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Who makes the rules in hip-hop?All of us. Together.

by Bryan Hahn

If hip hop was a person, it just turned 46 years old this year. It's been around to sneak into the clubs underaged, receive ridicule by its supervisors like popular governments and mass media, and then become the prodigal son to the same political officials and marketing execs for campaign trails and Christmas jingles advertising ugly sweaters on television.

It’s elevated its taste from brown paper bagged 40s and E&J to Belaire and Ace of Spades. It’s old enough to have made immoral mistakes in its youth, change the world multiple times over, and then step up to the mic to apologize for those very same immoral mistakes.

Since Nielsen came up with a statistical explanation that we can all conveniently point to that proves hip hop to be the most popular genre as of 2017 for the first time, it’s probably a good time to take a step back and see what the fuck the culture that everyone claims to be doing it for really is. And maybe just as important, the barriers of entry at all levels of participation.

Is it the lack of Black writers, videographers, and the rest of the editorial arm being accepted by the masses? Or is it when Wale misplaces his frustration and levels it against an earnest Vietnamese-American (read: not Black) journalist who was actually making a case for Wale’s respect in the game?

Is it the immediate, widespread condescension shown to rappers who didn’t grow up listening to Tupac and Biggie because their parents simply were into Frankie Knuckles and Mahalia Jackson instead?

Is it non-Black fans around the world suffering from Rachel Dolezal-Syndrome (braiding their hair, darkening their skin, and wearing Off-White) aka everybody wants to be Black until it’s time to be Black? Does it apply when the opposite happens and rappers fall back on hackneyed phrases like “so high, my eyes small like I’m Chinese” or even adapt entire personas premised upon Asian culture like Asian Doll?

Is it anyone with enough of a social media following and face tattoos to fabricate their own street cred and a dizzying amount of streams on popular music platforms, landing them a major record label deal and the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of kids?

There is a right and wrong way to handle each of these scenarios. But the process of crossing out the wrong ones and finding the right one doesn’t come as easily apparent. What is certain for now is that the right course of action is to take a step back to review all of our thoughts and actions to make sure that they’re constructive and consistent.

As a culture, hip hop started and spread as a means of artistic expression and celebration that minorities couldn’t afford in other circles outside of the impoverished streets of major cities. And let’s not forget that part of that meant it was purely to rock a crowd and have a good time. If you could hold it down on your own, be original, and show respect for the pioneers immediately before you or otherwise, you had the unspoken pass to do you. If you couldn’t fulfill all three, you could wait outside.

But as with any subculture that huge corporate checks love to bottle up and sell in mass quantities (see: Blaxploitation films, skateboarding), any semblance of standards or rules within hip hop have been shirked over and over again. That’s how we’ve ended up with children signing multi-million dollar deals off of a single without a mentor in sight, white student bodies joyously shouting the N-word at live shows, and unending reactionary friction from hip hop’s greats to combat it all. Although expected and understandable, the criticism as defense from OGs is often surface-level without offering a solution and sometimes looks to take down allies in a blind rage towards all unfamiliar faces*.

All of this was inevitable.

What may help put things in perspective is that in the ‘90s and ‘00s, there was still a strong number of self-proclaimed hip hop fans who were largely surrounded by drug epidemics and police brutality and they wanted to hear that pain played up dramatically as fly as you could through their speakers over a knocking beat by their favorite underdogs. Hence rappers like Jay Z, the Clipse, Game, and Jeezy flourished.

Then as the listener base widened to include middle and upper-class kids, the content flipped from the perspective of the drug dealers to the drug users and the dark feelings that come with them. The kids that were listening to Blink-182 and Good Charlotte instead of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Master P in earlier years are finding a release in hip hop now and the musical baggage that they’re bringing with them is more than apparent.

In 2019, we have rappers coming to terms with their own emotions, which has stirred conversations about mental health and drug abuse but what the newest generation of rappers lack is the ability to analyze complicated cause and effect timelines that stretch outside of music. The average age of a rapper continues to lower every year so they’re essentially that weird age where you think you know more than you do. So what more can we expect from them as far as reprieve on such serious matters, let alone groundbreaking albums?

What the next 10 years of hip hop should look like is the embittered, current, older guard offering guidance where it’s welcomed. With more context on hip hop’s journey, it’s almost impossible not to show more respect towards the pioneers and the stories that come with them–largely stemming from being viewed as the most dangerous thing in America: a Black man or woman. The same battles are being fought but the veterans and new soldiers on the frontline aren’t communicating. It’s the return of somewhat of a balance of power between major record labels and independents. The more weird voices in the room the more interesting things get. It’s hip hop’s music, and the influence thereafter, being woven into pop culture on its own terms with the right people sitting at the same tables as the newcomers’ CEOs.

It’s important to remind yourself that you’re part of a community and not an isolated rapper, producer, DJ, fan, journalist, label rep, show promoter, lawyer, accountant, dancer, visual artist, director, and so forth. Let’s appreciate over appropriate. Let’s all do our part to make sure that when hip hop reaches 60, it’s the cool uncle that smokes you out during “walks around the block” at family functions so he can teach you about making something out of nothing and not the uncle with a Bluetooth earpiece and plaid shorts trying to set up a Finsta, with your help, to creep on his ex who cheated on him years ago.

Here are some additional fun mental exercises to challenge yourself to consider when it comes to racial divides within hip hop:

Would Eminem have had such an illustrious career (pre-Recovery) if he was Black? Would he have the same stature in the annals of hip hop history after his battle against the SCC, his public falling out with his wife, and his explicit lyrical content that would make most parents uncomfortable had he been Latino? At the same time, what if he chose to be a backpack rapper? As a white rapper, would he need to threaten to kill his listeners a million and one ways to be in the GOAT conversation or would he forever have an asterisk next to his name as an underground legends like Aesop Rock and Jon Wayne?

What will it take for us to stop using phrases like “dope for an Asian rapper” or “sick for a female rapper”? Are we doomed to continually qualify someone’s talents based on their non-Black, male identity or is it only a matter of time?

Once we’re able to finally put the right people in power to create a Hip Hop Hall of Fame, what will that criteria for entry look like? Who would you induct in the first class? Does it include people like Crazy Legs, Lee Quinones, Ricky Powell, and Joe Conzo?

As anime oddly rides this ascension of acceptance on the cycle of popularity, why is it weird for white people to be so into anime when it’s more accepted for me, as a non-Black American, to be obsessed with hip hop? What about everyone but Japanese people getting Japanese words tattooed while I have a Latin phrase inked on my shoulder?

Can we go back to allowing constructive criticism? We’re now seeing the repercussions of adults who were told during their younger years that everything they do is special and right in some way, effectively turning any negative feedback into hating. Sometimes you just need to sit your ass down.

*I don’t know how many times I’ve met someone in person after some virtual interaction (email or social media) and their shock that I’m not Black is voiced or written on their faces.

Brittney Hahn
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