Is there anything more vile than blackface? Two centuries ago, they painted their faces with black makeup to approximate their understanding of blackness. These minstrels lampooned blacks as, “dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious and happy-go-lucky.” Some would argue that today hip hop and its appropriators are donning a new type of blackface. Today’s creatives, or artists if you prefer, often offer us performative blackness. But what does it mean to be young, gifted and black in the 21st century?
An immigrant and an eclectic music lover, I came to hip hop late. I dabbled. My love was not immediate. It became part of my assimilation. Cartoons, children’s stories, soap operas and rap. Yes as a kid I would animatedly perform, “Rappers Delight.” The song was funny and just scandalous enough to fascinate me, like listening to Richard Pryor’s Wanted when I was supposed to be sleeping.
For me, hip hop was this new and amorphous thing. It wasn’t salsa, calypso or reggae, nor was it blues or country, yet it somehow captured their mood and storytelling. Ironically, for me it was most like jazz. It was a people’s past, present and future clashing. It was a thorough line to the homeland. It was an interpretation of music and experiences. It was storytelling from new griots. It was entertainment and information. It was rude and funny enough to capture a young girl’s ear. On playgrounds, around lunchroom tables, riding on trains and later at parties, lyrics drifted into conversations. Rap was everything growing-up. Now it is nothing, or at least, something very different for me.
The commercialization and appropriation of the genre stripped it of its originality and ownership. Hip Hop has gone from outcast to mainstream in not only the music industry but in fashion, art, film and even books; check-out Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip-Hop or the popular Decoded. This began with the now classic rock-rap “Walk This Way,” a Run DMC and Aerosmith cover collaboration. Thirty years later, hip hop has morphed into a sometimes unrecognizable thing. Breakdancing, DJing and graffiti have long declined or radically changed; now rap has too, losing its original rhythm, literary technique and distinctive style.
Rap now is less battle, old school, boom bap, conscious and more trap, bounce, melodic, and mumble. Violence and sex is in overdrive on gangsta, horrorcore, rastadub, grime, reggaeton, and underground. Christian, underground, rock, metal and alternative may not get radio play but their fan base is substantial and loyal; just ask Tech N9ne or Lecrae. Today hip hop artists, rappers, are as varied as apple varieties in Wal-mart. From the classic if not iconic McIntosh (Kendrick Lamar) to the sweet with a hint of spice Baldwin (Chance the Rapper) and the tart thick-skinned Granny Smith (Young Thug), there are as many as twenty-five varieties. New varieties are always in development. Early iterations may be too sour for most. Experimentation will eventually yield a palatable one. For many, these new varieties will lack purity and retain the stench of lab breeding. This too is true of rappers.
Hip hop artists sometimes remind me of that scene in Brown Sugar when Dre (Taye Diggs) hears The Hip Hop Dalmatian’s, Ren and Ken, “The Ho Is Mine,” a spin on Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s “The Girl Is Mine.” Their gimmick was as bad as their rhyming and flow but they were serious. Today marginally talented artists, if we are being generous, are at the top of the charts with music that is far more pop than it is hip hop. With or without gimmicks today hip hop’s content and performances are problematic.
Authenticity was once paramount in this genre. Hip hop artists now operate from a place of ignorance, self-hatred and often necessity. Like rock and r&b, hip hop has long been provocative. Hip hop has always had gross lyrics, songs about blowjobs and violence. The change is the crudeness, ridiculousness and stupidity that rap has now embraced. Beyond rape lyrics, too often songs are littered with nonsense or factually incorrect lyrics. The latest is Lil Yachty’s “Peek A Boo.” “My new bitch yellow / She blow that dick like a cello.” The lyric debacle showed the rapper to be disingenuous in his mea culpa which he posted on Genius. On Cosmopolitian.com, Lilian Min pointed out that, this was not an isolated incident. On his 2016 track “IDK” he used the same line and even copped to the mistake on Twitter. Whether this faux pas was part of a media plan or simply the arrogance of youth and celebrity, it has become part of hip hop.
Like Lil Yachty, rappers have resorted to gimmicks, tricks, stunts and all sorts of foolywang to promote, sell and perform their music. This includes The Game, Rick Ross, Meek Mills, and maybe the father of this particular trap, 50 Cent. These rappers have feigned beefs, been embroiled in rape culture allegations, engaged in ill-conceived battles, and maybe most disturbing orchestrated and posted a sex tape of an enemy’s baby mother ultimately resulting in a lawsuit that would cause him to file bankruptcy. Today’s rappers are largely manufactured and lack authenticity. Rappers rely on media and publicity rather than their pens. The selection of features, social media narratives and tour mates has become more important than the bars, the songs, the performance.
Maybe I don’t get it. I am not the target audience for this hip hop. My youth is long gone never to return. I do not enjoy the foolywang. I find no joy in the stories being told. I miss the message, the humor, the fun. I am no Lord Jamar admonishing and disparaging artists’ music or dress. From Prince to Andre 3000, Kanye and now Young Thug, hip hop has embraced artists’ rock star gender bending dress when there is artistry behind the garments, skirts-blouses-wigs. But when it is inauthentic, when it is a skit we are not a part of, we rebel.
Hip hop music, has become performative. This is beyond the lunacy and freedom of youth each generation experiences via music: rock, heavy metal, rap, trap… This is the narcissism of social media. This is the materialism of the world. From the empty calorie that is reality TV to the caricatures of black life the media perpetrates, hip hop culture is losing its authenticity. Hip hop artists, largely, are not real; they are performance artists, donning black face for largely white audiences who think the act is who black people really are or that is all we are.
Creatives (singers, musicians, writers, actors…) are being lulled into an inauthentic art trap. The top charting songs lack lyricism, bars, and deliver reductive performances. Like its un-nurtured progeny, Love and Hip Hop, Growing up Hip Hop and Hip Hop Squares, rap has become the epitome of performative blackness. It presents every black trope. The money, celebrity, party, sex, cars… These shows perpetrate the presumed narratives of black lives. Even when they attempt to elevate the conversation, the scenes are trite or pretentious and the ‘stars’ are clearly inauthentic, illustrating the need for better producers, script writers and maybe acting classes.
If hip hop is the new minstrel show it isn’t political or social. It is capitalistic. Pop music is now hip hop and rap is now pop music. We hear it on radio, from Beats 1 and Sirius to national stations, in Starbucks and elevators and even on TV/movie scores. Hip hop is everywhere. It is many things to many people. “Glory“ is uplifting, “Light“ is sobering, “Shether” is an old school battle take-down, “DNA” is lyrical, “Bad and Boujee” is gangster and “Red Barz” is both braggadocious and self-aware.
As we await the summer rap bangers, I wonder what hip hop will be when it is forty-five and all grown-up. Of course, it began with Kool Herc’s prolonged breaks of percussive drum beats in the 1970’s, evolved with an incorporation of electronic and rapping, migrated to sampling and now it is a melange if not hodgepodge of beats and bars. In fifty years, what will archaeologist unearth about hip hop? It may go the way of jazz and blues. It may permanently redefine pop-music. It may become altered to the point of reclassification. Certainly the OGs, old guards, will attempt to steer it away from minstrel and doom.
Like apples, hip hop is operating in a diverse environment which may ensure that the genre thrives. We need hip hop to pump-up its pride and freedom volume unapologetically and turn down the shuckin’ and jivin’. As Kendrick Lamar said, ”It’s really about keeping hip-hop original and pushing away the corniness in it.” Imagine if Dr. Siri Sat Sam Singh of Viceland’s The Therapist sat down with a personified hip hop. What would that session reveal?
Today’s creatives are navigating a very different terrain than when hip hop was in its infancy. They are trying to live their own version of black joy. The trick they must master is finding and defining themselves without contributing to the pathos of black trauma. There is a definitive line between black joy and minstrel. From gen-z to baby boomers we, the hip hop community, are double conscious, liberated individuals as comfortable with the King’s English as we are with hip hop lingo and often a splattering of other languages and cultures to boot. Our fluidity has been cultivated over generations. The cost has been heavy and there is no debt. So we demand a lot of hip hop. We want it all. We know what hip hop is and can be because it is us. All we want, all we ask, is that hip hop does not let-down our ancestors or us!