Halfway through my freshman year, a good friend took me to a sorority punch event. It was my first foray into the Greek life scene, and I was nervous. This was a space I knew wasn’t always welcoming to black bodies or queer love. But once there I fell right into it, singing at the top of my lungs, dancing with friends and strangers. My fears seemed unfounded. And then “Gold Digger” came on.
Any black person who’s ever been to a college party knows what happened next. My friend and I were dancing with a larger group―all white, and all strangers. Jamie Foxx sang the hook, Kanye jumped in, and two white men, bigger than me, older than me, and louder than me, looked me in the eye and yelled out “She ain’t messin’ with no broke NIGGAS.”
I immediately left the dance floor. I was truly and honestly shaken. I’m sure the two wanna-be Yeezys meant no harm. But their actions held more at stake than the spine-chilling history of the word, and how it terrifies me when it slides out the lips of a white man. It’s about what these two men thought they could do. For them, “ni**a” was just a word, and a Kanye song was just a couple of beats and a catchy hook. They had no problem taking control of the situation, the music, and the language, because it meant nothing to them.
But what people still fail to understand is what this means for white listeners and artists. There’s something wrong when white people feel empowered to spit a racial slur on the dance floor or while rapping along to the Jay Z blaring in their headphones. There’s something wrong when people like Post Malone and Eminem see the cultural implications of hip hop and decide to enter that space regardless. And there’s something wrong when a party, hosted by a majority-white sorority, DJed by a white man, and attended by an overwhelmingly white crowd, plays Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, as a party jam. White people know what hip hop means to black people. They just don’t care. That is, many white people know that hip hop has historically been a mode for black liberation. Yet they feel empowered to devour the culture and dispose of its bodies.
Let’s get back to Kanye for a moment. “Crack Music”, one of his early hits, features the hook “It’s that crack music ni**a, that real black music ni**a.” It’s a critical exploration of America’s obsession with hip hop. “Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammys / This dark diction has become America’s addiction,” he spits cynically. In other words, hip hop sells, because black sells. White America’s always had a fetished fascination with black culture, from socialites ducking into Harlem to Charleston with Count Basie to hordes of hipsters in line to see “Moonlight”. So, like Kanye, black hip hop artists have happily kept “baggin’ up this here crack music” and doling it out.
But what happens when that’s not enough? What happens when white people get tired of being the guest, and want to become the owner? These days, there are more white hip hop artists than ever. And, like chameleons, they decide to blend in with an updated version of blackface. They wear chains and locs. They twist their tongue to “sound black.” How many of these artists, I wonder, spoke out after Flint, or marched with Black Lives Matter? They perpetuate mindless consumption and appropriation of black culture without acknowledging or caring about the community who uses it as a means for freedom and expression of grievance.
These artists have opened the door for today's party culture. I've walked down the street on a Saturday night and heard historically white final clubs blaring “F*** Tha Police”. I've had countless drunk white people sling their arms around my shoulders and bellow out “Ni**a!.” I've seen sorority girls wail to Drake and then rationalize their vote for Trump the next morning. Too many white people think they're entitled to hip hop, but not responsible for the people hip hop was meant to save. Thanks to Iggy Azalea and Macklemore, the soundtrack to black liberation has been hijacked. They’ve taken perhaps the most important and defining piece of black culture and reduced it to a Spotify playlist titled “Get Lit”.
So, what? White people should stop listening to hip hop? Well ... it’s complicated. A good start would be seeing final clubs diversify their next punch class, or Young Thug fans publicly support BLM. If white college kids can consciously examine their use of “ni**a” or their support of Action Bronson, I’ll consider it a step in the right direction. To quote Ms. Lauryn Hill, “You can’t just call hip hop a trend!” Remember, those Chance bars you love to spit out mean a lot more than a fun Saturday night.
Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator living in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.