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'History of Rap' and the 'whitification' of black music

By Victoria Kallsen
On February 24, 2014

In a stunning fifth part of their "History of Rap" series, two white guys - Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake - make the socially conscious lyrics of black hip hop and rap more comfortable and accessible to their audience. This is a continuation of the symptomatic "whitification" of African-American music and an appeasement of white unease with listening to that "thug music." As a result, hip hop and rap music has been split into "white" and "black" categories. This process ultimately places its creators at a disadvantage, where their music is refitted for white markets, redone by white artists and stripped of its social meaning. Ultimately this says more about white audiences who are so uncomfortable with black expression that they must re-categorize it into their own form before it becomes acceptable.
This whitewashing of African-American music emulates previous patterns. Many forms of music, such as blues, jazz, swing, rock and roll trace their roots back to African American creators. As described by David Ewen in his book "Panorama of American Popular Music," blues music allowed expression of "personal woes ... the cruelty of police officers, oppression at the hands of white folk (and) hard times." Blues and rhythm eventually gave way to rock and roll for the African-American artist scene in the 1940s and 1950s. However, Elvis Presley would retool this style into a rockabilly sound, and suddenly rock and roll was a white man's game.
The biggest crime of the "History of Rap" series is that it makes sound bites of impactful and socially aware songs; to be fair to Jimmy Fallon, few probably care to realize Jay-Z's "99 Problems" is actually a recounting of his experiences with racial profiling in the 1990s. Still, it's rather suspicious that the "History of Rap" is boiled down to a couple of popular lines while Fallon and JT "jump around" the studio. Additionally, the series exposes the "black" and "white" versions of the rap and hip hop genres. "Black" hip hop was constructed by many marketing executives in the 90s to appeal to white audiences with sex and danger as they took a larger interest in the genre. This was possibly due to the success of the Beastie Boys.
As a result, "authentic black stories" emerged - boasting of their bling, their gangs, their girls and their drugs - at the cost of creating damaging stereotypes about African Americans today. Artists like Drake and Childish Gambino find their "blackness" questioned, as the latter addresses in his song "Bonfire" - "Told me I should just quit: 'First of all, you talk white!"
As described by Policy Mic, the "core attributes of early hip-hop music, such as its political critique, social commentary, comedy and spirituality" were rejected in favor of this new image.
Modern hip-hop artists like Macklemore have gained attention for songs rejecting this "black" hip hop. In "Thrift Shop," Macklemore rejects the materialistic ideals that "black" hip hop provides while mocking them for their designer choices. The song, "Same Love," while a beautiful equality anthem, also stands in defiance of the hyper-masculine image of its counterpart. This describes "white" hip hop as sensitive and meaningful in a way its darker twin isn't. What's important to realize is that the actual color of one's skin almost ceases to have an effect on this muddled mess. White and black rappers can be on both sides of the musical coin here. What matters is the impression of the minority group when the majority group makes it their own.
The evidence points to a long history of manipulating and controlling African-American music. By repacking and retooling, blacks have either been forgotten - as was the case with the foundation of rock and roll - or restructured into a new image. This has left us with the impression that black influence is largely unimportant and presents harmful stereotypes. With the advent of "black" hip hop, all black rappers are defined as "dangerous," and we give them little room to expand on this. Worst of all, the core values of hip hop, ones that challenged society and contemplated religion and politics, have become sideline antics to mainstream concepts of the genre. "Whitification" of the hip hop and rap musical style has thoroughly damaged its creators and robbed them. Through understanding the history and race complications of this matter, we can do more than Jimmy Fallon does by rapping at the camera, and instead come to fully appreciate the origins and expression of African-American culture.  


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