On Hip-Hop and the White Gaze
By Tadhg Kwasi
9th April 2022
This will detail hip-hop’s birth and inseparable ties to the black populations of USA and UK, and also ethnic minorities by extension. It will then look at the phenomenon of the white fans and onlookers and their place in the culture, and asking the question: what role should they play? The article will focus on how the white gaze affects hip-hop with consumers and non-listeners making assumptions of the art form and black people through a narrow lens with no understanding of the art-form or the experiences of the people involved.
Hip-Hop formed in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s has an inseparable bond with the community that started it - African Americans - and by extension, black people. Although the Latino communities, particularly the Puerto-Rican community had an integral part in the foundations, due to MCing (otherwise known as rapping), taking off as the most synonymous and particular aspect of hip-hop. The majority of MCs were African-American and this spurred the relationship of black communities through hip-hop globally, particularly in the US and UK.
This reason this relationship was so quick to form was due mainly to class. Most blacks in America and the UK historically have been working class, and the art form was produced by working class black communities throwing block parties in housing projects and ghettos. Overtime by the mid-eighties, artists evolved from rapping about braggadocio and party themes to political rhymes. Artists like Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and Afrika Bombata were rapping about police brutality, racism, and the realities of the impoverished conditions that reflected the America and countries globally neglected.
Hip-hop also became an opportunity for participants to make it out of the struggle while expressing themselves. With hip-hop becoming a hot commodity and lucrative part of the music industry, many working class black people had the opportunities to escape their often dangerous, and deprived environments. However, this came at a cost. Soon the biggest consumers of their music were white audiences who often could not understand or relate to their situation for the most part, but nonetheless had a curiosity and interest in the music.
Gangsta rappers such as NWA, ICE-T and Ice Cube fascinated white audiences from the suburbs with their grim, and graphic tales from the hood. Although exaggerated these reflected the reality of the crack era ghettos of America. Underneath the violence these storytellers had a critique of the underlying conditions and systems that enables this violence and poverty.
However, the majority-white audience who consumed this alongside the white media, did not receive this message. Tropes of violence, and outlaws will always fascinate, so the record labels eventually signed and promoted gangsta rappers en mass, ignoring the conscious and less controversial rappers.
Artists such as Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest being overshadowed and put in the underground. Even one of the legends Tupac Shakur has been washed of his more radical character. The Tupac Shakur who was the son of two Black Panthers, the one whose first album was focused around taking America to court for their racist crimes, who preached unity among the black community and justice was demonised by the media, and presented in a more “gangsta image”.
The funny thing is ‘gangsta rap’ was never a term the founders or rappers coined or used for the genre. Schooly D and Ice T called it reality rap, as aforementioned they shed a light on the reality America wanted to hide and are still hiding today. With police brutality, the prison industrial complex and voter rights still being suppressed, it’s no wonder the media misrepresented these artists and the art form.
Now on to the main focus of this article, Hip-Hop and the White Gaze. The question is can white audiences ever fully appreciate the art form and the message behind the art.
As the majority of consumers of hip-hop are white, with hip-hop now the most popular genre, it begs the question of if the ones making the art are intelligible to their audience.
Many problems arise, as aforementioned hip-hop artists experiences are not fully understood. Hip-Hop has developed a reputation synonymous with gangsta rap, violence and misogyny: all the problems with today’s youth. This is not a unique problem as Jazz, and Rock & Roll once faced similar accusations.
But this is particularly insidious considering firstly how broad of an art form hip-hop is, with so many sub-genres and diversity of lyrical content, it’s wrong to correlated hip-hop as violent gangsta rap. Secondly the vast majority of artists in the subgenre of gangsta rap and drill are simply rapping, albeit exaggerating to an unknown extent, about their realities.
The problem is not the glorification of violence, or misogyny, it’s the underlying causes of these issues, that politicians and poverty are responsible for.
Many white people assume hip-hop is this narrow art form. But it’s the opposite as many artists there are with nihilistic and misogynistic lyrics, there are with well-formed critiques of the system and pro-women lyrics. Underground, conscious and political hip-hop alongside other sub-genres are filled with female MCs and artists with positive messages.
Then there’s another problem, the problem of white audience’s not taking the stories and messages of the artist’s they consume seriously, they often disregard their experiences as mere stories. Furthermore, they often appropriate their slang, and use of the n-word, in very problematic ways, without questioning it.
This may not be all white fans of the art, but it’s widespread problem, which is to be expected when the consumers are part of the same people who benefit and have a hand in the conditions that produced this art form in the first place.
As aforementioned hip-hop originally started in New York as a way to escape the harsh conditions, a fun and creative alternative to the crime, and as a way to unite people. It was and is an inexpensive form of self-expression for the marginalised. Compare the cost of a microphone, and speaker to a guitar, and drum set.
Noname recently quit live performances for the fact majority of her fans at shows were white. If you look at the crowds of performances it’s a similar sight, dregs of fans mosh pitting and you wonder do they understand the lyrics and sympathise with the artist’s self-expression, pain and journey. Too often the n-word is used flippantly and the audience disregard the message of the music.
The amount of whites who’ve never met or lack black people in their life or encounters who then go on to stereotype and form a narrow view of black people based on the music they consume is mind boggling. They form often misguided, and problematic generalisations through the music they consume. Some think every black comes from the ghetto or ends, some think all blacks speak in slang and sell drugs.
Can white fans be a part of the culture?
Maybe, to the extent that they respect the artist, art form and experiences of those making the music.