Been Caught Stealing
Is Young White America's Hip-Hop Love Mere Cultural Tourism Or Something More?
During my uneventful undergraduate days at Towson University, there was a kid named Tommy who was the walking embodiment of hip-hop. He was knowledgeable about self, hip-hop, and black culture, a great debater, cool without trying, and had that alternative vibe going on. So when he told me he was white, I was shocked. Did he look white? Yes. But my hip-hop sensibilities didn't allow me to believe what my eyes saw. Trust that this had nothing to do with his black girlfriend who rocked a short Afro. In my mind, he wasn't white. He was hip-hop.
Tommy was rare, and the black chick in me wants him to be the archetype of what a white hip-hop fan should look and feel like. I've created a nice little white box and I hesitate to tolerate much variation.
So when I cracked open Jason Tanz's Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, I was looking for explanations that, unfortunately, I couldn't find watching a few episodes of Ego Trip's (White) Rapper Show (Q: What the hell is white hip-hop?). Tanz, a senior editor at Fortune Small Business and former white rapper whose Commodore 64 group has a CD available on Amazon.com, voices my questions: "Why do so many white kids love hip-hop so much? Does our appreciation foment understanding and communication, or reinforce stereotypes and substitute a cheap commercial transaction for significant cultural exchange?"
I'm reminded of the concept behind Greg Tate's 2003 Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, where the title speaks for itself. Ultimately, the underlying discussion in Other People's Property, as is in America, is about the relationship between white and black people--Tanz uses these blanket terms to discuss race, and so am I for the sake of this review--and whether or not hip-hop is truly a bridge.
Part reportage, part memoir, and part critical analysis, Tanz presents an honest look at the relationship between white people and hip-hop that, thankfully, extends beyond Slim Shady. Along the way, he introduces a host of white characters--Gummo, the overcompensating fan who proves his hip-hop knowledge during a "Legends of Hip-Hop Tour" through the South Bronx; tha Pumpsta, a "Wegroe" who remembers the day he wanted to be black and conceived the "Kill Whitie!" party; Johnny Crack, a gangsta rapper who happily admits that he ain't one; and mc chris, a nerdcore rapper who denies being a member of the hip-hop community. When Tanz recounts his personal experiences, he offers an even more tangible look at the conundrum of the white hip-hop fan. He recalls his undergrad days of rocking a Malcolm X hat and attending a NAACP chapter meeting, and being mocked by black people as he and a group of friends danced to "Deep Cover." That's one admission that took some guts. And the hip-hop in Tanz isn't afraid of keeping it real.
While each example of the white hip-hop fan symbolizes varying degrees of sincerity, confusion, and ignorance, Tanz places these representations within historical and social contexts to unearth the thorny realities and complications. With the commercialization of hip-hop at an all-time high, does the large presence of white fans--and white corporate forces--signal an Elvis Presley takeover where hip-hop could face the same whitewashed fate of rock 'n' roll? And while the early days of hip-hop ushered in a lower Manhattan melting-pot gathering of punks and B-boys, shouldn't hip-hop still foster the merging of people from different backgrounds in "Planet Rock" solidarity? To take that a step further, can hip-hop's entertainment aspect, which seems to foster "cross-cultural linkages," translate into something more meaningful between the races?
Tanz doesn't provide all the answers to the tough questions. Nonetheless, the informed, yet engaging voice with which he presents his evidence is enjoyable. Perhaps he wants to play the role of professor and allow readers to think critically and form their own opinions. Or, perhaps, on his journey to make sense of his relationship between whiteness and hip-hop, he's learned that the answers are more valid and honest as work-in-progress notions than concrete judgments. For the most part, the conclusions that he does make illuminate the progressions and relapses that have been made since the days of South Bronx block parties. He writes, "while white rap fans' racial attitudes may have improved, the economic reality of being black and poor in America has not. We may have changed the way we think about race, and we may have changed the way we think about ourselves. . . . But we have not helped create a better society for those that hip-hop was created to represent. Maybe that's not surprising."
This may be why the pro-black mission Tanz embarked upon in college was eventually met with inner frustration:
I felt a small twinge of failure, as though I was proving every black person's doubts about me correct, that my commitment was a phase that I would grow out of once I wearied of the challenges, that in the end I was just like almost every white person before and after me, full of talk and good intentions but not prepared to make the necessary sacrifice or effort to really change anything. In the same way that the rapper Marky Mark morphed back into Mark Wahlberg, I became white again.
This is where the bridge collapses. Hip-hop no longer beams with racial-harmony potential. Only its entertainment value is retained. So it's fitting that Tanz concludes the book by recounting his experience playing a street-inspired video game--no doubt the by-product of hip-hop's spending potential--where, in his virtual world, he can be a car-stealing gangsta with an Afro from the comfort of his Brooklyn living room. He asks, in a question that summarizes the white fan's fascination with hip-hop, "What could be more thrilling, more noble, more fulfilling, more terrifying, than living in somebody else's skin?" This black chick wouldn't know.