RACE REBELS: WHITENESS AND THE NEW MASCULINE DESIRE
In “The Problem with White Hipness,” Ingrid Monson has suggested how certain affectations that signified and indexed the cool and the hip became associated with black avant-garde jazz musicians from late 1940s bebop culture, and which appeared to reject white mainstream conformity through a music and lifestyle viewed as socially deviant and therefore liberatory. The jazz culture of bebop would inspire the bohemianism of the white hipster and the beat poets and writers of the 1950s that included Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and other socially alienated white intellectuals. Through the adoption of modes of black male expressive behavior—slang-laden speech, rhythmic black music, flamboyant dress, a new vocabulary of body gestures, and an attitude of aloofness that rejected the conformity of the “square” world—the white hipster reproduced the affecting black presence through manner and style as racialized performance in which “the attitude of the bebop musician as anti-assimilationist social critic became embodied in and visualized through various sonic, visual, linguistic, and ideological markers.”1 These markers became affective qualities associated with the black body in performance and were eventually appropriated and (re)presented in formulations of social identity and expressions of powerful masculinity for white males in popular culture not only in music but in other mediums, particularly film.
Monson argues that through such superficial engagements “the idea of hipness and African American music as cultural critique” has become detached from the “socially conscious attitude that hipness has been presumed to signify.”2 Liberal white hipsters fall into a trap, she suggests, by viewing blackness as a kind of absence, for instance, of a morality that African Americans are presumed to lack and that defines them as perpetual social outsiders, and which “paradoxically, buys into the historical legacy of primitivism and its concomitant exoticism of the ‘Other.'”3 Monson apparently believes that white assumptions about black primitivism, deviance, and morality are somehow coincidental, which would overlook the fact that the racial imaginings of whites have always drawn upon tropes of primitivism and exoticism of the black Other. Perhaps what she means to suggest is that it is rather paradoxical that these cool, urbane, and sophisticated black actors whose sense of how enlightened human beings ought to interact with each other should somehow be read as primitive because the music they performed was as visceral as it was intellectual. In any case, Monson does not fully take into account the very real allure of notions of deviance and primitivism in the formation of white adolescent male identity, a matter certainly not lost on Norman Mailer in his construction of the white hipster.
The socially conscious attitude that Monson suggests black hipness presumes to signify has arguably been less a critical factor in the adoption of aesthetic markers of black style by middle-class white youth than has been the association of such gestures with quaint notions of class revolt, the liberation from pseudo-Victorian mores, and the fetishization of the black Other as a radical social actor. In the same way that minstrel performance created liberatory spaces in which white actors could critically engage their apprehension and fears surrounding the complexities and contingencies of pre-industrialization and a rapidly shifting social order, subsequent appropriations of black subjectivity have served much the same role. When Monson eventually engages the ways in which stereotypes of blackness have historically been associated with madness, pathological sexuality, and deviance, she appears to suggest understanding all along, particularly when she acknowledges that white hipsterism and the performance of black masculinity have everything to do with the “bald equation of the primitive with sex, and sex with the music and body of the black male jazz musician.”4 Dizzy Gillespie’s cool style and mannerisms—his horn-rimmed glasses, goatee, and French beret—were widely imitated by white hipsters because they were read as subversive.5 Monson also acknowledges that “the ‘subcultural’ image of bebop was nourished by a conflation of the music with a style of black masculinity that held, and continues to hold, great appeal for white audiences and musicians.”6 However, it is not simply the case that black bebop musicians found themselves subjected to appropriation by primitivist racial ideologies, but that the black body itself has been prone to such cultural appropriations ever since T. D. Rice jumped Jim Crow. In the end, Monson concludes that the association of African American males with criminality and general mayhem “sold extremely well in the twentieth-century.”7 The triumph of hardcore rap makes it clear that the transgressive black body, primitivism, and cross-racial desire continue to find value in the marketplace of global popular culture well into the new millennium.
Elvis Rocks the White Negro
The conflation of styles of music with representations of black masculinity and sexuality has been a recurring trope in American popular culture and in the construction of white working-class identity. It is arguable whether 1950s rock ’n’ roll could have become the cultural phenomenon it did without the interpretive power and appeal of Elvis Presley, who made palpable connections between the corporeal body, black male subjectivity, sexual transgression, and social rebellion. Elvis was the quintessential white hipster and the rock ’n’ roll body personified, defining and telegraphing through movement, gesture, deportment, and stylish couture the art of social subversion for white middle- and working-class youth.
There was nothing particularly subversive about the music Elvis sang during his period in Memphis with Sam Phillips' Sun Records but the fact that he sang it at all, and that he sang it “with the Negro sound and the Negro feel” borrowed from his love of black gospel and rhythm and blues that Phillips had been searching for in a white singer. Bill Haley and the Comets had already created the synergy of country music and rhythm and blues that became rock ’n’ roll in cover versions of songs such as “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake Rattle and Roll” before Elvis ever cut his first side, a cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” (omitting the word “Mama”) in July 1954. What became important in Elvis’ appeal, besides the fact that he was a decent singer, were his matinee idol good looks, a youthful raciness, and the fact that he essentially represented and made available to white audiences a performance of sexualized black male subjectivity that removed the taboo of race. With his famous sneer, flamboyant dress, and sexually suggestive performance of the body, Elvis became the new and improved racialized Other, leading a full-frontal assault on the last vestiges of Victorian decorum once assailed by the minstrel mask.
Elvis’ emotive sexual power was informed by his interpretation of a now implicit black male subjectivity that erased the visible sign of blackness that in minstrelsy was represented by the act of masking. If there is any sense to John Lennon’s curiously naïve remark that “before Elvis, there was nothing,” it is perhaps that before Elvis, white teen males had no masculine models that could transpose with any real authenticity the swagger of black males onto white bodies. Elvis’s authenticity rested not in the mojo of the blackface mask but in his transfiguration of the sexualized and spectacularized black male body, gyrating his famous pelvis in such a publicly vulgar way that it might well be considered the 1950s version of crotch grabbing. In any case, Elvis pointed his compass in the right direction, below the belt where the good stuff is, thus forever linking the new music of social rebellion with sex, the masculine body, deviance, and a subtext of underlying associations around primitivism and blackness. Presley was as predictable and perhaps as necessary as Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, or Benny Goodman before him, since each represented a solicitous devotion to black cultural appropriation and consumption that, perhaps paradoxically, coexisted with a disingenuous impulse to erase the black body from virtually every other aspect of American life.
Presley’s charisma, looks, and good-natured innocence, along with a genuine affinity for black music and culture, allowed him to believably assume black male subjectivity as racialized performance, and like T. D. Rice, interject it metaphorically into the field of popular culture as community property. Presley’s enduring contribution to the popularization of rock ’n’ roll may also have had more to do with the fact that he gave white adolescents (perhaps for the first time since Frank Sinatra in the 1930s but certainly with more abandon) permission to engage themselves emotionally to the point of hysteria, and in a very public way. For girls this largely manifested as euphoric screaming, sobbing, and amorous swooning. For adolescent males this meant the adoration of emulation. Presley provided the template for a new model of masculine performance that was emotive and vulnerable yet boldly and bodily assertive.
In either case, such affective displays were predicated on a certain amount of licensed abandon that Presley made available through the appropriation of performative modes of dress, gesture, speech, vocal delivery, and body-ism that were exuberantly liberating. Rock 'n' roll of the 1950s was “a place where excess [was] glorified [and where] the body [was] released from surveillance and societal control; screaming and yelling, as at an Elvis concert, [was] not only sanctioned, but encouraged.” 8 With Elvis, the appropriation of rhythm and blues and black male subjectivity become transfigured in a sleight-of-hand racial performance that transformed white youth into rock ’n’ roll rebels and alienated social outsiders, portrayed in Hollywood films by actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean. Presley’s mastery of “transvesting,”9 in which one wears the clothing and assumes the identity of another, inverted the play of black and white subject positions that were the ground of minstrelsy performance. In blackface performance, the Janus-faced image of the black mask externalizes blackness as a kind of explicit actor while whiteness remains internalized, literally invisible, as an informing albeit implicit internal actor. It is the mask that imbues the performance with authenticity while whiteness remains presumably untainted behind the illusion it has created for itself. In this play of the carnivalesque, the black body is the thing made visible. Tattered clothing, a caricature of black speech patterns, facial gestures, the motioning of the hands, jig dancing, and other performative gestures work in tandem to construct a representation of black male subjectivity as theatrical spectacle encoded at the site of the body while the minstrel performer as provocateur and puppet-master winks from behind his fool’s mask. The performance of the black body in minstrelsy references, then, an array of cultural practices that both erase and (re)present black subjectivity as an externalized phantasm of the white racial imagination.
The black minstrel introduced into white American working-class culture ideas and emotions that could not have been otherwise articulated safely, thus mapping out for the white performer new ways of emotionally relating to an otherwise rigid and restricted world. In Sambo: The Rise & Demise of an American Jester, Joseph Boskin underscores the importance of affective appropriation in racial transvesting by suggesting that “the Caucasian feel for black styles was enormously enhanced and widened by the minstrel’s complex utilization of the black experience”10 in an array of allusive ways that constructed an illusion of authenticity. The focus on feel, on emotion and affective performance, is of paramount importance, as are the ways in which it is captured, transposed, and inscribed from black to white bodies, where it is then rearticulated in such a way that whiteness itself becomes transfigured. With Presley, bodily gestures, movements, and a provocative performance style that mimicked the exuberance and emotional energy of black performers become visual signifiers that replaced masking as the affective apparatus constructing the illusion of black subjectivity. White subjectivity now becomes externalized, literally liberated from the duplicitous deceit of the blackface mask as well as from social constraints that repressed physical displays of emotional exuberance. The freedom to openly exult in emotive ways would have been as liberating for British youth throwing off the last vestiges of postwar Victorianism as for white American youth growing up in Dwight Eisenhower’s America, which certainly explains Lennon’s sycophantic gratitude—the hysteria of “Beatlemania” in the 1960s could not have happened without Elvis a decade earlier.
White rock ’n’ roll performers also negotiated intractable tensions around race mixing that lay at the heart of much of the early opposition to rock ’n’ roll, which “represented everything that white, middle-class parents feared: it was urban, it was sexual, and most of it was black.”11 The sexual fantasy and adoration of infatuated teenage girls that rock ’n’ roll unleashed were perhaps more tolerable if the objects of their adoration were Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Pat Boone because it stemmed fears of miscegenation. Russ Sanjek, a vice president of the music-licensing agency Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI), recalled the golden age of rock ’n’ roll as “a time when many a mother ripped pictures of Fats Domino off her daughter’s bedroom wall. She remembered what she felt toward her Bing Crosby pin-up, and she didn’t want her daughter creaming for Fats.”12
Ways of Knowing: The Politics of Racial Border Crossings
The black body has typically been appropriated and deployed as a kind of discursive text that constitutes a web of cultural connotations inscribed with an array of possible meanings that are then (re)inscribed onto white bodies and performed in ways that signify powerful historical ideologies about blackness, gender, masculinity, and personal power—ideological articulations that are “used by . . . fans to construct identities that provide alternative representations of their real social experiences.”13 These ways of apprehending blackness and masculinity have become critical to ongoing efforts by white youth to “represent their own experiences, to speak in their own voices rather than in the hegemonic codes” 14 of mainstream culture and its repressive social constraints.
George Lipsitz also observes that while the disguise of blackness in minstrelsy performance ministered to deeper needs and desires of both performers and audiences, it “is still important to understand how and why the fascination with difference works.”15 In Lipsitz’s assessment, “the genius of African-American culture in nurturing and sustaining moral and cultural alternatives to dominant values has made it an important source of education and inspiration to alienated and aggrieved individuals cut off from other sources of oppositional practice.”16 This notwithstanding, he argues, the suffocating kinds of social tyranny that youth seek to escape through such appropriations should also encourage more principled and perhaps more productive engagements across cultures than those based on caricature and stereotype. In the historical evolution of American assimilation, whiteness had more to do with class privilege than with notions of nationality or physiology, and was something purchased and fought for by Jews, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Polish, and indentured servants, while blackness “was never something one had to attain, at least not outside of Bohemian circles.”17 Given this history, constructions of whiteness that rely on the fetishization of the racial Other must continually be interrogated since they retain the power to perpetuate commodity racism and racial exploitation.
Lipsitz offers a number of examples of progressive engagements in racial culture crossings, among them the Greek American rhythm and blues musician Johnny Otis, who participated so fully in the life of the black community that he became “black by persuasion.”18 Lipsitz also offers the examples of white jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, whose lyrical brilliance on the cornet was the only real rival to Louis Armstrong; the Jewish American salsa musician Larry Harlow, acclaimed by Latino audiences as El Judio Maravilloso (The Marvelous Jew); and the Euro-American singer Johnnie Ray, who grew up in a white Protestant farm family in Oregon and who became attracted to black music because of a disability. For these musicians, Lipsitz argues, black music provided them with the means of making a powerful critique of mainstream, middle-class Anglo-Saxon American culture as well as with an elaborate expressive vocabulary for rendering their own feelings of marginality and contestation. Lipsitz poses a number of intriguing questions around contentious issues such as appropriation, authenticity, empathy, and ethics around the consequences of cultural collusion and collision: Which kinds of cross-cultural identification advance emancipatory ends and which reinforce existing structures of power and domination? When does identification with the culture of others serve escapist and irresponsible ends and when does it encourage an enhanced understanding of one’s experiences and responsibilities? Popular culture’s propensity for serving as a site for experimentation with new identities offers opportunities as well as dangers, since thinking of identities “as interchangeable or infinitely open does violence to the historical and social constraints imposed on us by structures of exploitation and privilege.”19
On the other hand, Lipsitz is wary of essentialist arguments that assume innate and immobile identities for ourselves or others and that confuse history with nature, thus denying the possibility of real change. Those observations notwithstanding, he finds fault with intercultural collaborations by superstar pop musicians such as Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland and David Byrne’s 1989 Rei Momo because they obscure unexamined relations to power and delight in difference as a process organized around exotic images from overseas. Such collaborations, he suggests, offer no corollary inspection of their own identities, but rather comprise escapes into postmodern multiculturalism that hide the privileges, evasions, and contradictions of whiteness in America. He contrasts that to the 1970s rock band Redbone, composed of a Native American from an Indian reservation in Washington state and two Mexican American brothers who grew up in Fresno, California, and who became “Indian” based largely on their cultural and political identification with Native American issues. The band immersed itself in Native American imagery and identity through stage costumes, borrowings from Native American music, and highly political lyrics that referenced the sacred Ghost Dance, the U.S. Army massacre of Lakota Indians at South Dakota’s Wounded Knee, and the American Indian Movement’s (AIM) ongoing battles with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, becoming in Lipsitz’s estimation, the first fully self-conscious, self-affirming, and visible Native American rock band. Redbone’s example of empathy as “a way of knowing, and of transcending space and time to connect with other people,” is non-exploitative and socially progressive, since it “also entails understanding and acknowledging the things that keep us divided. It demands that we take responsibility for our social locations and make our choices accordingly.”20
The same alienation that perhaps drove a despairing Bix Beiderbecke in the 1920s or a rejected Johnnie Ray in the 1950s to seek succor in black music no doubt compels some contemporary young whites to embrace the moral and political messages of hip-hop. Just as often, however, these kinds of ethical cultural appropriations tend not to be the case. Rather, the performance of black modes of expressive behavior by many white male social actors in hip-hop in particular have tended to be driven by commodity fetishism and the kind of racialized desire that reduces black subjectivity to stereotype. These appropriations have certainly been aided and abetted by the construction and performance of masculinities that have tended to be socially alienating as in the case of hardcore hip-hop and where an array of artfully produced noise, particularly in the late 1980s, created “the backdrop for powerful depictions of gang life on the streets of Los Angeles”21 and other American cities at a time that also saw a rise in street violence related to the crack cocaine wars.
The swagger of the hardcore gangsta rapper and the street-level crack dealer as late twentieth-century antiheroic cultural icons (re)located urban black male subjectivities as sites of horrific violence and tremendous power that would challenge models of masculinity from rock ’n’ roll. When MTV debuted in 1981 with blow-dried white rockers in leather spandex stroking electric guitars, these images offered perhaps the most powerful and spectacularized representations of masculinity and the male body to white male adolescents since 1950s rock ’n’ roll. These ideas, images, and meanings constructed an affective apparatus around mainstream rock that made it empowering and gave it meaning to white adolescent youth. This apparatus of visuals, sounds, instruments, and phallic-laden symbolism constructed rock music as particularly masculine, and, with few exceptions since the early 1960s, rock has been the arena in which fantasies of white masculine identity have been played out. Heavy metal music and culture forge a performance of masculinity through the use of certain instruments (the guitar most prominently), dress, lyrical content, and performance styles. These combine to form a certain quality of affective energy expressed as masculine power, and which may be seen as reflexively empowering to the performer.
The hardness, aggression, and hypersexuality associated with heavy metal are intrinsically related to the formation of gender identity and masculine empowerment for young white males who listen to this music and who participate in the culture. The bad boy affectations of white rock performers had taken social rebellion and subversion as far as they could by the time hard styles of rap showed up. When rap bumrushed MTV’s suburban demographic after the ascent of Run-DMC, the black male body and the hard-edged street realism of its cultural milieu began to replace the white male body and the cartoonish parody of machismo depicted in 1980s glam and “cock rock” as the site of spectacularized displays of masculinity. Hardcore rap performance was not simply a facsimile of bad boy attitudes and behavior, it offered something more. This was not Mick Jagger’s jerky chicken walk and goofy sneer meant to reference Elvis and suggest nonconformist ways of moving and behaving. Hardcore rap was the real thing—ghetto realism that dramatized West Coast gang culture, the scourge of crack cocaine, drive-by shootings, black rage, and nihilism in the nation’s disintegrating inner cities all played out against ghetto fabulous images of money, cars, and women. Rap had already begun to be constructed as a more masculinist form of performance since the emergence of Run-DMC in the mid-1980s, and by the early 1990s hardcore rap videos had (re)created the black male body as a new and powerfully alluring site of masculine desire as hardcore rap performance moved into the popular mainstream.
New Kids in the Ghetto: The Beastie Boys Get Ill
The concurrent rise of hip-hop and video culture meant that the new language of male body-ism based in the vernacular of black urban street style would become quickly and broadly available to a diverse demographic of young males. That notwithstanding, the number of white males able to find success as hip-hop performers dramatically diminished in the years following Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic, which set the stage for hardcore black rappers with undeniable street credibility such as Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, and others, to up the ante for authenticity, masculine performance, and real-life street narratives. The mainstreaming of ubermasculine macho posturing, and the rejection of the feminine substantially drove women from the microphone and made it more difficult for white males to compete as well. Up until then, despite the difficulties inherent in negotiating a music dominated by urban African Americans and Latinos,22 hip-hop had produced a first generation of white acts such as Vanilla Ice, 3rd Bass, House of Pain, Markie Mark (the actor Mark Wahlberg), Young Black Teenagers, and the Beastie Boys, all of whom helped attract a large white youth following to hip-hop. None of these were hardcore acts per se, as none of them had the street experiences that would lead them to convincingly sustain such illusions. Nonetheless, all of them more or less deployed affective strategies such as street beats, aggressive masculine posturing, baggy urban street attire, and an in your face attitude (telegraphed by pernicious mean mugging) of aesthetic combat through rhyming and dissing other MCs that at least put them in the game. Of these acts, however, only the Beastie Boys would survive into the gangsta and thug rap era and the new culture of masculinity that emerged at the end of the 1980s.
A New York City–based trio of Jewish kids who had musical roots in punk, the Beastie Boys would become the first white group to make it as a rap act on the strength of their 1986 album Licensed to Ill. The record got them noticed by major critics, largely positively if controversially, and became the first rap album to top the Billboard 200 pop chart in the United States, also rising to the No. 2 spot on the R&B album chart. The fact that the Beastie Boys lasted for more than two decades while continuing to produce good records (their 2004 album To the 5 Boroughs was their first to simultaneously top both the Billboard 200 and R&B/Hip-hop album charts as well as the European and Internet album charts) and selling out concert halls without substantially changing who they are speaks to an aura of credibility and a solid fan base that few hip-hop performers black or white have been able to sustain. The Beastie Boys’ self-deprecating humor and adolescent pranksterism at times appear to parody if not caricature both rap and punk, and their early live shows often took on an air of comic surrealism and the absurd—semi-nude women dancing in cages, giant inflated penises, obscenity-laced shouting matches with hecklers—that pushed the boundaries of good taste and occasionally legality, resulting in brawls, arrests, and lurid headlines, all of which played to the group’s frat boy party ethic and bad boy image, making them perhaps the Sex Pistols of the hip-hop generation. It also gave them incredible “street cred”—three Jewish kids on the bad nigger tip.
Licensed to Ill could not be considered hardcore in the sense that the term would come to mean, and the notion that the Beasties set the precedent for gangsta rap, as some might argue, is merely quaint. Schoolly D had already released the seminal singles “Gangster Boogie” in 1984 and “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” in 1985, and Ice-T’s 1986 single “6 in the Morning” had offered a more brutal and realistic portrait of urban violence and street gang life than anything the Beasties could have imagined. Nonetheless, the Beastie Boys were the first rap group to capture mainstream media attention and top the pop charts with songs involving casual violence, gunplay, references to drug use, and misogynistic material that formed the core of hardcore styles, and in that sense they certainly cracked open the door that black hardcore rappers, many of them real gangsters, would eventually bumrush.
The body-ism of the Beasties did not project the same intensity of aggressive, streetwise masculine posture affected by black male performers such as LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Ice-T, Schoolly D, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, and others, but it certainly drew more from the expressive body gestures of inner-city black and Latino males than it did from punk rock or heavy metal. The Beasties’ lyrics were relatively free (though not completely so) of the kind of graphically violent, sexual, and scatological language that hardcore rap would virtually normalize, but they nonetheless trafficked in controversial themes and language that were more objectionable than anything Run-DMC and LL Cool J were attempting at the time. On the other hand, the Beasties shared the new school style of hard, sampled drum machine beats and aggressiveness in attacking the microphone that Run-DMC and LL Cool J had adopted, owing certainly to connections they shared with these performers through Def Jam Records, Russell Simmons, and Rick Rubin.
The Beasties retained enough of their punk rock origins that gratuitous sex and drugs, raunchy lyricism, and bad behavior would be par for the course in anything they were likely to do, but by adopting the aesthetic practices associated with hip-hop they helped to legitimate the public performance of social deviancy in mainstream hip-hop two years before N.W.A.’s arrival. Their ethnic Jewish heritages notwithstanding, they also did not have to navigate the problem of the racial Other at the same time that they were rapping about sex, drugs, and violence inasmuch as most ethnic European immigrant identities in the United States had gradually been subsumed under the rubric of whiteness in the years before and following World War II. Nonetheless, racial subtext and the absent black presence were always animating features of how the Beastie Boys formed their public personas, and which helped give them a ground of authenticity that proved durable and appealing to a diverse audience. In many of their most celebrated songs, including those on Licensed to Ill, the Beasties gave tongue-in-cheek shouts out to urban 'hood tales and gangsta-themed narratives that resonated with black and white fans alike. Their ability to cross the racial divide by performing in a black urban music style and doing it credibly earned them a devoted following among suburban white male adolescents and the admiration of black hip-hop performers for whom they opened up the market for hardcore just as Elvis opened up the market for black rhythm and blues.
The Beastie Boys’ upper-middle-class backgrounds and privilege, however, hardly lent themselves to the kinds of antics they portrayed on record. Their song “The New Style” starts out as innocent braggadocio, a throw-down aimed at rival MCs that gets about as graphic as the Beasties were likely to get (“Got rhymes that are rough and rhymes that are slick/I’m not surprised you’re on my dick”), but as language goes in hardcore rap, hardly warrants bleeping by comparison, though in the recording they slightly obscure the phallic reference in order to lessen its full audible impact (did they say dick or an elongated “d”?), but it was clear enough what was meant, so that the perceived use of an obscenity was seen as daring, as indeed it was for a rap album that entered the pop mainstream. A few lines later, however, the rhymes take a darker turn (“Father to many, married to none/And in case you’re unaware I carry a gun/Stepped into the party, the place was over packed/Saw the kid that dissed my homeboy and shot him in the back”) but did not generate a great deal of public outrage beyond the Parents Music Resource Center. The Beastie Boys’ crudeness, luridness, and misogynistic impulses may have been viewed as sophomoric and objectionable at the time, raising middle-class hackles, but they did not invite the kind of public condemnation and panic that would follow the arrival of N.W.A. just two years later.
Likewise, instances of drug use are rife in Beastie Boys songs but are put forth with more levity than gravity, such that they did not draw especially widespread public criticism. The popular song “Hold It Now—Hit It” is a party anthem that revels in drinking prodigious amounts of everything from Heineken to Thunderbird, but also boasts of “friends in high places that are keeping me high.” A few lines later they are “Hip-hop, body rockin’ doing the do/beer drinking, breath stinking, sniffing glue,” while near the end the narrator raps “I take no slack ’cause I got the knack/And I’m never dusting out ’cause I torch that crack,” some of the earliest pop culture references to the street drugs angel dust and crack cocaine at a time most Americans had never even heard of these drugs. As far as the treatment of women went, the Beastie Boys were not merely reprehensible but a harbinger of what was to come. Lines such as “I’m the king of the classroom, cooling in the back/My teacher had beef so I gave her a smack” from “Slow Ride” suggest the wave of misogynistic violence that would soon become fashionable in the popular mainstream with the rise of hardcore gangsta rap.
If the success of the Beastie Boys may be seen as problematic, it is because they used black music to act out for white audiences the brutish stereotypes of lewdness and violence historically associated with black males that had been a subtext in the formation of rock ’n’ roll. On the other hand, if their performance of white Negroism had an air of authenticity to it, it was because their behavior represented more or less who they were in real life—in Russell Simmons’ characterization, “three white kids who didn’t give a fuck.” The Beastie Boys obviously loved hip-hop music, just as had many Jewish entertainers before them (Eddie Cantor, Symphony Sid, Alan Freed, Benny Goodman, George Gershwin, Mezz Mezzrow, Al Jolson) had loved the black music of their day. The Beasties’ demonstration of that love, however, takes on the same kind of well-meaning condescension that Lipsitz criticizes and that lies at the heart of Mailer’s ideation of the middle-class white hipster as imaginary bad nigger out to raise some hell because that’s where the juice is.
The Beasties appeared to wink and nod at what amounted to black stereotypes in order to show their allegiance to what they knew of black culture through hip-hop culture. From another perspective, however, and perhaps a more generous one, the gun-toting, fried chicken-eating, crack-smoking caricatures the Beasties drew of themselves may have served the same function as the nineteenth-century minstrel character Zip Coon, a buffoonish social misfit who offered a comic representation of black males but who was also a foil for white working-class criticism of upper-middle-class pretentiousness. The Beastie Boys’ ghettoized high jinks threw a stink bomb into the living rooms of conservative white America and everybody who was hip enough got the joke. More important, perhaps, the Beasties successfully negotiated the problem of whiteness and black masculine desire that Tony Jefferson poses by appropriating the apparatus of hip-hop through music, language, dramatic street narratives, and body-ism, credibly (re)modeling it so that white males could now not simply aspire to be with it, but be it. The Beasties demonstrated not only formidable microphone and songwriting skills but a performance of swaggering black male deviance that they affected both as artifice and in the register of the real. White males may have been drawn in by the discourse of hardness in the post-Run-DMC new school rap game, but they were utterly incapable of living it until the Beastie Boys showed them a way into the culture, regardless of the fact that the experiential ground of being that they presumed to occupy was absurd on its face. White kids seemed not to notice, or simply not to care—the Beasties were the new personification of white hipness.
Vanilla on Ice: The Limits of Wiggerism
Things would not go as well a few years later for Vanilla Ice, the first successful white solo rap performer and a two-hit wonder whose 1990 release Ice Ice Baby became the first hip-hop song to hold the top spot on the Billboard Top 100 singles chart. The song’s accompanying album To the Extreme was also a No. 1 hit on the Billboard 200 and rose to No. 6 on the R&B album chart. Within a matter of months Vanilla Ice was selling out concerts, signing lucrative deals, and publishing an autobiography, making him momentarily the biggest thing in pop music, certainly in hip-hop. It all effectively and abruptly ended, however, when he was accused of lying about his personal history, including being stabbed several times in a street fight, growing up in a tough black neighborhood, and coming up hanging out with gangbangers. Vanilla Ice’s background seems to be at least partly a combination of truth and some perhaps boastful exaggeration. In his early childhood he lived in modest circumstances in a mixed Miami neighborhood, while his later teen years were spent as a well-off kid in an affluent suburb of Dallas. He was discovered by his manager Tommy Quon performing at a rough and tumble black nightclub in Dallas called City Lights, where he recruited his DJ, two bodyguards, and a crew of black dancers after his career took off. Vanilla Ice’s connection to black life and music were real enough, but what appeared to be in dispute was the veracity of the 'hood tales that had been publicized about him during his years in Miami. In an interview he gave in 1991, after sustaining an extraordinary amount of media scrutiny and ridicule, Vanilla Ice tried to set the record straight on a number of personal details, but reasserted and affirmed his connection to the urban street and black life, telling James Bernard, an editor for Source magazine, that his “neighborhood was predominantly black, my school was predominantly black. I got ‘go white boy, go white boy’ from City Lights, a totally black club in Dallas. No other white person would set foot in that club, but I performed there every night. My black friends in seventh grade called me Vanilla. I got it from them.”23
Like the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice was seen as highly marketable in the suburbs and expanded the audience for hip-hop among white suburban kids—Ice Ice Baby was played on radio stations that had ignored black music entirely. Whatever the truth of his private past, as a white male rapper in a predominantly black medium at a time when hardcore rap was entering the mainstream, Vanilla Ice perceived and understood the need to place himself within a context of the urban street, black masculinity, and socially deviant behavior in order to lend credibility to his machismo performance of self. As Bernard observed in the same article, “any rapper, but especially a white rapper, needs a ‘street’ credibility that Vanilla Ice’s suburban upbringing doesn’t automatically confer.”24
Most of his debut album, however, is relatively free of gangsta-styled themes. On the single “Ice Ice Baby,” he momentarily raps about gunplay and street exploits that seem no more farfetched, and in fact are far less contrived, than much of the braggadocio on the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill. Vanilla Ice describes cruising in Miami with his friend Shay, who is packing a “gauge” (shotgun), while he is strapped with a “nine” (nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol). Arguably, any kind of bragging and boasting on record is allowable until one starts to boast about guns he doesn’t own and crimes he didn’t commit. Vanilla Ice describes a shootout where “gunshots ranged out like a bell/I grabbed my nine—All I heard were shells.” He jumps in his car and tries to escape, worrying about getting carjacked. Meanwhile there are “Police on the scene, You know what I mean/They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends,” the implication being that because he is white, the police do not suspect him of being involved in the shootout and instead go after the (presumably) black dope fiends. That section aside, the rest of the songs on To The Extreme are innocuous G-rated raps about girls, partying, and having
fun. Nonetheless, Vanilla Ice would not recover from the perception that he was a middle-class, suburban white kid who lied about his personal history to boost record sales, but what hurt him more was that he came off as “soft” and a poseur at a time when hardness and authenticity were becoming synonymous with masculinity and the black ghetto. Vanilla Ice’s other problem was his totally cornball image, equal parts bubble-gum teenie-bopper idol and punked-out Captain America. His early look consisted of American flag–themed red, white, and blue outfits and a squared-off pompadour. It did not help that he appeared to have fashioned his image on that of M. C. Hammer (whom he toured with), another million-selling pop rap superstar who got no love in the 'hood.
In an attempt to revive his career and reinsert himself into the new political economy of hardcore street rap, Vanilla Ice subsequently retooled his image and tried to come off as thugged out, resurfacing in urban street wear and tattoos, and recording music with a much harder edge and more urban 'hood street narratives. In some of his later lyrics, he portrayed himself as a man who could commit cold-blooded murder. On his 1998 album Hard To Swallow, he takes on the persona of a hardcore gangster rapper in the song “Livin,” in which he imagines himself as a violent gangbanger, slitting the throats of his rivals and sitting on his roof peering through the telescope of a gun, but it was far too late for Ice to reinvent an image many had come to see as goofy. In the end he occasionally acquiesced in parodying himself, appearing on the television reality show The Surreal Life and Insane Clown Posse’s Juggalo Championship Wrestling.
To be fair, Vanilla Ice’s performance of white Negroism on To The Extreme was much less egregious than that of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. Nonetheless, Vanilla Ice’s fall from grace suggests how critical the sign of blackness and representations of urban street masculinity had become as new models of authenticity and credibility in a genre that was increasingly driven by narratives of street hustling, gun violence, and confrontations with police. Vanilla Ice’s attempt to work a terrain of transvesting and gender performance based on deviance and gangsterism appeared to be inauthentic. His hardcore gangsta drag was too contrived and sophomoric to come off as anything more than parody. The actor Jamie Kennedy’s comedic performance in the 2003 movie Malibu’s Most Wanted by comparison was a more direct and therefore more honest parody of the white gangster wannabe who comes from a privileged background and who fetishes representations of hard black masculinity. Kennedy’s satirical send-up of the gangsta lifestyle employs all the clichés—forty-ounce bottles of beer, hootchie mamas, casual violence, gunplay, and goofed-up street slang. The Beastie Boys were able to bring out the same kind of humor in a hip sort of way, but they never pretended to be real street thugs. Vanilla Ice tried to play it in the register of the real rather than as parody, at least that was the perception, and he only succeeded in making himself look silly.
Whiteness and the New Masculine Desire
So much of what makes up the array of practices that constitute hip-hop culture is inscribed onto the body that to ignore the body would be to dismiss a good deal of what makes the culture so appealing. The body in hip-hop is in a perpetual state of animated signifying and social performance, so that “reading the body as a performing body requires viewing the body as a source of action and movement”25 but also of situation or context, of drama and narrative, which means that real thugs with gangland tales to tell will always have the edge in commercial rap performance because the marketplace has created a demand for authenticity and realness over poseurs. Nonetheless, despite contestations around issues of agency, authenticity, cultural authorship, and exploitation, it should have come as no surprise that white youth who consume hip-hop music and identify with the culture would eventually begin to act out their own racial fantasies of black urban masculinity as social rebellion. In the white appropriation of hip-hop culture and style, however, acting black often and easily moves from the merely quaint to the predictably cliché, and from there to the absurdly grotesque.
John Seabrook, in his book Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, updates Norman Mailer’s hipster figure from the perspective of a young middle-class white male in the 1990s. He is walking down the street in New York City listening to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die,” wearing “a black nylon convict-style cap,26 a fashion I picked up from the homeys in the rap videos.”27 Later, riding the subway, he feels empowered because of the doo-rag, its association with black males and gangster criminality. Inspired by the music, he begins to imagine himself a menacing figure who lets “the gangsta style play down into my whiteboy identity, thinking to myself, ‘Man you are the illest, you are sitting here on this subway and none of these people are going to FUCK with you, and if they do FUCK with you, you are going to FUCK them up. What’s MY muthafuckin’ name?’”28 Seabrook articulates the allure of the hard man for young white males who gravitate to hardcore rap and who may make associations between the projection of masculine power through real or implied acts of violence as a means to acquire street credibility, respect, or personal self-empowerment. Although they are utterly incapable of living out these kinds of ubermasculine desires and fantasies in their own lives, these youth vicariously access such feelings through racialized commodity fetishism and the consumption of music, film, clothing, videos, computer games, and other parts of the apparatus of hardcore rap culture mediated through the mass media and the culture industry. In this new street theater of the racially absurd, the physical power, sexuality, and ability to inspire fear that black male bodies have historically conveyed become transferred onto white bodies in ways that usurp agency of the black body, exploits it as a site of social anxiety, and perpetuates its demonization. It is the emotional response to this spectacle that is most critical since feelings around blackness and masculinity embedded at the site of the body become complicit in the construction of unexamined fears and anxieties that perpetuate racial stereotypes and provide convenient justifications for ongoingracial prejudice, particularly against young black males.
Discourses around the black body in popular music and culture have nonetheless shifted considerably over the past few decades. The political currency of the black body in popular culture began to accrue in the 1960s and continued through the 1970s owing to a number of events, including the civil rights and black nationalism movements, the mainstreaming of soul music, and the cult popularity of so called blaxploitation films as well as the emergence of hip-hop culture. As I have discussed, these events recast black males in popular culture as powerful and alluring if also intimidating and dangerous, so that when hardcore rap entered the American mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, black masculinities and the notion of hardness became the litmus test for a new ideal of cultural authenticity for young urban and suburban males.
Notions of implicit and explicit actors have now collapsed in on themselves so that the preference for mere poseurs has become passé. In performing representations of black masculinity whether on the stage or on the street, white hip-hop performers and consumers now aspire to an authenticity that, rather than attempting to obscure racial subtexts and the highjacking of black subjectivity, covets, foregrounds, and celebrates them. The rules of the new keeping it real game mean that credibility is everything, that credibility depends on authenticity, and that authenticity is bestowed on the mean streets of the black inner city. White anxiety around blackness has not historically diminished the racial desire attached to forms of black popular music and their cultural milieu, although as Leon Wynter writes, “the bar for authentic participation in the American experience that generates hip-hop culture is much higher than it was, say for white jazz musicians in the 1950s. The majority of the audience—the white majority—demands it. Where the old chain of white cultural appropriation has been broken, the role of whiteness in popular culture is fast being transformed.”29 Not only is whiteness being transformed through the appropriation of black expressive tropes in hip-hop culture, but youth from other races, cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities around the world are being transformed as well. Nonetheless, this type of exoticism has increasingly produced the kinds of racially reductive ghetto fantasies as Seabrook imagines, where black masculinities are only viewed and experienced at the level of the brute.
LL Cool J and Run-DMC were among the earliest rappers to focus attention on the black male body as a sign of masculine power and hypersexuality wedded as aggression and push back against society at large since they defied historical images of emasculation and subjugation. When LL Cool J ripped off his shirt to flaunt the taut muscled body once prized by slave traders and plantation owners, and Run-DMC mean-mugged Rolling Stone in black fedoras and the b-boy stance, they reinvented the buck/brute as the new and definitive representation of hip-hop maleness—young, aggressive, black, and urban—and sent the message to other adolescent males that to get down in this new culture they would have to step up. The emphatic posturing of young black males in hip-hop and hardcore rap culture would become indelible images in the American racial imagination, drawing “on decades of affectively invested, dominant cultural discourses and ideologies.”30 The subsequent “Afro-Americanization of white youth”31 began with their adopting the sartorial style, language, and often the speech patterns of inner-city black youth, appropriating the affective gestures of blackness as the performance of the everyday. Only a handful of these youth have succeeded at the highest artistic and commercial levels of hip-hop music and rap performance even a quarter century after the music’s creation since few have been able to convincingly meet the new threshold for blacking up and for the credible performance of black urban masculinity. Many of those who have attempted it and who have been successful have often done so by adopting models of black masculinity “represented as a pathological form of ‘otherness’”32 rather than as resistance to hegemonic racial oppression. Those who merely identify with the culture through consumption have learned to reproduce an affective quality of street-level performance that defines authenticity or keeping it real as keeping it ghetto.
In the 2007 VH1 reality/game show television series The (White) Rapper Show, white contestants vying for cash and a record deal portrayed themselves as real-life wiggas who mimicked and romanticized representations of inner-city black males, speaking in black slang, sporting tilted baseball caps, gold chains, and grillz, and fetishizing black rappers who came up on the street. In an episode where contestants competed to see who was the most “thugged out,” the African American hardcore rapper Saigon made a cameo appearance to run down the basics of thugness, rattling off his time spent in prison, rolling with gangs, and committing criminal offenses like they were boy scout merit badges. Saigon reinserted the absent black male deviant presence into the series, reminding all poseurs that criminality was as critical in the rap game as microphone skills. The contestants then used “stolen” grocery store shopping carts to try and “catch a case” (getting charged with a crime) thrown from an abandoned apartment building, jacked bicycles with chain cutters, and traded vitriolic, black slang-laden disses with each other while cameras caught the action. The idiotic ideologies of racial acculturation and the frivolic attitude toward inner-city desperation that the show promoted to its supposedly hip audience only served as a reminder of how the circulation of pejorative representations of blacks in the 1800s brought about real political and social consequences for black folks over the next one hundred years and that culminated in the very ghettos they now romanticized as racial playground.
The (White) Rapper Show suggests how white notions of black subjectivity and the performance of black masculinities adopted by nonblack actors are not only often overwrought to the point of unintended parody and promote representations of blackness that are reductive and pejorative, but that may go largely unexamined because they are masked by whiteness, as it were. The ready accessibility and uncritical consumption of these kinds of images through what David Roediger has characterized as “the seeming intimacy of video culture” is further problematized since “the problems raised by corporate influences over deciding what is ‘authentic’ are great.”33 In hardcore rap themed music, video games, films, and other media, the performance of the real is reinserted back into the ground of the everyday as play, so that boundaries between performance and the real continue to shift and disintegrate.
This idea is captured remarkably well in the 1999 film Whiteboyz, in which a group of young white males in rural Iowa imagine themselves part of a community of black gangsters and thugs they learn to mimic from watching music videos of gangsta rap performers. The main protagonist, a naïve and guileless character who goes by the name Flip Dogg, confesses that he has never been to the ghetto, but opines, “I know what it’s like.” His overwrought use of black urban slang and mannerisms that he presumes all blacks share is disconcerting even to the one black friend he has. Flip Dogg and his friends embark on a misguided mission to Chicago’s inner city where he hopes to make a drug deal, get paid, and live out his fantasies of a hustler’s lifestyle. After a black friend agrees to introduce him to a gang of crack cocaine dealers (the film was apparently shot in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project using real gang members), Flip Dogg is quickly made out to be a cartoonish object of ridicule. He has brought less than $200 in cash with him and asks to be “fronted” with a load of cocaine on consignment because he fancies himself part of the community of black thugs and gangsters he has romanticized about. Even when he is attacked, robbed, and beaten by the gang members, he remains trapped in his illusionary world, oblivious to the severity of his situation. Thinking the beating is part of a gangland initiation ritual, he staggers to his feet and queries his assailants, “Am I in?”
Flip Dogg’s contorted views of black culture are so ingrained that he literally has no other frame of reference. After getting into a shootout with the gang members, Flip Dogg and his friends flee back to Iowa disillusioned and humiliated. Victor Anderson’s discussion of ontological blackness as “a type of categorical racial reasoning” or “a philosophy of racial consciousness”34 illuminates how completely Flip Dogg has constructed his worldview around a view of blackness that is fantastical and illusory. Flip was raised on a farm by parents with little education or social status; his obsession with black culture leaves him even more socially isolated. Because of his family’s financial troubles and low social standing, he has a sense of shared connection with underprivileged blacks that he understands and expresses in a rather perverted sort of way since his experiences with black males and black culture in general are largely limited to mediated images of black gangsters in music videos. Flip is somehow unable to distinguish between the performance of artifice and the performance of the real, having bought into the illusory world of hardcore “reality rap” and its allure of authenticity because many of its progenitors are people with whom he identifies with as the socially oppressed. Flip’s racial reasoning, and the fact that he has had access to few black people in real life, lead him to take a reductionist and romanticized view of black life and culture that he believes he can become part of through emulating socially deviant behavior in language, dress, and deeds. The film is meant, of course, to critique exactly such reasoning by white adolescents drawn to hardcore styles of hip-hop.
Eminem: The White Negro Gone Mad
The case of Eminem is more compelling and in some ways suggests why he has shown a great amount of endurance. Certainly he has a remarkable range of talent as a lyricist, but Eminem’s origins as poor white trash growing up with a single mother, constantly on the move only to end up on the wrong side of Detroit’s black/white, suburban/inner-city racial divide 8-Mile Road, also provided him with the kind of street credibility that the Beastie Boys, although respected by black lovers of hip-hop, never really earned the hard way, and that Vanilla Ice coveted perhaps a little too calculatedly. Eminem’s portrayal of himself in the 2002 feature film 8-Mile appears to be close to the truth of his early life, where he mixed socially with blacks and came up on the street in relative poverty, battle rapping in black clubs. His best friend in the film, Future, was modeled after rapper Proof, who was shot to death after shooting another man during a fight in an 8-Mile Road nightclub in 2006. Eminem spoke eloquently at Proof’s funeral, saying, “without Proof, there would be no Eminem, no Slim Shady, and no D12,” the Detroit-based rap collective formed by Proof. Eminem had been the only white member of D12, and it is where he first adopted the pseudonym Slim Shady.
After his rise to fame, Eminem signed D12 to his own Shady/Aftermath record label and toured with them until they too achieved fame. Unlike just about every white rapper before him, Eminem’s performance of white Negroism was more real than poseur because his background and lived experience allowed him to negotiate the discourses of hardness and black masculinity that had been modeled to him on the street, but also by the Beastie Boys when he was a teenager. Not that he had ever claimed to run with gangs and deal drugs, and the over-the-top antics of the Beasties did not really fit his more complex and darker character. Nonetheless, he understood the new aesthetic of masculine hardness and its orientation to illicit street activities, violence, and deviant behavior, whether real or imagined, enough to know he needed to find where he could fit himself, and on his own terms. His maniacal alter ego Slim Shady was his solution to this dilemma. The Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, and Eminem may all “take their cues from a savage model,”35 but Eminem, in his attempt to locate himself at the most extreme end of hardcore rap performance, began to dabble in ghoulish scenarios of murder, rape, and sadism from horrorcore36 that even most black hardcore rappers avoid. Eminem’s 1999 The Slim Shady LP brings together cartoonish representations of the brute and beast stereotypes taken past the reprehensible to the repulsive. Eminem’s Slim Shady is the alienated white hipster turned Norman Bates, a mentally disturbed loser gone stark raving mad. The album’s single “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” plays with tropes of addiction and multiple personalities (“I’m doing acid, crack, smack, coke and smokin’ dope then/My name is Marshall Mathers, I’m an alcoholic”), a summoning up of internalized demons as he traverses themes of violence, drugs, despair, bestiality, and derangement, declaring himself “half animal, half man, dumping your dead body inside of a fucking’ trash can/with more holes than an Afghan.” The song “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” depicts a macabre scene in which he murders his wife, stuffs her into the trunk of his car, and dumps her body off a pier. This song and others like it drew righteous indignation for its vile misogyny, which far exceeds the objectionable treatment of women depicted in much hardcore rap over the preceding decade. As Carl Rux observes in his essay “Eminem: The New White Negro”: “Niggaz may talk bad about bitches and they baby’s mama—Eminem brutally murders his.”37
In the song “Guilty Conscience,” Slim Shady eggs on three desperate men to commit a series of heinous crimes. He urges the first to rob a liquor store and shoot the store clerk (“Fuck that! Do that shit! Shoot that bitch!/Can you afford to blow this shit? Are you that rich?/Why you give a fuck if she dies?”). In another scene, he encourages a man to rape a drugged, underage girl (“Fuck this bitch right here on the spot bare/Til she passes out and she forgot how she got there”), and in the final scene, two shotgun blasts ring out at the end of the song as a betrayed husband kills his cheating wife and her lover in bed. Eminem’s mentor and producer Dr. Dre makes a guest appearance on the song as his conscience, initially objecting to the slaughter, but finally approving it, presumably because the woman is guilty of having sex with another man, thus disrespecting him and undermining his masculinity. The song “I’m Shady,” however, finds Eminem on the one hand in full psychotic rant but also self-reflexively critical, as if winking from behind his fool’s mask to disavow his most offensive put-ons, not unlike the act of minstrel performers appearing on sheet music covers both with and without the burnt cork, reaffirming their whiteness and disavowing the tomfoolery of blackness. Eminem, on the other hand, never attempts to disavow blackness as much as he disavows whiteness. Like the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, and a generation of young white male so-called wiggas, he chooses to inhabit ontological blackness as his own racialized comfort zone, but seeks the most extreme and profane interpretations of it from which to perform his version of the hypersexual, hypermasculine black brute.
A good deal of Eminem’s success is owed to Dr. Dre, the pioneering West Coast gangsta rap producer who has orchestrated the music behind Eminem’s other major work. Dr. Dre brought more than hard beats and gangsta credentials to the production, but adds racial value that further bolsters Eminem’s street credibility much the same way that Def Jam, the first bona fide hip-hop record label, added juice to the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. Vanilla Ice, by comparison, did not have this kind of muscle catching his back. Dr. Dre’s presence animates the absent black presence in Eminem’s music, not in the abstract way in which Elvis channeled blackness through his own whiteness, but in a tangible way that allowed Eminem to establish credibility with black audiences as few white performers before him had achieved.
The use of incendiary words over the course of Eminem’s albums may be viewed in a somewhat different light than when used by socio-politically savvy comedians or by black hardcore rappers. On the one hand, they are deliberately provocative but often pointlessly gratuitous; he is not attempting to push the limits of free speech or challenge Victorian morality even though he may have grown up using such language among peers. Incendiary language is critical to the apparatus he is constructing, which, like horror films and horrorcore, rests on the shock value inherent in portraying something horrific that is likely to repulse, offend, and titillate. On the other hand, the use of language that appropriates working-class black vernacular folk idioms and urban street slang has become fashionable for white teens who aspire to urban hipness by engaging the apparatus of hardcore hip-hop culture. James Toback’s 1999 film Black and White, which follows a group of class privileged but disaffected white teenagers who befriend a group of young black gangsters from Harlem, offers some interesting if simplified observations in this regard. The film, which features Mike Tyson, Robert Downey Jr., and several members of the Wu-Tan Clan, never makes much of a point in the end although it tries to suggest some very real reasons why white kids who feel alienated from their wealthy but straight-laced backgrounds would find attraction in identifying with hard-edged young black gangsters they perceive as cool and who can provide them with drugs, emotional excitement, and sex. They use black slang and take on the mores and mannerisms of the thugs they hang out with. Rap music, black-inflected speech and language use, and a rejection of middle-class whiteness give them a sense of their own hipness and a kind of affective empowerment wherein they can see themselves as more black than white. Their association with this group of black men essentially gives them a “ghetto pass” into a closed, dangerous, and exotic community that most white kids only get to visit on records and music videos, although they all “identify with violence, scatology, and sexism in rap rather than with black music and culture”38 in broader terms. The teens in Black and White engage in their own racial carnivalesque where they are free to opt out of whiteness and the pretentious dictates of upper-middle-class privilege (a teenage girl gives her nagging corporate executive father a lecture on the difference between the terms nigger and nigga), but there is always the sense that they know they are in a world in which they only tenuously inhabit, that it is playful fantasy.
In Eminem’s case, his relationality to black music carries the weight of authenticity not just because of Dr. Dre’s beats, but because he grew up in a multiracial urban street milieu where hip-hop culture and rap music were part of the fabric of his own life. Like Elvis, Eminem has an acknowledged gift for replicating a black music style that grew from a genuine intimacy with black people, although the performance of that gift has more often involved acting out the most egregious caricatures of black male deviancy. In Elvis’ case, this amounted to exaggerating the suggestion of sexual transgression, while Eminem invokes the post-Reconstruction trope of the black beast through horrific scenarios of sadistic violence. In either case, both of them assume subjectivities that play on hundreds of years of white fear and anxiety around the black male body.
Although Eminem collapses the notion of explicit and implicit actors that Elvis merely inverts, he nonetheless engages the idea of masking by employing an alter-ego that is revealing. While the use of shady suggests undertones of race and the idea of moral ambivalence, the term slim has been used as a moniker for any number of larger than life black males, from the guitarists Guitar Slim and Memphis Slim to Iceberg Slim, the legendary street hustler, pimp, and bad man who toward the end of his life wrote novels about the seedy underworld of vice and crime. Rather than paying homage to Iceberg Slim by signifying on his first name as many hardcore-styled rappers, including Ice-T, Ice Cube, Vanilla Ice, Doctor Ice, Mr. Ice, and Kid Frost have done (no doubt to suggest the coldness that lies at the heart of the hard man persona), Eminem slyly plays on the less well worn second name Slim, inventing by the addition of the name Shady, a darkly evil persona that is even more cold and cruel than the characters Iceberg Slim portrayed in his novels. Slim Shady reflects Eminem’s appropriation of black male subjectivity to construct an identity that is part musical hero and part deviant social actor. This carnivalesque of racial masking becomes Eminem’s way of not just working through his personal struggles, disappointments, and demons, but of channeling his own interpretation of white narratives of black male deviance, moral degeneracy, and criminal-minded sociopathology.
On his second album, The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem again plays with his multiple personality roles and removes the mask to reveal explicit and implicit actors Eminem and Slim Shady as one Marshall Mathers. In the song “The Way I Am,” as he critically dissects his own fame and hypervisibility, he appears to opt out of whiteness by criticizing “cocky Caucasians who think I’m some wigger who just tries to be black cause I talk with an accent/and grab on my balls, so they always keep asking the same fuckin questions, ‘What school did I go to, what 'hood I grew up in’/The why, the who what when, the where, and the how.” Eminem defends his ontological blackness as a manifestation of the way he is in the register of the real. By dealing with this issue openly on record, he also fends off the kinds of questions intended to check the veracity of his 'hood credentials that ensnarled Vanilla Ice.
Eminem often underscored the connection to the horror genre by appearing with such affectations as a hockey mask and a chainsaw. In live concerts he often used a large knife to slice up a life-sized, rubber effigy of his estranged wife. These are obvious references to slasher films like Psycho and Halloween, but in them, Eminem also (re)interprets his maniacal appropriations of the nylon stock cap-wearing, razor blade-toting, black male as social monster. In “Kill You,” Eminem iterates a similar theme of personal power that is part maniacal revenge fantasy when he intones, “you don’t wanna fuck with Shady, ’cause Shady will fucking kill you.” Invoking the threat of physical violence and chaos that Norman Mailer rhapsodizes in The White Negro have been a fixture in white performance of black masculinities certainly since minstrelsy. Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Vanilla Ice all follow the same equation, that authenticity in the performance of black masculinity finds it necessary to invoke themes of deviance and violence.
For his 2002 record The Eminem Show, however, Eminem displays a much broader diversity of thematic material that puts some distance between Eminem the entertainer and Slim Shady the monster, and reveals more of himself as Marshall Mathers. In the song “White America” he directly confronts issues around race and the fact of his own whiteness, recognizing that it has been both a curse and a blessing. When he was trying to break into the business, “no one gave a fuck, I was white/No labels wanted to sign me, almost gave up, I was like ‘fuck it.’ Until I met Dre, the only one who looked past [his whiteness], gave me a chance/and I lit a fire up under his ass.” On the other hand, Eminem recognizes that because of his whiteness, he has sold more records than if he had been black, and that he has expanded the audience for rap among white suburban adolescents who were into West Coast hardcore, noting how “kids flipped when they found out I was produced by Dre/that’s all it took, and they were instantly hooked right in/and they connected with me too because I looked like them.” He suggests that his whiteness has caused him to be subjected to even more scrutiny since he is popularizing to white kids a kind of black music that no doubt horrifies their parents. He also drags into the open white fears of miscegenation that had been at the heart of attacks on 1950s rock ’n’ roll when he rhymes, “surely hip-hop is never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston, after it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom.” In instances like this and in several other songs over the course of his albums, Eminem appears to want to shift from his usual pathological bad nigger impersonation and become something of the heroic bad man, pointing out the hypocrisy of adults, the reality of racism, and the paradox of his success in appealing to a primarily white audience by performing an uncompromisingly black music.
After releasing the somewhat retrospective album Encore in 2004, retiring from performing for several years, and undergoing drug rehabilitation, Eminem appeared to be sending a message that he was rethinking himself and the nature of his music, and that he might kill off the homicidal Slim Shady; in a skit at the end of Encore, Slim Shady is heard apparently being shot. In 2009, however, he came back seemingly with a vengeance when he released Relapse, a record that contains perhaps his most horrific scenarios of drug-induced violence and schizophrenic brutality. The record opens with a nightmare in which the Slim Shady character is revived (in slasher films the killer is always dispatched in the end only to be revived for a bloody encore) before launching into the ghoulish “3 a.m.,” narrated by a psychopathic, drug-crazed serial killer who rhymes “I cut and I slash, slice, and gash, last night was a blast/I can’t quite remember when I had that much fun off of a half pint of the Jack.” On the song “Insane” the narrator recounts being molested by his stepfather and describes sexual acts of astonishing lewdness (“Fuck ’em in the ass, suck the cum out while you’re belching/Burp belch and go back for a second helping”) that revive his roots in horrorcore. In the end, Eminem’s interpretation of the hard man appears based not on psychic and emotional invulnerability to pain but just the opposite, an extreme vulnerability, his own emotional torment and an admitted addiction to drugs that finally overwhelm him to the point that he becomes a psychotic sociopath. In the end, Eminem is guilty of the same kind of brutal equation that fueled the 'hood fantasies of the Beasties and Vanilla Ice, all of whom invoke the subtext of racial transgression and the imagery of the brute in order to stroke anxiety among white adults and glee among adolescent white males.
All three performers ultimately suggest how the complexities of racial intercourse and interaction in the post-hip-hop racial environment are more contradictory than those of the past because they occur in a “post-racist”39 environment. By this, Richard Thompson Ford does not mean to suggest that racism is a thing of the past, but that it implies a new stage of racial behavior in which certain ideas and practices remain pervasive, but expressed in different ways. The post-racist consumer of hardcore hip-hop unabashedly indulges the stereotypes of the black thug, the pimp, the drug dealer, the crack whore, and the hustler, “free to be explicitly and crudely bigoted because he does so with tongue planted firmly in cheek.”40 It is, as he suggests, racism without racists since there may be no racist intent per se in such representations, but the acting out of reductionist racial fantasies merely becomes “the continuation of racism by other means.”41 Nonetheless, romantically mistaking white consumers of hip-hop as a vanguard of antiracist social change need not reject the incontestably diverse nature of American hybridity or of contemporary hip-hop culture. The requirements of the new authenticity collapse notions of implicit and explicit racial actors either in the true spirit of revolutionary racial politics or because the new Negroism demands it. In any case, what is perhaps needed, as Lipsitz has argued, are more ethical models for racial border crossings that challenge in positive ways and that are progressive rather than regressive, and that are empowering rather than exploitative.
Brother Ali’s Radical Black Subjectivity
The most important thing about Minneapolis-based rapper Brother Ali is not how he looks, and yet, it is understandably the first thing one pays attention to upon seeing him for the first time. Looking at him tends to expose how the socially constructed nature of race and the black/white bifurcation that still largely defines it in the United States—what sociologist and historian W. E. B. DuBois famously characterized as “the color line”—are more complex than even we assume. Ali is intriguing and compelling on a number of levels. Born to middle-class parents in Wisconsin, he moved to East Lansing when he was a child, but his Midwest upbringing was anything but normal. Ali presents a rather self-effacing persona, a demeanor perhaps tempered by his devout adherence to classical Islam, which he studied in Singapore, learning Arabic so that he could read the Holy Quran in its original language. He converted to the religion after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when he was fifteen years old. Ali’s construction of self, his speech patterns, language, and body-ism, reference black urban masculinity—he appears to be a light-skinned African American male, and many people took him for that in the early part of his career. He largely dispenses with fashion, preferring inexpensive sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts—workingman’s clothes—but he affects an air of gravitas that commands respect. He is a big man, but onstage he seems bigger. Offstage, the macho swaggering and prerequisite braggadocio of the rap performer fades, and he can come off as reserved, even shy.
What makes Brother Ali compelling in terms of race and hybridity is his albinism, a rare condition caused by a lack of pigmentation in the skin; his facial hair is white and his eyes appear pinkish. Because of this condition, he occupies a racial borderland between black and white that has made all the difference in terms of the path he has traveled in life. The question of his race and his albinism are subjects he did not often address publicly until fairly recently because he feels these things often overshadow his music, and yet they are the things that make his music possible and that make him who he uniquely is. After meeting him at a performance in Seattle in 2003 shortly after the release of his first Rhymesayers CD Shadows on the Sun, we subsequently had a frank and candid conversation in which he opened up about his racial heritage, his past and his life experiences, something he rarely did at the time. Since then he has become more open about these things in the few media interviews he gives. At the time of our conversation, he admitted to deliberately choosing to remain ambiguous about his race. “I don’t tell people what my parents are,” he told me. “I don’t tell these interviewers and kids that buy my records. I don’t tell them that just because of the fact they have a hard time thinking out of ‘are you black or are you white?’ and don’t understand how much cultural it really is, and how much spiritual it really is, and how much of these other things really make up what race is, more than ethnicity does. Race is a lot more cultural than what people want to realize.”42
Ali began to inhabit the paradigm of ontological blackness when, because of his albinism and the fact that he looked different, a racialized Other alienated from whiteness, he was ostracized and often took vicious beatings from the white kids he grew up with, harrowing incidents he recalls on such songs as “Picket Fence” and “Win Some, Lose Some.” At some point in his childhood he was befriended by a black kid and spent nights at his home. On Sunday mornings he was obligated to attend church with the family. Through these interactions Ali developed a deep and genuine appreciation of black worship and social life. As he gradually developed an orientation to black culture and became interested in hip-hop, he made other black friends and began to inhabit a space of black subjectivity, rejecting a whiteness he felt had rejected him. “I used to be very anti-white,” recalled during our conversation. “I used to be very much angry. For a long time I was so mad and so angry, and so borderline hateful towards white people because I experienced not being fully white, but at the same time my parents were white, and I know that even my face—I had this European nose, and just hating that. There was some self-hate involved there for a while. For me it was a very touchy mixture.”
Ali’s rejection of whiteness and his construction of an ontological black subjectivity was the way in which he began to accept himself and find healing, though he admits that for some time it led to him having to deal with major identity issues. As he recalled: “I used to really be confused, man. At that time I straight up was like ‘I’m black,’ you know what I mean? And it was an older guy that explained to me how that wasn’t true. For a long time I was like, ‘I’m not white. White people are terrible. I’m black,’ and I still in ways might feel that way. I still think of myself more so as a black person than a white person, but I know better than that now. Black people understand, more than anybody on this earth, the feeling of powerlessness, so anybody else that has experienced that at all certainly has a partner there.”
One of the earliest rap albums to catch his attention was Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded. He developed a fascination for KRS-One after the rapper helped to sponsor the Stop the Violence Movement in the 1980s.43 He recalled that “KRS-ONE became the most influential person in my life, and he probably was that for a good five years just because he just blew my mind, just to be that powerful and intense and intelligent like that, bringing up things I had never been exposed to before like the history of Africa, white supremacy, the history of Europe.” When he was about twelve, he remembers going to hear KRS-ONE give a lecture in East Lansing and said, “When I left there, I wanted to be him, you know?” Ali immersed himself in the study of black literature and biographical works, and found other rappers he admired and respected like Chuck D, Heavy D, and Big Daddy Kane, men who had never graduated from college, but whom he considered had the street-level savvy and mother wit he calls “hardcore smart.” His relationship with his family of origin he recalls as “very rocky,” and his music is filled with autobiographical references that trace a path of personal self-development and gradual empowerment that he attributes to his interaction with black people and culture. He confided in our discussion that “basically, all of the real-life lessons in my life for the most part I learned from, all of the mentors in my life have always been black people. Always.”
Ali does a fair amount of macho posturing and braggadocio while dissing rival rappers, but unlike Vanilla Ice or Eminem, he is not trying to construct himself as another white Negro as bad nigger. More often than not he takes the posture of the bad man, one that finds his most powerful songs engaging progressive social and political themes. He sees his life and his music as prophetic, of bearing witness to the sufferings of the weak and the dispossessed, and grounded in the personal strength he has drawn from black religious faith, his devotion to Islam, and his struggle to hold on to his humanity in the face of the discrimination he has experienced because of his physical features. The racial border region between blackness and whiteness that he occupies and the sense of marginalization he has experienced as a result of it have become spaces from which to speak truth to power, to interrogate racism and other categories of intolerance and exclusion while inviting us to transcend them. At other times Ali exposes “the invisibility and normative position that whiteness holds” in American life in a way that makes “whiteness visible to whites—exposing the discourses, the social and cultural practices, and the material conditions that cloak whiteness and hide its dominating effects.”44
White supremacist ideology, intolerance, racism, the legacy of slavery, personal disillusionment, domestic abuse, and his struggles for identity and community were central themes he addressed in unsparing terms on Shadows on the Sun, which lends insight into a tortured childhood that shaped his social and racial views as well as his artistic vision. The song “Picket Fence” is typically autobiographical, recounting a rite of passage from innocence to self-awareness and a journey of self-discovery that is both painful and transformative. With the strains of what sounds like a black spiritual humming in the background, Ali describes an early idyllic childhood “living out life behind a picket fence/Happy go lucky scared of no one,” before “blight and white supremacy heisted my innocence.” One of the prime metaphors for the American Dream, certainly, is that of the white picket fence that symbolizes the prosperity that many enjoyed in the United States during the postwar years, particularly middle-class white suburbanites. Here it becomes a metaphor for youthful innocence and its defilement. Childhood cruelty visited upon him by classmates made him aware of his albinism, whiteness and his estrangement from it. As he recounts, “then came the laughter, and outside I’m battered/Picket fence shattered/I saw myself as a bastard tagalong, harassed and spat up/By the children of slave masters who passed it on.” His childhood tormentors caused him to fall “face first into self-hate,” where “every mirror that I saw back then had the earth’s ugliest human being in it.” Ali’s experiences of being taunted and beaten (“they would kick me until they got tired or I act dead,”) are reminiscent of any number of accounts of racial brutality suffered by blacks at the hands of white racists and segregationists particularly in the American South from slavery and Reconstruction through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. What amounted to racial violence would forever inform Ali’s perceptions about race and identity and help instill in him a deep abhorrence of racial bigotry and social injustice.
His moment of transformation and redemption comes later in the song, where, as he writes, he is approached on the playground by an elderly black woman, “the old sister who hums gospel tunes” (her presence palpable in the humming that we hear beneath his rhymes), who delivers a message of hope and personal salvation, telling him, “You look the way you do because you’re special, not the short bus way, I mean that God’s gonna test you.” The experience gave him a feeling of being somehow anointed rather than deformed, which he voices in the further lines attributed to the woman who approaches him: “And all of this pain is training for the day when you will have to lead with the gift God gave to you/Grown folks don’t see it but the babies do/And there’s a chance that you can save a few/And time will prove that, she started my movement/She didn’t tell me to take it, she told me to use it.” In relating the incident during our talk, he recalls this time in his life: “Ever since I was a young kid I’ve had this feeling like not being part of white America, you know, not feeling like I had the benefit of that, not feeling membership in that and not feeling togetherness with that, and basically feeling that togetherness with black people, always feeling comfortable with black people, always feeling I could be myself, always feeling like people related to me as a person, understood me, that I understood them, always just feeling comfortable, and then I’ve always just liked black culture better, and because of that I’ve always benefited more from black wisdom.”
As a result of this and other experiences in his life, Ali has come to read his albinism as a kind of higher calling, and a form of revolutionary, radical black subjectivity that characterizes the spirit of social progressiveness and political activism of African Americans in the twentieth century. In Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, bell hooks formulates the idea of radical black subjectivity as a way to move beyond merely resisting the discourse of white supremacy and marginalization to a position of self-empowerment and progressive social change. Its challenge is to move beyond the rhetoric of victimization to one that sees marginalization as a site of resistance. Hooks names marginality “as a site of transformation where liberatory black subjectivity can fully emerge,” and emphasizes that there is a “definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structure and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance, as location of radical openness and possibility.”45 Brother Ali’s journey from marginalization to self-discovery caused him to reject a whiteness that had rejected him, and to adopt ontological blackness as a way to heal and empower himself and construct a progressive body of music that powerfully speaks from the racial borderland marked by his albinism. In that space, the space of a marginalized Other who complicates the black/white binary, Ali has constructed for himself the kind of identity that hooks envisioned, one that “emerges from the meeting of diverse epistemologies, habits of being, concrete class location, and radical political commitments” and that in the end, moves beyond an identity “informed by a narrow cultural nationalism marking continued fascination with the power of the white hegemonic other.”46
Ali’s ontological blackness embraces not simply the historic struggles against racism and its injustices but the contemporary possibilities of social change through private protest and public activism, rather than playing to reductive representations and appropriations of blackness. He sees himself as much a preacher as an entertainer, ministering to and leading a congregation of like-minded people in a movement of conscience toward community and social justice. He expresses consternation at the fact that some young white hip-hop fans gravitate to him for reasons he considers border on cultural racism. As he put it during our discussion: “In the underground there is an almost all majority white movement where a lot of the artists are white, a lot of the fans are white. You got fans who have no black friends, who have no connection to black culture whatsoever who like these white underground hip-hop groups, and to them that’s better, and they feel like it’s superior creatively. They feel like it’s intellectually superior, like it’s more complex. They feel like it’s all around better hip-hop than 50 Cent.” Nonetheless, he is able to craft teachable moments from these interactions. As he related, “sometimes with them (white fans) their problem already is that they can only relate to somebody that looks like them, so I feel like if I let them have that about me sometimes, like ‘alright, y’all want to relate to me? We’re not the same, but if y’all want to feel like we’re the same for a minute to have to learn from me, I’ll do that.’ That’s OK.”
Several songs from Shadows on the Sun testify to Ali’s visionary socio-musical movement. Perhaps the most bleak and powerful of these is “Room With a View,” which speaks to the blight of inner-city poverty and desperation. The song engages themes common to hardcore styles of rap such as casual violence, drug dealing, poverty, prostitution, and gangland drive-by shootings, but not in a gratuitous or opportunistic manner. Despite being raised in relative middle-class comfort, he has spent much of his adult life in a working-class struggle for survival (he left home and married when he was seventeen) while trying to keep his artistic dreams alive, knowing homelessness and poverty, working odd jobs to support a wife and child. There is no ghetto glory or 'hood heroism in Ali’s rendering of the street, only the casualties and catastrophes of the misfortunate. His reading of ghetto life is unrelenting in exposing the never-ending tragedies of hopelessness that focuses less on the players—the hustlers, gangstas and thugs—and more on ordinary people who are victims of their circumstances. In the world he describes from the window of his Minneapolis apartment, “slinging crack is not seen as a fucking recreation but a vocation.” In Ali’s urban reality, parents only touch their children when a whip is brought out, where “we don’t have Bar Mitzvah’s/we become men the first time our father hits us.” In Ali’s ‘hood, “Sister Regina from across the street is beautiful/but for fifty bucks ain’t nothing she won’t do to you.” It is a world where “hoop dreamers” eventually become disillusioned, “pain strangles them from within, ’til the belt around the arm makes the veins stand at attention.” The song is more reminiscent of the kind of indignation and social consciousness expressed in songs like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” or Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” than in many of the nihilist street narratives of the gangsta and the thug that offer mere rage without moral counterpoint.
Ali’s “Forest Whitaker,” a tribute of sorts to the Academy Award–winning African American actor, deals with overcoming the prejudices associated with personal appearance. It testifies to Ali’s personal transformation and self acceptance, and alludes to Whitaker’s having succeeded in an occupation with fairly narrow norms of beauty, where the Hollywood “leading man” has historically celebrated dashing white males. “Whitaker” finds Ali on the other side of his struggle about his own physical features, his self-confidence intact, drawing strength from a successful black male who beat the odds when race and appearance should have been overwhelmingly against him. He comes to terms with his condition when he writes, “I’m albino man, I know I’m pink and pale/And I’m hairy as hell, everywhere but fingernails,” but having moved far from the depression and self-hatred he confesses in “Picket Fence,” he has now found a measure of real peace reflected in the lines “You might think I’m depressed as can be/But when I look in the mirror I see sexy ass me.” He ministers to those who have felt the sting of discrimination based on looks with a final shout out and makes a final, powerful statement of self-love and acceptance when he rhymes, “To everyone out there who’s a little different/I say damn a magazine, these are God’s fingerprints/You can call me ugly but can’t take nothing from me/I am what I am doctor, you ain’t gotta love me.” He confirmed these feelings during our conversation, acknowledging that “I know that being albino is the main part of it, the main part of why I think I ended up being the way that I am and why I’ve made the choices that I’ve made before I even realized that I was necessarily making those choices.”
Ali makes perhaps his most profound statement around personal identity, whiteness, and radical black subjectivity in the song “Daylight,” from the 2007 album The Undisputed Truth, where he takes on the question of his racial identity that has been so constant in his life by proclaiming “Race is a made up thing I don’t believe in it/My genes tie me to those that despised me, made a living killing the ones that inspired me.” Here Ali openly interrogates the social construction of race while also acknowledging a biological heritage he rejects because of its legacy of white supremacy and slavery. He also distances himself from wanting to be seen as merely an entertainer and again reaffirms the visionary and revolutionary aspect of his art when he rhymes “I ain’t just talking about singing and dancing, I was taught life and manhood by black men/So I’m a product of that understanding/And a small part of me feels like I am them.” This lyric speaks perhaps most honestly and plainly to Ali’s performance of a radical black masculine subjectivity, and the enduring influence it has had in shaping his own self-identity and social convictions.
Ali directly challenges his white fans into self-reflection on issues around race and social justice. The message in “Daylight” is similar to Eminem’s “White America,” but is more clearly rendered in unambiguous and defiant terms when he protests that “I don’t want the white folks that praise me to think they can claim me ’cause you didn’t make me/You don’t appreciate what I know to be great yet you relate to me.” Like Eminem, Vanilla Ice, and the Beastie Boys, Brother Ali has brought white fans into hip-hop and rap music, but he appears to understand better than any of them the burdens, challenges, and perhaps responsibility that comes with appropriating a cultural expression created by marginalized and oppressed minority youth. He challenges the notion of fan loyalty based primarily on shared whiteness, something “that frustrates me and what can I say/’cause I know that I benefit from something I hate.” Yet, he offers something of an olive branch and an invitation, a challenge perhaps, for like-minded individuals to join his dedication to racial and social justice when he tells his fans to “make no mistake our connection ain’t fake/It’s never too late to clear off the slate.” By making it clear that he rejects fans who relate to him only because he is white, he is not allowing them to casually invest in the “post-racial” consumption of a black cultural product without reflecting on the historical and contemporary consequences of American racial oppression.
Ali’s song “Uncle Sam Goddamn” also from The Undisputed Truth, is even more direct and unsparing in its assault on racial bigotry and the history of American slavery. An homage to Nina Simone’s civil rights era protest song “Mississippi Goddamn,” Ali critiques “the world’s most despicable slavery trade/Pioneered so many ways to degrade a human being that it can’t be changed to this day/Legacy so ingrained in the way that we think we no longer need chains to be slaves/Lord it’s a shameful display.” The video for the song depicts images of slave ships, lynchings, Ku Klux Klan rallies, civil rights era protests, student riots, war carnage, and flag-draped caskets of fallen soldiers from Iraq. The chorus intones: “Welcome to the United Snakes/Land of the thief home of the slave/The grand imperial guard where the dollar is sacred and power is God.” The song also takes on U.S. imperialism and caused Ali to lose a lucrative tour sponsorship when he refused to edit out material that criticized an American military-industrial war machine that has often targeted people of color. As of this writing, with military campaigns active in Afghanistan and Libya, and against the carnage of the 2003 Iraqi invasion that few now support as a legitimate action, Ali offers a compelling critique of such interventions, their justifications aside, when he rhymes: “Talking ’bout you don’t support a crackhead/What you think happens to the money from yo’ taxes/Shit the government an addict/With a billion dollar a week kill brown people habit.”
Ali’s vision seems to reach full maturity with his 2009 CD simply entitled US, which finds a point of racial conciliation. The material is less embattled than his previous work, his personal life having found a measure of peace and comfort and a unified message of hope for human reconciliation that reaches out across lines of race, class, ethnicity, and religious divisions. In the title single “US” he delivers a message to all of his fans that “to me all ya’ll look exactly the same/Fear faith compassion and pain.” The song may be as close as Ali has come to preaching a Sunday sermon (he later rhymes “Street preacher is what a fan once called me/I been called worse and tried to live up”), delivering the anti-racist message that “try as we may to mask it remains such as your religion or your past and your race, the same color blood just pass through our veins and tears taste the same when they’re splashing your face.” With “US,” Ali appears to have moved beyond merely rejecting whiteness and its history and makes a plea beyond the things that divide, reaching out with the lines that the world “is getting too small to stand in one place/It’s like roommates just sharing one space.” His message is finally forward looking and optimistic as well as conciliatory when he delivers the lines “Can’t separate and still carry the weight/gotta heal get away from the fear and the hate/gotta shake free from the chains, you see what remains/just a human being end of the day.” In the final strains, he seems to come full circle from the ruptures of his earlier life, finding redemption and salvation in his own life, but like a benevolent bodhisattva, or echoing the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also wishing redemption for others, proclaiming that “can’t nobody be free unless we’re all free/there’s no me and no you it’s just us.”
Brother Ali’s performance of non-exploitative representations of black subjectivity offers, as Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray suggest in White Trash: Race and Class in America, “one model for reconceiving whiteness within the evolving political project of multiculturalism” that could help to effect the kinds of work around racial self-recognition and self-consciousness raising that have been largely absent in racial discourses dominated by whiteness. The kinds of borderline racialized identities that Brother Ali articulates, although not unproblematic, nonetheless bespeak “certain commonalities between oppressed whites and oppressed racial groups.”47 Like white trash discourse, Brother Ali uses his otherness to construct music that “speaks to the hybrid and multiple nature of identities” and the ways in which American hybridity is often formed and shaped by contradictory and conflicting relations of social power.48 Brother Ali represents something perhaps unique in hip-hop culture as a white rap artist (he resists the tag “white rapper,” fully aware of the negative baggage attached to the term) who has translated what Cornel West characterizes as “niggerization”49 into an alternative and credible expression that is anti-racist, anti-misogynistic, non-exploitive, and anti-materialistic and who has drawn critical praise for his music as well as respect from other rappers for not compromising his values in order to achieve mainstream commercial success.
In the end, Ali eschews the nihilistic caricature of the bad nigger in favor of the socially conscious and morally committed heroism of the bad man who lives not just for self, but for others in his community. Brother Ali’s performance of radical black subjectivity and black masculinity not only repudiates hundreds of years of condescending and paternalistic appropriations of black subjectivity, but challenges white consumers of black culture to seek more ethnical ways of engagement with black people and black life. To paraphrase the words of Audre Lorde, Ali’s radical black subjectivity can be defined in terms of an oppositional worldview, a consciousness, an identity, a standpoint that exists not only as that struggle that also opposes demonization but as that movement that enables creative, expansive self-actualization. Ali’s radical black subjectivity is finally defined in terms of inclusion rather than exclusion, rendered in music and personal performance that offers a compelling alternative to the commodified gangstas and thugs of hardcore hip-hop that the culture industry routinely offers as contemporary models of masculine performance and desire.
One could argue that Ali perhaps pushes hooks’ suggestion that there needs to be more space for “fluid notions of black identity” and “marginal perspectives”50 a little far, an argument she raises herself when she discusses frustrating confrontations with “the white avant-garde in politically charged cultural contexts in which they seek to appropriate and usurp radical efforts to subvert static notions of black identity.”51 It is a legitimate charge that such appropriations happen again and again, and recalls Ingrid Monson’s eloquent criticism of white hipness. Nonetheless, if we may return to the ruminations of George Lipsitz, the case can be made that such appropriations need not exist solely as “new aesthetic and political directions white folks might move in,”52 as hooks sees it. Nearly two hundred years separate Jim Crow from Vanilla Ice, The (White) Rapper Show, Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and a legion of other wanksta wiggers. There is no reason to believe that such appropriations will cease. If it were the case however, that African American culture might come to be seen as, in Michele Wallace’s critical view, “the starting point for white self-criticism”53 rather than continuing to function as merely a funhouse of racial play, I think it might be fair to ask, what’s so bad about that?
1. Monson, Ingrid. “The Problem with White Hipness: Race, Gender, and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz Historical Discourse.” Journal of the American Musicological Society. No. 48 (1995): 397.
2. Monson, 398.
3. Monson, 398.
4. Monson, 404.
5. According to a February 11,1946, article in Downbeat magazine (“Dizzy Gillespie’s
Style, Its Meaning Analyzed”) performers also imitated Gillespie’s standing posture while performing, which resembled the figure “S,” which he apparently affected because he was too apathetic to stand erectly. This stance would later become iconic with Miles Davis and currently with many performers in rap music.
6. Monson, 402.
7. Monson, 419.
8. Sweeney, Gael. “The King of White Trash Culture: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetic of Excess.” In White Trash: Race and Class in America. Routledge. (1997): 254.
9. Finson, J.W. The Voices That Are Gone. Oxford University Press (1994):162.
10. Boskin, Joseph. Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester. Oxford University Press (1986): 81.
11. Garofalo, Reebee. Rocking Out: Popular Music in the USA. Prentice Hall (2002):125.
12. Szatmary, David. A Time to Rock: A Social History of Rock and Roll. Schirmer Books (1996): 24.
13. Grossberg, Lawrence. Dancing in Spite of Myself: Essays on Popular Culture. Duke University Press (1997): 71.
15. Lipsitz, George. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place. Verso (1994): 54.
17. Rux, Carl Hancock: “Eminem: The New White Negro,” in Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. Greg Tate, ed. Broadway Books (2003): 37.
18. Lipsitz, 55.
19. Lipsitz, 62.
20. Lipsitz, 66.
21. Keyes, Cheryl. Rap Music and Street Consciousness. University of Illinois Press (2002): 90.
22. The involvement of Latinos in hip-hop has been underrepresented in much of the popular and academic literature. Nonetheless, it is a vibrant underground scene and has a rich history of performers. This history is discussed in the DVD Pass The Mic! (Safada Y Sano Productions, 2002), directed by Richard Montes.
23. Bernard, James. “Why the World Is After Vanilla Ice.” The New York Times. February 3, 1991: 54.
25. McDonald, Paul. “Feeling and Fun. Romance, Dance and the Performing Male Body in the That That Videos.” In Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. Routledge (1997): 281.
26. The nylon cap he is referring to is the doo-rag, a stylized version of a woman’s nylon pantyhose cut short and worn by black men to protect “processed” or chemically treated hair. It is also linked to social deviance and criminality since nylon stockings pulled down over the face become cheap disguises for use in committing crimes. The cap has become a fashion accessory for young men in urban gang culture but has been appropriated as casual street attire in the hip-hop community. Rappers such as Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Eminem, and 50 Cent have worn them in public and in photographs.
27. Seabrook, John. Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture. Vintage Books (2000): 3.
28. Seabrook, 4.
29. Wynter, Leon. American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business and the End of White America. Crown Publishers (2002): 37.
30. Dimitriadis, Greg. Performing Identity/Performing Culture: Hip-hop as Text, Pedagogy and Lived Practice. Peter Lang (2001): 24.
31. West, Cornel. Race Matters. Vintage Books (1994):121.
32. Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage (2003), 265.
33. Roediger, David. “Guineas, Wiggers, and the Dramas of Racialized Culture.” American Literary History 7. No. 4 (1995): 654.
34. Anderson, Victor. Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism. Continuum (1995): 14.
35. Rux, 25.
36. Horrorcore is a subgenre of hardcore hip-hop that indulges macabre themes such as homicide, rape, and torture taken from horror and slasher films but that also borrow from heavy metal rock and bands such as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest whose material often includes dark themes around death and the occult.
37. Rux, 28.
38. Roediger, 661.
39. Ford, Richard Thompson. The Race Card. How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse. Farrer, Straus and Giroux (2008): 335.
40. Ford, 25.
41. Ford, 337.
42. Personal communication with Brother Ali via telephone interview on September 2, 2003.
43. The Stop the Violence Movement was a coalition of hip-hop artists united against violence in the black community that was organized by KRS-ONE shortly after the murder of his Boogie Down Productions partner Scott La Rock. In 1989, the coalition released the 12-inch single “Self Destruction,” donating the proceeds to the National Urban League.
44. Newitz, A. and Wray, M. White Trash: Race and Class in America. Routledge (1997) 3.
45. hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Sound End Press (1990): 22.
46. hooks (1990), 20.
47. Newitz, A. and Wray: 5.
48. Newitz and Wray, 4.
49. Dr. West used this term in a 2004 public lecture given in Seattle, Washington, in discussing the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and subsequent feelings expressed to him by whites of being abused and hated, which he compared to the Otherization of African Americans in the United States.
50. hooks (1990), 20.
51. hooks (1990) 21.
52. hooks (1990) 21.
53. hooks (1990) 21.
["Race Rebels: Whiteness and the New Masculine Desire," by Miles White, originally appeared in his book From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity, University of Illinois Press, 2011. Used with permission of the author.]