How much of an issue is race in relation to authenticity in hip hop?
The argument over ‘authentic’ hip hop is an ongoing one, and it probably will never end, with one faction claiming to be more authentic than another almost as frequently as rappers claim to be the best in the field. But what lengths have people gone to expose ‘posers’ and misrepresentation and protect hip hop from the evils of mainstream culture?
Very early on during the commercial success of hip hop, the idea of a power shift implanted itself in the heads of young hip hop artists and fans, who began to create a backlash against the mainstream US media and culture, who they saw as guilty of diluting their pure sub-culture. KRS-One hit out at the media in his song ‘Bulworth’; “Fuck these magazines leading hip-hop off course/ You print about black mayors and black senators/ Why you got no black editors?” which sparked a large rise in grassroots publications throughout the US covering their rapidly expanding culture accurately and fairly.
The race question is particularly prevalent, with white artists being dismissed early on, thanks mostly to the success of Vanilla Ice’s one-hit-wonder ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and it spilled over once more when white artists began to break their way into hip hop popularity, such as the Beastie Boys, who were the subject of a damning letter from Harry Allen to SPIN after they appeared on the front cover; “Your decision to put a white crew on the cover of your magazine as SPIN’s front-page presentation of hip-hop [Beastie Boys, March 1987] betrays: 1) the inherent phoniness of your ‘alternative’ stance; 2) your lack of facility with nascent black musical forms; and 3) your own racism. American musical history is running over with contradictions. One just hopes that those of us who watched this music (rap, hip-hop) grow off the pavement will remember that, despite thousands of recordings, concerts, and park jams by individuals who were and are far more innovative, creative and black than the Beastie Boys, the first rap crew on SPIN’s cover was not only white but white-faced.”
In fact it wasn’t until Eminem, that a white rapper managed to be seen as truly authentically hip hop. Championed by Dr. Dre and embraced by hip hop’s white fans, he was so good it was undeniable, but was part of his success due to white fans finally feeling a part of the culture they are so in love with and yet so alienated by? Hip Hop has at times seemed almost ashamed by its largely white consumer base, and has hidden it away from itself, allowing race to play a huge part in the idea of authenticity within hip hop, except in cases they deem to be different somehow.
Whether we agree or not, race is a defining issue in the argument over authenticity, which is the longest running argument in hip hop, and it shows no sign of resolution arriving in the near future, but it is interesting to discuss and watch the developments unfold.
This article is written by Megan Munro →
Music Journalism student from London.