You can’t write about rap music without writing about race. Every aspect of the music and its progression over the years from community center dance parties in the Bronx to a billion-dollar, global phenomenon is somehow tied into the African-American experience.

As a white guy, writing about hip-hop necessarily presents its own challenges, because nobody likes a white guy writing about race. But this isn’t a post about how hard it is to be a white guy. Because that’s bullshit. There’s no war on whiteness, just like there’s no war on Christianity, or need for men’s rights groups. It’s hard to be a human being, but there’s nothing specifically difficult about being white or male. You just have to recognize that you are a white man, and hence come to any given issue with a perspective informed by that fact.

For those of us who grew up immersed in rap music, this can be confusing. Rap music is my music, so how can I also be an outsider? I’m no fan of Eminem, but recently felt a connection to him upon reading of his reaction to X-Clan’s classic song “Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It?”

“It was a slap in the face. It was like, you’re loving and supporting the music, you’re buying the artist and supporting the artist, you love it and live it and breathe it, then who’s to say that you can’t do it?”

If you’ve never heard X-Clan and you dig golden-era rap, consider “To The East, Blackwards” crucial homework, due last week. While I understand Eminem’s confusion because of my own sense of belonging to various cultures that were not my own growing up, I’ve also come to realize that worry about being rejected by a culture because I’m white is about as first-world as problems get. Fellow Caucasians: We do not understand what it is to be black. Sorry for breaking your heart, but the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can be a part of a useful conversation about race (HINT: This conversation should involve a LOT of listening).

Straight Outta Compton

Last weekend saw the release of “Straight Outta Compton,” the N.W.A. biopic directed by F. Gary Gray. To me, it’s unthinkable that anyone wouldn’t know who N.W.A. was or what that acronym stood for, but I recognize this is a product of my fascination with rap music, and the white mainstream’s various racist reactions to it growing up.

As a film, “Straight Outta Compton” mostly succeeds, even as it’s constrained by the chains of biopic formula. By their very nature, most biopics are mind-numbingly linear accounts or gross distortions of fact, so bound to their source material that no effort whatsoever is made to fashion a piece of art that represents the truth of that life through both style and substance. And yet, as a rap fanboy, there was enough wish fulfillment in getting to see the legends of Ice Cube, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and Eazy-E brought to life on the screen that I was forced to swallow a bit of my critical pretense and just enjoy the ride.

But just as you can’t write about rap music without writing about race, you can’t very well make a film about one of the genre’s most provocative groups without hitting on issues of race still plaguing us nearly 30 years later. N.W.A.’s anthem “Fuck tha Police” was a favorite of mine in middle school. Back then, my only personal point of context was the Corvallis Police Department’s insidious plot to stop us from sneaking out and toilet-papering the houses of unlucky neighbors.

Through the music of N.W.A. – and Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Ice-T, Paris, and many more – I learned that I had a lot to learn about the world and how those born into different circumstances and colors of skin experienced it. Watching “Straight Outta Compton,” even as I was enjoying the ride, I also was reminded of my own privilege, and of the very real threat that non-whites deal with in this country every day.

You Are Now About To Witness …

It’s said that science fiction is able to examine complex social issues in a non-confrontational fashion because it sets real world problems in a fantastical future. Director Neil Blomkamp is a good contemporary example of this who has both succeeded (“District 9”) and failed (“Elysium”) in his attempts to train our eyes on the future and present simultaneously. Similarly, “Straight Outta Compton” is able to show us police brutality and racial double standards in a way few other films are even trying to. Watching N.W.A. get assaulted by prejudiced police officers in a “white” part of Los Angeles for the sole crime of trying to make a record is quite justifiably more palatable than a movie about Eric Garner, who was strangled to death by an NYPD officer for no reason at all.

Still, you shouldn’t be able to watch “Straight Outta Compton” without thinking about Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Ezell Ford, Walter Scott, or any of the other black men and women who’ve been killed by cops – or died under suspicious circumstances involving cops – in this country in the past year.

Then, perhaps you should ask yourself, where are the artists making the “Fuck tha Police” of today? Sure, there’s Killer Mike of Run The Jewels, who did a number of interviews in the wake of the Brown and Garner killings calling for increased vigilance, and who even detailed his own mistreatment at the hands of police on RTJ’s new album. There’s Kendrick Lamar, whose new album “To Pimp A Butterfly” is bursting with racial commentary and calls for solidarity within the black community. But is the mainstream media listening to these artists and others the way they did when they were scared as shit after “Fuck tha Police” or Body Count’s “Cop Killer” came out? Looking back, it’s evident that coverage was more based on novelty and the reactions of white celebrities and politicians than on any real interest in social justice.

Filling The Void

Hardcore hip-hop culture rose up out of the neglect of the inner cities to become a voice for the voiceless at least partially because news organizations weren’t telling the artists’ and their communities’ stories. While we shouldn’t be shocked that TV journalists are still more interested in bullshit like Kanye West’s wedding to Kim Kardashian than the points he’s making about race in his music, it’s also worth noting that his music isn’t a tenth as compelling as N.W.A.’s.

While there was plenty of mediocre, wallpaper rap music being made in the late ’80s and early ’90s – Will Smith, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, etc. – there also seemed to be a much higher percentage of artists with a stake in changing the world. Now, while Rick Ross – and seemingly the vast majority of the industry – is making bank by rapping about making bank (and drugging women’s drinks), groups such as The Coup are barely raising an eyebrow with lyrics advocating the overthrow of our whole damn system of government. Even smart, talented rap acts such as Ghostface Killah, Czarface, and PRhyme are more concerned with clever battle raps and escapist storytelling than waging a war against bad ideology.

Who’s Got Next?

I fully realize that I used up my “white guy bitching about the state of hip-hop” supply before I even set fingertips to keyboard, and like all my posts, this one is long as hell and in need of finishing. The last thing I want is for readers to walk away thinking I’m dissing a still-vital and transformative art form. There are undoubtedly hundreds if not thousands of super potent rappers coming up around the planet by talking about the issues mainstream media ignores; we have but to discover them. Right here in North Portland, for instance, there’s a cat named Glenn Waco, who is telling the tales of police prejudice through music while standing up for what he believes in on the street and in the court room. Unless you live here or pay close attention to NW hip-hop, he likely isn’t yet on your radar.

Rather than making an argument, I hope this post raises questions: Who will be the next N.W.A. or Public Enemy, that thrusts discussion of race to the level of Tom Brokaw talking awkwardly about it on the nightly news? Why does much of the mainstream media seem more interested in car crashes than police shootings? Why are police departments still filled with such racist pieces of shit, and what can we do to stop them?

Lastly, I find myself wondering, among all those out protesting/raising awareness of the anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, are there young minds that will become so sickened by what they see and so excited by the potential of music to ignite social change, that they’ll go home and record the next great anti-authoritarian anthem?

When they do, let’s hope we’re listening.


  1. Bronze

    A book I’ve been meaning to read–recently checked out from the library and devoured by Shakedown–is Greg Tate’s “Everything But the Burden.” Not sure I would agree with the contents, but as she described it to me it sure seemed like it would be an eye-opener and thought-provoker.

    I really don’t know where I stand on the issue of cultural appropriation. But I DO know that as a white guy I have the luxury of choosing to not think about it, or pretend it isn’t an issue.

    1. Author

      Well said! I, too, read that book at Shakedown’s suggestion and it stirred my mental gumbo nicely. I can see a scenario in which fear of or obsession with cultural appropriation could limit the cross-pollination between cultures that is absolutely crucial to the creation of new art, but I don’t think a simple awareness of the concept will hurt anyone. And it would certainly serve some folks out there very well.

  2. Keith Baynard

    Jake, I agree with everything you said, but I noticed one thing you left out. The blatant misogyny and sexism of so much rap music (indeed, popular music as a whole) is something I have, and had, a problem with. While I love Public Enemy, NWA and Body Count fiercely (and have many of their albums), when woman-hating showed itself in their songs, it turned me off and made it harder for me to recommend their music unreservedly. I also have a problem with the celebration of materialism in so much of this material (again, I recognize it’s in popular culture as a whole). Listen, I don’t CARE if you’ve got a bigger car, a bigger house, or a bigger dick than I do, but I certainly don’t need to hear about it over and over; it bores me.
    I agree that racism still exists, that it is used against black people every day, but I think that’s not the only problem they face. I think that presenting a united front (including the women, for instance) would lead to more progress fighting against the evil of racism. And materialism is only a shallow escape, one which racists use as a club against them.

    1. Author

      Very good point about the misogyny in hip-hop, Keith, and I would add homophobia to the list of concerns I still have about the music. In “Fuck tha Police,” Ice Cube raps “I don’t know if they’re fags or what, search a nigga down, and grabbing his nuts.” In recent years, Tyler The Creator, MF Doom and a number of other respected rappers have engaged in far worse verbal gay bashing. Also, I’m sure you’ve read journalist Dee Barnes’ accounts of being assaulted by Dr. Dre. For the record, I never heard Public Enemy say a word that can be considered anti-woman, but perhaps I missed something? Perhaps a point I failed to make is that this was a Horatio Alger story of a movie, and I hope it will serve as inspiration for young people who might not be great rappers (like Eazy-E) to tell their stories regardless. But as a Horatio Alger story, it omitted a lot of the ugly truth of NWA’s success, and I hope any kids inspired by this story will do the research, learn from past idols’ mistakes, and help create a new climate in which sexism and homophobia are no longer a part of asserting one’s masculinity within the rap community. We’re a couple of dreamers, aren’t we?

      1. Keith Baynard

        We’re all just people, after all. You wouldn’t have to look too deep in my closet, for instance, to find evidence of less-than-perfect behavior. Lucky I’m not a celebrity, huh? The point is, we’re all TRYING – at least the good ones are – and if we’re not perfectible, at least we’re improvable.
        And yes, we’re a couple of dreamers. I hope we always are.

  3. Ellie

    Well written and thought provoking, as usual. I agree with so much of what you said, and look forward to looking up some of the folks (like the NW rapper) that you mentioned. This also got me thinking about movies that came out years ago. Not only did we grow up with some education of the larger world, or the issues of race, because of the rap music, but we also were exposed to movies like Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing. Those right there had to make me think about experiences different from my own. With the recent release of Straight Outta Compton, I started thinking about these movies again, and how relevant they still are today. Unfortunately the events in these movies could have taken place last week (and probably did somewhere). Why isn’t there more acknowledgement of that now, and why isn’t there more outrage? Do we need celebrities of some type, maybe music artists (as you suggested) to talk about them before people believe and start taking action? Do we need the cause to become “pop culture” before change can be effected? Sorry, I have no answers to any of these, but they are the questions I’ve been thinking about, and what your article further brought to mind.

    1. Ellie

      Radio Raheeem is a reference that I want everyone to know.

      1. Author

        And everyone should! I was crushed when he was choked to death. Another great fictional character representing real-world injustice in a way that would be challenging for a nonfiction film.

    2. Author

      Good point, Ellie. “Do The Right Thing” was a truly transformative experience in my life. But I was lucky enough to grow up in a college town where I could see it on the small screen at Milam Auditorium. I don’t even think that played the theaters in Corvallis. Similarly, I traveled to Portland to see “Menace II Society” (with your brother, I might add). But given a lot of us small-town kids’ interest in hip-hop culture, I’ve no doubt that, even when we had to work harder to hear these perspectives, they resonated with us. Let’s hope “Straight Outta Compton” ushers in a new era of streetwise cinema.


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