Why White Rappers Are the New Blackface

I’ve always been a lover of Macklemore. I probably listened to “Thrift Shop” a good hundred times in one sitting. When I came out to my brother, he didn’t know how to react until he heard “Same Love”—and then he came to every GSBA meeting during my senior year in high school. I put on “White Walls” anytime I’m given the aux cord, and I used to fall asleep to “Neon Cathedral.” But as much as I love his music, I don't think any of his songs should have been written.

During the 19th century, blackface took extreme popularity. White men would paint charcoal over their faces, go on stage and portray caricatures of black men and women. They would imitate black vernacular and (unsuccessfully) reproduce dance moves that the black Americans had created. The whole point of blackface minstrelsy was to assert white control over black culture—a culture that ran contrary to the hegemonic white sensibilities of that time. The idea of black men having large penises, for example, originated from minstrelsy with the purpose to portray black men as sexually hungry deviants. With blackface, white men were able to construct their own version of blackness, and its resemblance to reality held little bearing; it was about maintaining white supremacy and derailing whites from miscegenation.

And while blackface is a thing of the past, and as a society we would deem such a performance as a complete scandal, we still must ask ourselves this: are there white people today, who go on stage and imitate black American vernacular and black American dance moves? Who that, Who that? I-G-G-Y. Iggy Azalea's whole career is performing blackface, particularly in the way she decides to speak when she raps. This is a woman who has an Australian accent, but when she raps, she is trying to imitate an African-American. She is putting on a persona that she has no right to portray because she has never lived her life as an African-American. She attempts to replicate the hip-hop theme of black struggle with experiences that never actually happened to her. Admittedly, I was a big fan of her song “Work,” and you can imagine my surprise when I found out that she was not, in fact, “16 in the middle of Miami.”

And while this all might seem harmless, it is a serious problem for the black community. Hip-hop was created as an act of rebellion against white supremacy. It was meant to express the pain and heartache of living under a racist society. Jay Z wasn’t a drug dealer because it was a fun thing to do; he was a drug dealer because for a period of time, that was his only means of surviving. When we trivialize black struggle (or glorify it), we forget that real problems are occurring. When Iggy Azalea imitates a black person, she is perpetuating an essentialist image of what an African-American is. And just like blackface, she is given an absurd amount of control over what that image is without much limitation or sensitivity to a whole community of people.

And I’m sure many of Azalea’s fans (I don’t know how many are left) would say that she is celebrating black culture, but I always had a problem anytime such an argument was brought up. It is very hard for me to believe that there can be a genuine 'celebration' of an oppressed people, especially when the people celebrating that culture are the oppressors themselves, who, holistically speaking, have no proactive desire to disdain their power. When the oppressers 'celebrate' the culture of the oppressed, they can manipulate it to further secure their social, political and economic domination—and maintain white hegemony.

This isn’t to say that white rap has no value. But the problem is that hip-hop was not meant to become pop culture. It was a tool used to express and demonstrate opposition to society. When something inherently rebellious becomes pop culture and becomes part of the society that it was meant to oppose, it loses all power. The voice of the black community is lost. Even more troubling, when rap becomes pop culture, it also becomes a product for the consumer. Black artists create rap that will resonate with white audiences who will buy their albums and go to their tours. White people weren’t the only ones who participated in blackface. Black men would put charcoal on themselves as well and act the black persona that the white audiences wanted to see. It’s history repeating itself.

As for Macklemore, I see him as a white man who enjoys the art of hip-hop. He has studied the great ones and he too wants to partake in it. But unfortunately, my fear with Macklemore is that rap becomes a white entity—with the imitation of black culture becoming more valuable than the actual thing. The fact that he won a Grammy for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar is already a sign that the white presence in black culture is more valued than actual blacks doing it. Yes, I love Macklemore’s music, but unlike Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore doesn’t have to experience black struggle. He hasn’t experienced racial prejudice—nor has racial prejudice hurt him physically (through the means of police brutality), nor has it hurt him financially. These were the original themes of hip-hop. And Macklemore has the ability to participate in his own version of hip-hop without actually dealing with black issues.

At this rate, with hip-hop becoming the new blackface, I can only argue that black music will totally lose its oppositional power. When rebellion becomes part of white hegemony, it is no longer rebellion, but a normalized part of our society.

Gregory Ochiagha is a New Yorker, majoring in media studies with a focus on racial representation.

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