Why can I write about rap? The reasoning I’ve been working with the last four years is simple: I can. There is no standardized rap test I needed to pass in order to start a Tumblr and—I hope I’m not revealing too much here—nor was there a rap literacy test qualifying me to write for professional publications (Complex, Pitchfork, Spin, etc). I remain thankful there were no requirements because I certainly would not have gotten my ‘blogging license’ at 18 and I’m not even sure that at 22 I’d stand up to the harsh scrutiny of old rap heads.
The conversation around who is allowed to speak on rap culture has been discussed amongst critics for years. The issue flared up during the rise of teenaged Chicago rapper Chief Keef and an overly positive review given to his debut album Finally Rich by Jordan Sargent for Spin. Chief Keef, who before the age of 18 had already been on house-arrested on charges of shooting at cop, in 2012 ,moved from a Chicago phenomenon to getting remixed by Kanye West. The accusation, by way of Rap Radar’s B. Dot Miller, was that Sargent was commenting on a culture that was not his own and, in doing so, was promoting Chief Keef and his tragic circumstances (or something like this) with an ironic, unauthentic appreciation of the actual music. At that time in my career, I had only written for Pitchfork and did not feel right stating my case in this discussion. I was felt too green to enter into this hip-hop culture war.
An over-considered sense of self has me often wondering where I fit within today’s hip-hop culture. Right now, the number one song in the United States’ “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea, an Australian woman, who raps with an atrocious southern American accent; and last year, white rapper Macklemore scored a number of hits that were predicated on scolding his perception of “failings” within hip-hop culture. Still, rap music is seen as belonging to black culture: it operates as a cultural community that is for us and by us. And it that remains where I derive my claim to the subject matter.
The critical conversations around who is and isn’t allowed to participate in discussions on rap music often refer back to Amiri’s Baraka’s essay Jazz and the White Critic. The focus usually centers on his arguments about the role of whites in usurping the voice of prominent black critics and—what Baraka felt was—the resultant incorrect telling of jazz history. Frankly I’m perturbed but not terribly surprised that the opening remarks of the essay are often ignored because that idea centers on a group easily forgotten in rap discourse. Baraka observes that the first cultural outsider that turned its back on jazz was the Negro middle class.
Jazz was collected among the numerous skeletons the middle-class black man kept locked in the closet of his psyche, along with watermelons and gin, and whose rattling caused him no end of misery and self-hatred…the Negroes who were responsible for the best of the music were always aware of their identities as black Americans and really did not, themselves, desire to become vague, featureless Americans as is usually the case with the Negro middle class.
The idea of a Negro middle class that can speak but is, in a way, ashamed by its other brothers and sisters whose actions do not seek racial assimilation is something that never leaves my head. This is part because I’ve sat in that middle class seat my entire life, have known little else, and do not like projecting too much of my black experience onto others who’ve sat in different seats. To be honest, it makes me feel uncomfortable and is a reason I give far more consideration when writing about artists whose lives and backgrounds differ from my own, even if we share a similar complexion.
I never want to misrepresent my brothers and sisters, but I also don’t want to gloss over issues I see within their music that are similar to issues I see within myself. It is a hard line to walk because when so many voices writing about the same topic are overwhelmingly white and male I selfishly, and occasionally unproductively, want to make sure the reader knows that that is not who I am or what I look like. I want readers to know I am not of that majority and that I stand on the inside of the culture with the performer whilst reminding other writers, and perhaps white readers themselves, not to forget that they stand on the outside.
Because there is a real lack of black rap critics given ample space to express these thoughts, I constantly look back on @Judnikki’s tweets from over a year ago to understand this better. Andrew Noz’s following the discussion around Chief Keef offered his own reasoning for posting music that for black listeners raises deeper concerns than if it simply “bangs” or is “unique.” Judnikki in her tweets elaborated that for all black people it is frightening to realize that one person from your community can become a reflection of how your entire people are perceived by the outside world. Suddenly, each member of the community becomes one that you must answer for. She correctly pointed out the privilege on display for those writing about black artists without worry about that sense of judgment from the rest of their community members. No matter the amount of consideration one gives to the subject, an author that does not share the same cultural pressures can’t fully understand what the artist is putting out there in the world. They don’t.
I’ve sat in the middle of college classes without another black face in a crowd and all of sudden I represent: the athlete, the gangster, the rapper and any other faceless characterization of a black male. A couple weeks ago, I looked up a song from an artist and thought it was pretty good and sounded like another rapper from that city. I did a quick Google search and saw the rappers had gotten into a physical altercation, so after reading tweets and seeing photos from their altercation I trashed posting the song altogether. Critics can claim that they aren’t explicitly promoting the ideas in the music they are covering, but that stance is easy to assume when there is no worry that society will assume, and expect, one to act like the latest and most outrageous media representation. I could have posted that song—that I am not mentioning it here is not unintentional—but, weighing my options, I could not even justify it to myself. At that moment the song’s quality did not matter, because I thought of their violent actions and what would be my own complicity in projecting that for all to see.
Yet I write every day, still unsure of what to make of all this. I constantly worry if I can stomach having what I am signaling receive broader attention than what I am saying, and that being reflected, and twisted, back at me; or if I am even properly presenting and contextualizing the artists and music that I cover. It becomes a day-to-day test, with no way of knowing that I make the grade.