Unless you lived under a rock in 2008, you probably heard the term “post-racial” used in reference to President Barack Obama’s candidacy. The term refers to the fact that his being black was for all intents and purposes a non-issue. This, in running for President of a country that only four decades prior was still segregating schools on the grounds of race.
Obama’s viability and eventual success gave credence to a sea-change in our public consciousness, that we had moved past, or beyond the era where race was the first and foremost thing that needed to be both dealt with, and then ignored. In other words, it wasn’t about electing a “black president” as much as electing the forty three men before him wasn’t about electing a “white president.” He was judged first on his own faults and merits. And whether you believe it was an historic step towards doing away with racism or a non-starter of an issue, it was undeniably a step in the right direction. However big or small you believed it to be, that’s for another discussion entirely.
So is race still a big deal in our culture?
Duh. Of course it is.
But think about this question: does race still matter when it comes to hip hop? Having its roots in black culture, the genre has only been around for thirty years or so. And it’s questionable whether race or skin color is still a legitimate issue in terms of acceptance in the insular rap community or the mainstream audience. It used to be if you were a white rapper back in the early ’90s, you were seen as simply being a white kid who was trying to be black, or in the case of a novelty like Snow or Vanilla Ice, a joke.
Even well respected white rappers like MC Serch of 3rd Bass dealt with heat from the likes of artists like the X-Clan, an afrocentric and militant all-black group. The pejorative term “wigger” was coined to describe, well, white kids acting like..you fill in the blanks, and with it came a deluge of accusations that once again, like rock n’ roll and blues and jazz before it, the white man was simply co-opting the black man’s culture.
That was almost twenty years ago (3rd Bass’s Gas Face was released in 1989), a full decade before Eminem released The Slim Shady LP in 1999 and the whole world changed. For the first time arguably ever, a white boy was spoken about as one of the best emcees alive, and for good reason. Once you got past the voice, the persona, and well, the horrific debut single “My Name Is,” you began to hear a flow and delivery that had a legitimate claim to the GOAT crown that so many rappers (namely black ones) had sought to hold. More notably, it was a crown that white rappers, as few as there were in the public eye, never tried to grab. Sure, we all love the Beastie Boys, but would any of you declare that AdRock was one of the best rappers alive? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
If we say that the “modern” era of hip hop began sometime in the early ’90s (say, around the time when Wu Tang, Biggie and Death Row were all starting up), it’s remarkable to see how quickly the culture changed, not only in its substance, but also in its perception to those outside the scene. The genre went from being called a fad, the “next disco,” to being the most dangerous, damaging and controversial music in the world during the height of the “Cop Killer” and N.W.A. uproar of the early 90s.
Hip hop became arguably the largest source of cultural influence to the coveted youth demographic, affecting everything from fashion to liquor to sports to, hell, even video games. Its introduction was sharp, pointed, and sudden; and to many people, it was scary because it was simply a new thing, rather than an inherently black thing. Change is scary, and people often react to fear with spurn and anger. And let’s face it, Ice-T is kind of intimidating. Don’t believe me? Ask Aimee Mann.
As the ’90s went on, hip hop grew to be the largest musical force in popular music, up through 1998 when Puff Daddy’s No Way Out was released on the heels of Biggie’s death. Back when everywhere you stepped, you couldn’t not hear “I’ll Be Missing You.” When everyone was in some small way a rap fan, even if they said they hated rap. The end of the ’90s brought an appropriate closing-of-the-door on the sample-heavy East Coast sound and the G-funk/West Coast era to make way for bounce, bass, and the eventual reign of electronica that dominated the ’00s, and still makes up for most of the Billboard’s Top Charts. And with it, a generation of whipper snappers who had spent their formative years regarding rap as something that wasn’t necessarily ONLY black. By the early ’00s, a whole slew of white kids (like Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, Stones Throw) were ruling the independent scene, as well as a burgeoning scene of Asian, Latino, and European rappers, DJs, B-boys, producers, and maybe most importantly…fans.
All of that may explain why the artist and fan base isn’t so monochromatic anymore, but does it necessarily explain why we may no longer care about race in hip hop? Maybe it was the rise and fall of the intense political correctness era that, so overly concerned about not crossing racial lines in the sand, only ended up drawing more of them. Whatever the cause, you’re much less likely to write an emcee off for being white, just as you’d be an idiot to write off an indie band for having a black lead singer. And for all the talk about our country’s entrance into a post-racial era thanks to President Obama, maybe we’ve already been there when it comes to music. Maybe we’ve been there for longer than we thought.
Perhaps the only ones who ever cared that only black people were rapping were the media and onlookers. In the early days of hip hop, Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation was always a multi-racial entity, promoting the unification of all cultures and races under a peaceful banner. Mr. Freeze was accepted into the Rock Steady Crew as their first white member long before this sort of an event was ever of any interest to the public consciousness.
Maybe the simple fact was that the founders and purveyors of the culture never cared that it was a racially exclusive club; they were simply waiting for everyone else to join the party. And the influx of non-black rappers was not so much an acceptance, but an obvious destination for other races and ethnicities to an artform that allowed you to speak in ways that other musical genres couldn’t provide. The appeal wasn’t “black”; the appeal was music. And maybe that’s what the originators always wanted, or at the very least, believed in some respect. I mean, Masta Ace asked Paul Barman. What do we know?
If hip hop is in a post-racial era, then it’s less a “thank god” thing, and more a non-event…nothing more than a taking-inventory moment for a culture that was once decried as the scourge of white suburban society. It’s undeniably a good thing, but the explanation about the how and why is probably less important, and maybe less complex than the explanation of racism and the things that Obama’s presidency brings to the table. Maybe the simplest explanation is this: a post-racial America is, in essence, a meritocracy. And regardless of what you believe about everyone else’s tastes, music has always been a personal meritocracy on a person-by-person basis. And even if some of us may still say “oh wow, he’s not black?” when we hear a dope emcee, a good song is a good song, no matter the color involved.