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Muddying the Lily-White Waters of Modern Rock

Will self-segregating hip-hop culture make the same mistakes as its forebears?

They say James “Toofer” Spurlock isn’t “black.” Which is funny, because he’s black. Sure, he’s just a character on “30 Rock.” But he stands for the broader category of the race traitor: the African-American who went to Harvard, sang Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” with the Kroks, and turned his back on black culture.

The same category doesn’t really exist within the white community. A white kid wearing a G-Unit t-shirt may get snickered at on the street, but he’s still white. The fact that hip-hop (and, by extension, mainstream black culture) is embraced by non-black Americans has become undeniable.

Hip-hop, then, is not dead, as rapper Nas recently claimed; it’s alive and well and dominating Top 40 radio. Where once the scope of black music’s influence on white America was largely limited to how much blues the Rolling Stones decided to incorporate into a given song, black musicians today no longer need filters or conduits to reach the public.

Rock music—a tradition that owes more to Chuck Berry than it does to Elvis—has become lily-white in the past few decades in terms of both musicians and fans. So an important question arises: just when did the definition of black music become limited to hip-hop?

A large part of this musical segregation is owing to how off-putting and uniformly white the non-pop rock community is. That said, the power to work towards a desegregation of the genre is within reach, but for some reason, it has yet to come about.

For a similarly unknown reason, it has become treasonous within large parts of the African-American community for black artists to even consider straying outside of hip-hop, R&B;, or soul. I don’t claim that young black music fans are living in a vacuum, but I think the future of music would be brighter if the value of being influenced by a range of musical traditions was embraced.

I am confident that, if culturally acceptable and encouraged, there would be more black fans of non-hip-hop music. I am evidence of the fact that it is—at the very least—a possibility. But there’s something to be said about what many young black hip-hop fans (some of whom may be the Top 40 stars of the future) are losing by limiting themselves to simply “hearing” non-black music as opposed to really listening to it.

Just as many a white Elvis fan in the 1950s had probably never picked up a Muddy Waters record, you’d probably be equally unlikely to find many black Kanye fans who own a copy of Daft Punk’s “Discovery.” History has repeated itself, and that’s a problem.

In his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech, Sen. Barack Obama drew applause for speaking out against “the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”

What, then, of the slander that says a black kid listening to Bob Dylan isn’t really black? And what of the claim that a black student who attends a Radiohead concert is betraying his race? While people may not be making these claims openly, the existence of these positions is well understood within the community.

Some of hip-hop’s brightest stars, however, fail to even acknowledge the problem created by this kind of cultural isolationism and the musical inbreeding that it engenders. In a December 2007 Spin Magazine interview in which he discussed race and music, Kanye West said, “I play to the stereotypes. I believe in the stereotypes. And I submit to them.”

Here, Kanye accepts the rules as they are and concedes to playing by them. This mentality betrays the potential of the cultural position of black music today. We live in an unprecedented time, in which black artists frequently receive more airplay than white artists and in which the barriers to success are fewer than they’ve ever been. While this rise to the top has been incredibly empowering for black artists, it has not created a dialogue between mainstream hip-hop artists and everyone else.

Imagine the places black artists in America could take us if the exploration of other cultures were encouraged and if such artists were unencumbered by the aforementioned self-segregation.

In his 2006 book “Enough,” NPR’s Juan Williams writes, “Black politics (now) is still defined by events that took place 40 years ago...As a result, black politics is paralyzed.” The cultural and artistic potential of black America is equally paralyzed by an outmoded and self-harming cultural isolationism. But the source of that isolationism—and who’s to blame for its continued existence—are not as important as simply acknowledging that it exists and working toward ending it.

—Columnist Ruben L. Davis can be reached at rldavis@fas.harvard.edu.
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