RAP artists who are not African American, like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea, have drawn recent criticism for appropriating a black art form.
Azalea was called out by Nicki Minaj, who is black, at an awards show. Others criticized Macklemore’s Grammy triumph earlier this year.
It is important to remember that appropriation, which is generally defined as taking something for one’s own use without the owner’s permission, was critical in the birth and subsequent explosive growth of hip-hop.
This type of cultural transition is fluid and it happens all the time.
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For example, in a larger historical context, consider the cultural beginnings of the United States. On certain levels, early American culture replicated British culture until U.S. culture matured and stood on its own.
Similarly, white rock ’n’ roll was born from black rock ’n’ roll. Eventually, Elvis Presley became known as “The King” of not only the white rock, but all rock culture.
Hip-hop culture was born from African-American culture in the mid-1970s. Now, more than 40 years in, is Macklemore’s success a signal that white hip-hop has begun to stand on its own? Increasingly, the answer appears to be yes.
There have been four major white acts within mainstream rap music over the last 30 years: the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, Eminem and, now, Macklemore.
In 1986, the Beastie Boys were signed by Russell Simmons to Def Jam,hip-hop’s first great record label, and toured with the likes of Run-DMC. This built-in credibility with African Americans allowed the Beastie Boys to initially push the boundaries of white hip-hop with their style of dress, sound and subject matter.
He has been essentially reduced to a caricature over time, but Vanilla Ice’s significance in the evolution of the white hip-hop is often overlooked.
In 1991, Vanilla Ice became the first white sex-symbol the rap genre had ever seen. Even though he was thoroughly mocked as an artist almost from the beginning, white women wanted to date him and white guys wanted to be him.
Eminem came with more credibility because his rhyme skill was immediately apparent and because African-American producer Dr. Dre signed him and produced his 1999 debut album “The Slim Shady LP.” Questions of appropriation surfaced immediately, and Eminem even addressed them in his 2002 song “Without Me”:
“I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley, to do black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy (Hey) / There’s a concept that works 20 million other white rappers emerge.”
Macklemore has experienced unprecedented levels of popularity and acceptance by embracing his whiteness in a new way.
Two of the songs that he has ridden to massive prop levels, “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” go against two of the most well-established norms within traditional hip-hop culture: bling (flashy jewelry worn to show off wealth) and homophobia.
Being white, no doubt, helped facilitate Macklemore’s success in addressing these topics through the lens of hip-hop. His and Ryan Lewis’ four-trophy night at the Grammy Awards in January was the ultimate symbol of mainstream validation, yet perhaps the real surprise was that he didn’t also win the awards for Song of the Year and Album of the Year.
These kinds of racial dynamics are not just about white kids. In his 2013 song “Nothing Is Stopping You,” rapper Big Sean, who is black, tells the story of giving an impromptu audition to an aspiring young African-American rapper.
In one line the kid describes himself as being “like a young black Eminem,” which reminds us that there are new generations of kids of all colors who experience these types of whiteness in rap music as normal.
This kind of racial identity buffet is hardly new in hip-hop. Widely forgotten are the gimmicky Young Black Teenagers who released their self-titled debut album in 1991.
Backed by Public Enemy, Young Black Teenagers had a song titled “Proud to be Black,” even though all the group members were white.
Recently Iggy Azalea has become a hot topic in the discussion about appropriation within the context of hip-hop. Even though she emigrated from Australia, Azalea has become the first white female rapper to make a serious imprint in the United States.
Again, it’s worth remembering that hip-hop itself developed through young people appropriating what was around them. During hip-hop’s formative years, appropriation could be found in rap songs played by DJs at block parties who sampled records by artists like James Brown and the Tom-Tom Club.
Graffiti artists appropriated walls and entire sides of subway cars, and break dancers created a new genre by taking elements from others such as tap, jazz and lindy-hopping.
In 1979, “Rapper’s Delight,” the first internationally distributed rap record, was a prime example of appropriation. Using a sample from the 1979 disco hit “Good Times” by the group Chic, recording executive Sylvia Robinson and three rappers known as The Sugarhill Gang produced “Rapper’s Delight.” None of the members had any standing or credibility within the early hip-hop culture, which had evolved from the South Bronx beginning in the early 1970s.
An early example of white artists appropriating hip-hop was the 1980 song “Rapture” by the group Blondie.
In the late 1980s, African-American rappers from the West Coast appropriated East Coast hip-hop traditions and used lyrical stories of street life in Los Angeles to create the genre known as gangsta rap.
Macklemore and Azalea are only doing what hip-hop artists have been doing for the past 30 years: using inspiration from others to produce something new. However, this does not invalidate the unease some African Americans feel about what appears to be the emergence of white hip-hop culture.
Perhaps sometime soon we’ll see a rapper of color accused of appropriating white style.
Daudi Abe is the author of “6 ‘N the Morning: West Coast Hip-Hop Music 1987-1992 & the Transformation of Mainstream Culture.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org