By Larissa Olsen with additional reporting by Michelle Zenarosa
When a photo of rappers Iggy Azalea and Macklemore hit the Internet waves with the caption “King and Queen of Rap” in September, social media went into a frenzy.
In terms of numbers of albums sold, there might be an argument there, but if you asked someone randomly on the street, “Who do you think are the king and queen of rap?” it would probably take a minute before anyone would drop those two names for the titles.
While these aren’t the only two white rappers in the scene, and certainly not the only two white musicians incorporating hip-hop into their music, some hip-hop fans are very critical about what they’re calling cultural appropriation of black culture.
“Personally I’m not a fan of the appropriation, I’m not a fan of this sort of white entree in one of the last black spaces that appropriates the culture,” said Ebony Utley, author of Rap and Religion and professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach. “I see how these white women do this because black people give them this stamp that allows them to be in public doing what they are doing. Iggy’s got a black boyfriend and she thinks, ‘Well I can’t be doing anything wrong because I have black friends.’ The visual representation is, ‘Well I’m not appropriating. I’m not racist.’”
Merriam-Webster defines appropriation as “the action of taking something for one’s own use without the owner’s permission.”
Whether people like it or not, Azalea, who is Austrailian, and other white popular musicians like Megan Trainor and Miley Cyrus have incorporated a vernacular and style into their songs that have traditionally been associated with black culture.
Conversations around this issue have been contentious, to say the least. Forbes magazine ran an article back in May with the headline, “Hip-Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman” and later changed the headline because of the backlash it produced. Prominent hip-hop artists including Azealia Banks, Snoop Dogg and Rah Digga criticized Azalea on social media, arguing that artists like her have contributed to the deterioration of hip-hop.
And some aren’t surprised, arguing that this latest entry into hip-hop isn’t the first time the “whitewashing” of black music has happened in American history.
“This is nothing new,” said Oliver Wang, music and culture writer for National Public Radio. “It is a trend that has been happening for thirty-plus years. It could even be seen in Motown and R&B. So a shift is not really happening– it is more of the latest example.”
Wang believes that while the face of hip-hop has been getting whiter, the change isn’t as significant as one might think.
“Even though the faces are whiter now, behind the scene faces have always been white,” said Wang. “It comes down to the structure of popular culture. There are overwhelmingly white gatekeepers promoting primarily white artists. Once you see the break in this structure, representation will become more diverse.”
Some music fans disagree, stating that it’s not so much about race as it is about trends.
“Calling it appropriation maybe isn’t the right word,” said Shea Newkirk, executive editor of Long Beach Independent. “I feel like it’s just become a trendy thing, just like every other trend. You know, you see a celebrity doing something and you think ‘Oh I want to do that too,’ but then do you call that an appropriation of celebrity culture? It could be if you want to label it the same kind of way. I think that’s what’s happened with hip-hop culture.”
The challenge with artistic trends is defining what is being “stolen” or “borrowed” and what is merely “inspired by” another work.
When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won four Grammy awards last year in the rap category, the same discussion arose about the “white-washing” of rap music. In that case, it wasn’t just fans and black musicians questioning white rappers. Macklemore himself discussed the differences between himself and his contemporaries in his song “White Privilege,” where he questioned if he, or any white artist, truly have a place in hip-hop.
“Should white people be allowed to play in hip-hop? Sure.” Utley said. “There should be enough room for that. As an academic and as someone who is anti-censorship and who thinks about hip-hop, I don’t want to push them out.”
For some local Long Beach hip-hop artists, respecting and acknowledging those who came before is enough to keep the culture authentic.
“I don’t care who’s doing the music– whether you are white, black, beige, purple, green, whatever as long as you give credit and props to the origin of it,” said Long Beach rapper Toquon Tha MC. “Give some respect– like when Eminem won his first Grammy, he got up there and he ran down the list of all the great emcees that made him who he is. For the generation that knows nothing about it, he tells them this is where I got it from and names Nas, Naughty by Nature, so on and so forth. When I hear things like that, salute all day long. I love it.”
In the end, no matter how much fans are upset about changes in the face of hip-hop, change is coming and it doesn’t necessarily have to be negative.
“I’ve always been a defender of diversity in hip-hop,” Utley said. “Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s not hip-hop. Each generation has a very distinct version of play and just because that’s not the way you play, doesn’t mean it’s not legit. I believe that hip hop in a lot of ways is about this freedom of expression, especially if you feel like you’ve been oppressed in someway.”