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Arts & Entertainment, Opinion

Music Op-Ed: Vince Staples, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and White Hip-Hop Fans

September 30, 2015 by Hunter Johns

The white guy who likes hip hop. It’s been a comedy bit since the 90s, and it continues to this day. There’s “white rap,” and there’s “black rap,” and the two are not necessarily enjoyed their stated audiences. Through reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter, fans of all color have unprecedented access to their favorite artists and those artists’ lifestyles; every year, we get closer and closer to actually being truly present in the lives of the artists we love, 24/7. On the internet, skin color is not immediately obvious, lending an anonymity to fans of art forms they might otherwise feel left out of. Is the white hip hop fan dead, replaced by the colorless hip hop fan, or does skin color persist in shaping our perspective on art?

Two weekends past, I attended the UMass Lowell stop of the Rocky and Tyler tour. For those unfamiliar, Rocky (aka A$AP Rocky) and Tyler (aka Tyler, The Creator) are two of the largest rap acts in the country at the time of publication, and both are among the increasing number of hip-hop artists to drop major releases this year, with Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP debuting at number one on the Billboard Top 200 and Tyler’s Cherry Bomb debuting at number four. Their co-headlining tour is arguably one of the most important touring hip-hop shows, especially with the addition of opening acts Vince Staples, who recently dropped his solid major-label debut Summertime ’06 on Def Jam, and Danny Brown, quiet since 2013’s Old but still a favorite of mine.

To put it bluntly, the crowd was mostly white. It should be noted, however, that 65% of UMass Lowell’s student body identifies as white, and a mostly-white crowd is nothing new at a hip-hop concert. Tyler, The Creator, and his Odd Future band of misfits were probably the biggest draw, and have said their music isn’t really for black people (see Tyler’s interview in Spin ). But music is music; if hip-hop resonates with me and I’m a white person, I should listen to hip-hop, in the same way a black artist shouldn’t be faulted if his or her artistic expression happens to resonate with me as a white person. Stripped of the politics of race and culture, hip-hop is a musical style like any other, with its sonic idiosyncrasies and its basic potential to move people.

But that’s just one viewpoint, one that happens to be my own, and it’s difficult, maybe inadvisable, to separate anything from its cultural context. Over the summer, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long essay Between The World And Me, a 152-page letter to his son detailing the triumphs and pitfalls of the African-American experience before and during his lifetime. I thought of Coates during Vince Staples set; after ripping through “Lift Me Up” and “Blue Suede,” Staples paused for a second to address the crowd. “Who here f***s with the police?” he asked us. We roared back what must have been a collective “Not I!” “If you don’t f*** with the police,” he continued, “say ‘f***the police’.” We oblige him, and when he repeats his command we do so again.

One of the biggest notions in Coates’ essay is the idea that, no matter how successful or exceptional or well-intentioned a person is, if that person is black, they are vulnerable at all times to possibly-fatal aggression by police officers. Coates recounts the story of his friend Prince, one of the most remarkable people Coates had ever met and a good friend of his, who was mistakenly followed and killed by a police officer who was later acquitted of all charges. Had Prince been a white person, Coates would argue, he would have been far less likely to have been killed in the manor that he was.

And so I thought of Coates at UMass. What does it mean to yell “f*** the police” at a rap concert as a white person? What could my beef with the police possibly be? Am I betraying the delicate balance that white hip-hop fans have struck with the predominantly black genre by engaging in a part of hip-hop culture that I can’t possibly experience first-hand?

My first answer, the answer that pertains to the show at UMass, is I don’t think so. I can’t justify blaming myself or any other white audience member for joining in Vince Staples’ chant, simply because of the occasion. We were surrounded by probably thousands of people our own age, enjoying a high-energy concert, and none of us were thinking of the ramifications of what we were saying. We were there to have a good time, and if Vince Staples had asked us to yell “f*** the _____” we would not have thought twice about yelling our affirmations no matter what he put in the blank. I should also mention that Vince Staples has a notoriously dry sense of humor (see his Pitchfork Over/Under, or any other interview for that matter) and is aware of white fascination with ‘hood-centered rap’ (see the music video for Senorita ), and so I’m reasonably comfortable saying he was not mindlessly shouting things at the crowd and was probably playing a poignant joke on us all.

Outside the concert, though, we lose the cover of the party. White hip-hop fans cannot escape the fact that almost everyone at the top of the genre speaks on aspects of life that are alien to most middle-class white people. Perhaps it’s enough to treat those topics as abstract, as alienation and fear and depression, but the fact remains that young black men are killed by police more than twenty-one times more frequently than young white men. If I have a problem with the police, chances are it won’t be because I’ve faced police aggression or because I fear for my life. I can chant “f*** the police” in outrage at the level of police brutality that other people my age face, but it’d be difficult to find a personal example of when I was mistreated by the police.

Will I go to another hip-hop concert? Probably. Will I continue to listen to hip-hop? Certainly. Nonetheless, my experience at UMass reminded me to remember the importance of self-knowledge, of knowing who I am and my circumstances, when I listen to any music, not just hip hop. With that mindset, I’m better able to respect the artist who shares their perspective with me, not to mention myself as well.


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