culture has taken on the responsibility of documenting its own history, its aesthetic preferences, its imagination, and its myths. There are stories yet to be told in the scholarship that have been repeated continuously in the culture as a whole. Second, the assertion of autonomy has brought with it lasting social organizations and cultural traditions specific to hiphop. They will not be erased any time soon. In fact, organizations like the Five Percent Nation and the Zulu Nation grow and disperse as we speak. And third, there is today a whole generation of youth, “Black and otherwise,” to quote New York underground radio DJ, J Smooth, who are serious about keeping hiphop alive and true to its basic elements. Thus, the systematic ignorance that continues to face hiphop has been met dialectically by the ones closest to it: they are now beginning to systematically tell the stories of the culture, are systematically getting the record straight regarding its history and its politics, and are laying the foundation for future work on (and in) the culture and its many forms of expression. The makers of the art form have re-taken hiphop—this is the goal of the underground.
The unique contributions to U.S. popular culture made by hiphop can be stated in a few sentences: 1) hiphop has provided a method—two turntables and a microphone—for transforming consumers of popular culture into producers of popular culture; 2) hiphop has created the conditions in which everyday life can be posed as a political problem; and 3) hiphop has made “black” into a political color for a whole new generation of African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, women, and white youth. It has re-affirmed cultural resistance as an available option of the oppressed—not beyond or above us, but within us, at our own fingertips, and at the pace of our own hearts. The separation between knowledge and feeling so characteristic of mass culture has been healed by the popular arts of hiphop.
Hiphop music and culture was blessed in the late 1990s by the contributions of several perspicacious teachers and scholars. With their work these writers have defied the commonplace view that rap music is interesting and important only within the limits of social policy (e.g. “the underclass”) and/or “current events” (e.g. crime, censorship, controversy). These critics—Tim Brennan, Tricia Rose, Robin Kelley, Brian Cross, Raegan Kelly, and S. H. Fernando, Jr.—have each offered generously what Brennan in his writings has called aptly “a rap appreciation.” In laboring over the forms and social structures of rap, and by taking into account the pleasures of the hiphop aesthetic, they have upped the ideological ante, and prepared the way for the first systematic defense of hiphop as a Black and Latino arts movement, and a lived culture.1
I think of the function of the hiphop underground in terms of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the “creative school,” which he describes thus (in his essay, “On Education”):
In the creative phase, on the basis that has been achieved of “collectivization” of the social type, the aim is to expand the personality—by now autonomous and responsible, but with a solid and homogeneous moral and social conscience. Thus creative school does not mean school of “inventors and discoverers”; it indicates a phase and a method of research and of knowledge, and not a predetermined “programme” with an obligation to originality and innovation at all costs. It indicates that learning takes place especially through a spontaneous and autonomous effort of the pupil, with the teacher only exercising a function of friendly guide—as happens or should happen in the university. To discover a truth oneself, without external suggestions or assistance, is to create—even if the truth is an old one. It demonstrates a mastery of the method, and indicates that in any case one has entered the phase of intellectual maturity in which one may discover new truths. Hence in this phase the fundamental scholastic activity will be carried on in seminars, in libraries, in experimental laboratories; during it, the organic data will be collected for a professional orientation (33).
The sublimation of hiphop occurs when the final product—Mathers’s The Eminem Show, for instance—is gleaned as complete in and of itself, and is regarded as an inevitable outcome either of “the market” or, conversely, of one artist’s heroic climb to the heights of stardom and aesthetic perfection. Eminem himself flirts with the sublimation of hiphop in the final scene of 8 Mile, where he parts company unceremoniously with the Black hiphop underground community of Detroit to walk off alone into the dirty factory smoke of the city, ennobled by his victory over a group of rival rappers and satisfied that his success has been an individual accomplishment rather than a compelling work of the collective. What makes 8 Mile’s disappointing denouement so provocative, however, is the possibility that Mathers is not so much leaving behind the underground, and hence the prospect of reintegrating himself in Black Detroit, but instead preparing himself for the life of a defector from the “white race”—a singular journey that he must struggle on by himself, without the rich and supportive network of African American people and culture that has enabled his success, and has fueled his creative activity. In this sense, his decision to make things up as he goes along free of the white identity, which depends largely on the comforting presence of Black love and acceptance, is the strongest gesture of anti-white supremacism that he could make, and perhaps one of the most astonishing this society has ever seen.
1. Tim Brennan’s essay, “Off the Gangsta Tip: A Rap Appreciation, Or Forgetting About Los Angeles” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1994) is the first study of the hiphop aesthetic proper. He makes us see that the politics of hiphop are in the aesthetic itself. Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover & London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994) is already the most oft-cited text in the growing body of hiphop criticism. Robin Kelley has done the most work on the gangsta rap genre, but his scope is “global” (all-embracing and unifying). His theory of gangsta rap as an organic music of the Black working class has helped establish a critical method for approaching hiphop. His long essay, “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: The Cultural Politics of Gangsta Rap in Postindustrial Los Angeles” (in his book of essays, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, New York: The Free Press, 1994), is an elaboration of this method. With It’s Not About a Salary…: Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1993), Brian Cross has produced the first underground study of hiphop. Raegan Kelly has documented the powerful Latino presence in hiphop, from Chicano rap on the West Coast to Puerto Rican hiphop on the East. Her essay, “Hiphop Chicano: A Separate but Parallel Story,” is in Cross’s book. In The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture, and Attitude of Hiphop (1994), S.H. Fernando, Jr. has provided the tightest analysis of hiphop’s peculiar scale. (It should be noted that the real pathfinders in hiphop criticism are James Spady and Joesph Eure, who ingeniously organized hiphop according to its cultural, political, social, and economic components in their important book, Nation Conscious Rap [Philadelphia: PC International, 1991]. Unfortunately, their work has been neglected by critics of hiphop.)
Als, Hilton, & Darryl A. Turner, eds. White Noise: The Eminem Collection. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003.
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