Race Riot Revisited

So, there was a minor shitstorm (well, in my opinion at least; anything to me that happens exclusively on the Internet is minor) over Chief Keef’s major-label debut, and a lot of it had to do with the ideas of race and cultural tourism. I was asked by Michele Catalano to weigh in on the argument, and parts of it were posted in her piece on the matter for Forbes. After the jump is the uncut version of what I had to say.

As you probably already know, I have a lot to say. And it’s complicated.

You know, a few of my music writer friends and I were chatting about this on a message board just yesterday.

As a black man who grew up in a poor neighborhood — not “stop asking, we can’t afford HBO” poor, but “we’re cooking hot dogs on the kerosene heater for dinner” poor — it’s sometimes painful to read white music journalists who probably know nothing about gun violence outside of what it looks like in movie theaters write about artists who are legitimately mired in gun violence. But on the same token, you don’t need to know much about gun violence to like a style of music and write about it. I knew nothing about Philip K. Dick when I heard Sonic Youth’s Sister for the first time. And that’s the beauty of it. Music often introduces people to culture.

This is an argument that goes in all sorts of different directions for me. On one hand, I was firmly rooted in the music blogging world when white rap critics began to champion simpler, aggressive, energy-based hip-hop versus its more cerebral and nuanced older cousin. I remember thinking to myself, “How come all of the writers going crazy over this stuff are white?” It did remind me of the “minstrel show” the anonymous commenter referred to on Andrew Nosnitsky’s blog. It felt as though there was a paradigm shift. While this style of hip-hop became more popular — even as I softened my stance on it and even began to enjoy a lot of it — a lot of these same critics were decrying “backpack rap,” the kind of hip-hop that prides itself in being smart (hence the derisive nickname, created long, long before any of this stuff started happening). While gun-toting artists like Chief Keef and Gucci Mane were the toast (er, token) of white hip-hop critics in indie journalism circles, artists like Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle — artists that show, hey, it’s okay to be black and have a high IQ in rap! — were being panned to the depths of Lower Hell. 

I want to make it a point to say there’s no wrong kind of rap music to enjoy, as long as you’re not cracking Prussian Blue on your stereo. Rap, in my opinion, is without question the most important form of popular culture we have right now.

On the other hand, I was a little taken aback by B. Dot’s comment to Jordan Sargent about rap being “HIS” (i.e. black) culture. I mean, it is black culture, let’s not fool ourselves. But this is the kind of cultural gatekeeping that would have set us back years if a white person had said this to a black person practicing a predominantly white art form. I’ve been writing almost exclusively about indie-rock for half a decade. I’ve been hired by Pitchfork, hired by MTV Hive, hired to run my own column at Passion of the Weiss as a rock writer. If someone called me an “interloper” or a “cultural tourist,” not only would I throw my resume right in their face, but there would be a whole mess of people flagging that incident as “racism.” I’m not saying B. Dot’s being racist here, but maybe a little dogmatic about how he approached this topic.

There are plenty of white hip-hop writers who see the culture as their life, who are forehead-deep in the culture and would rather quit journalism entirely than forsake it. (I will cite Jeff Weiss, a close friend and the greatest hip-hop critic on earth these days, as an example.)

Ultimately, I like a few of Chief Keef’s songs. They’re fun! They’re aggressive! They get you hyped up! On every level except for lyrical content, I’m certain listening to him and Waka Flocka Flame recalls the same experience as what happened when Black Flag burst onto the scene. It’s not incredibly cerebral music, but it’s extremely visceral, which is something people of any color can relate to. But right now, Keef is in really big trouble, and judging him solely by his music means you’re only telling half of the story. You don’t have to moralize or being the color line into the equation by saying this guy who is rapping about shooting guns is up shit’s creek for allegedly shooting guns. But sometimes it’s necessary to discuss the culture behind the artist.

It’s not a requirement to be immersed in a certain type of culture in order to write about it well. A journalist’s job is to be knowledgeable, and it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. People are smarter than we often give them credit for. They can figure out whether you really know about something or if you just have an itchy Google finger.


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