The first have of the 20th century was defined by jazz. The second half was steered by rock’n’roll. Now the prime cultural drive when it comes to music is rap and hip hop, music which has its roots in places like the Bronx in the late 70s. Its creators were black and Latin kids. These days, though, the largest consumers of this music are white–and more and more performers are white. This is leading to some interesting tensions as pointed out in this article at Medium.com on the topic of “white fragility.”
Let’s deal with the facts. Hip-hop was primarily created by black and Latinx youth living in the South Bronx in the 1970s. During that time, highways were being built through poor neighborhoods, destroying the fabric of these communities. Along with budget cuts to programs designed to help poor people of color, these changes disenfranchised many. Arts and after school programs were cut, and rather than being in safe learning environments, many kids took to the streets for their education. They created new slang and a rebellious fashion. They plugged into the lamp posts for power and made up new dances while the DJ played the funkiest part of a song over and over again. They created a new form of poetry, a new form of music that they used to express their pain. Like the rose that grew from the concrete, hip-hop became a quite literal response to systemic oppression faced primarily by poor people of color.
While the South Bronx was, and still is, primarily poor black and Latinx people, there were young white people from all over New York City who were inspired by hip-hop from its inception. Particularly in the graffiti world, white kids were making their mark in hip-hop as early as the original pioneers. It would be more rare to see white DJs, MCs, and B-boys back then, but as hip-hop involved over time, more and more white people became involved in every aspect of the culture and were respected as being down by law. Hip-hop has never been about segregation or some sort of supremacy. Hip-hop has always been about equality. Peace, love, unity and having fun.
Hip-hop has always also been about justice. As rappers moved to the forefront of hip-hop culture in the early 1980s, young people of color were in a unique position to address the oppression we face through music. The first big record to do this was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The success of “The Message” created a lane for “conscious” hip-hop to be successful. However, the more conscious hip-hop became, the more pro-black it became. While poor people of every race could relate to Melle Mel’s rap in “The Message,” by the early 1990s popular hip-hop artists like X-Clan, Gang Starr and Public Enemy were pushing a message that was focused primarily on the needs of black people. Hugely inspired by Malcolm X, these artists spoke of self determination and worth and demanded we be accountable for pathologies in our community while simultaneously combating a system that is set up for us to fail. As a young black man raised in a culturally nationalist home, this hip-hop spoke to me. These MCs were my heroes.
No matter the message, white kids always will be the primary consumers of hip-hop music around the world. White kids are most likely to be the ones with the money to support the music, another result of systemic oppression and white privilege. Some of these white kids go beyond being consumers and actually participate in the culture. They learn how to rap, DJ, B-Boy, write graffiti, and they become excellent at it. Because hip-hop as a culture is based on skill, as long as you have skills, you will be respected regardless of race. You will be given what is sometimes crudely referred to as “a pass.” This is a beautiful thing. It is proof that hip-hop has unified more people of different races than any other culture.
However, some white people (not all, some, I have to say that because some of y’all get real sensitive when anyone critiques anything white) in hip-hop misunderstand what this pass means. Your hip-hop pass does not entitle you to intentionally participate in the silencing of black people who express black pain. This pass does not mean you no longer have the ability to say or do racist things. This pass does not mean that when you do engage in the silencing of black people, that you won’t be checked.