Blacking Up: Hip-Hop

Posted on January 27, 2010 at 3:59 pm

“Where do you draw the line between influence and appropriation?” “When is it admiration and when is it mockery?”

Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity is a thought-provoking film by documentarian Robert Clift is a sympathetic look at the tensions that surround white identification with hip-hop. Popularly referred to by derogatory terms such as “wannabe” or “wigger,” the white person who identifies with hip-hop often invokes heated responses. For some, it is an example of cultural progress — a movement toward a color-blind America. For others, it is just another case of cultural theft and mockery — a repetition of a racist past. From this perspective, the appropriation of this mode of expression is inauthentic and disrespectful, another in a centuries-long series of takings. And yes, Vanilla Ice is interviewed, along with cultural commentators like Amiri Baraka and Paul Mooney and performers like Chuck D and Power.

For me, the most poignant moment in the film when a girl says she is not trying to be black — she is just trying to be cool. There is nothing more essentially American than the blending of cultures — except perhaps the struggle over the blending or appropriation of cultures. This film perfectly captures and illuminates the central issues of identity and the way it is shaped and shapes the arts, with arrestingly provocative insights into race and American culture and the path from fringe to center. It is very important viewing for teenagers, their teachers, and their parents. (NOTE: Some very strong language including the n-word and other epithets)

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7 Replies to “Blacking Up: Hip-Hop”

  1. This is the music of barely literate street thugs. The rhymes are simple minded, viciously sexist and racist, and frequently obscene. The performers dress like circus clowns, with goofy hats and comical clocks and medallions dangling from their necks. I can understand how impressionable children from other races might be drawn to the “big bad outlaw” persona; sometimes it is more important for art to be coarse and raw rather than thoughtful or smart. But if I were African American I would welcome other races to help blur the source of this nasty stuff. Instead, this film has serious members of the black community clinging to authorship of vile trash for their race. Pathetic.

  2. @ iorek: your distaste for the music and apparently african americans is evident in your above comment, but it does seem to miss the point of the film entirely. it’s pretty clear that some rap is violent and sexist, and it’s also clear that some is not. (refer to nelson george who says in the film that some aspects of hip-hop culture are things that black people aren’t comfortable with.) but that’s not what the film is debating. we’re talking about all people in this country having racial identities – white, black, hispanic, asian, whatever – and how they’re constructed. how people identify who they are. race plays a role. in my opinion, the film isn’t asking us to say people are “blacking up” or not. it’s posing questions we should ask ourselves. you might consider asking yourself some of those questions, like why you assume hip-hop artists are barely literate street thugs, and why someone might defend people’s expression through hip-hop.

  3. nshabaz–
    Would you assume that Bill Cosby has “distaste for african americans” because of his distaste for hip-hop and rap? Is it conceivable that his view is based instead on loyalty to african americans and concern for where these role models are taking them?
    I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood (75%), and my black friends didn’t like getting beaten or robbed by the gangstas any more than I did. The black girls in my class didn’t like getting molested and mauled in class and treated like freaky hos by the not-very-bright guys in the bottom of the class who actually believed what groups like 2 live crew were telling them. For many of my black friends, their only guidance during these formative years was a religious grandmother who adamantly insisted that such behavior was “not right.” (Parents were often AWOL, or drug addicts, or poor role models.) That’s why I am so dismayed that those grandmothers have now been replaced by african american spokespersons who actually get proprietary about vile, racist, gay-bashing profanity as “black culture” when wiggers like Vanilla Ice or the Beastie Boys try to wallow in the same filth.
    I have not seen the movie, apart from Ms. Minow’s trailer, so I can’t speak to its message, but the phenomenon that Ms. Minow describes– the sentiment that this is “cultural theft” or “appropriation of a mode of expression” seems to me (as I said) pathetic. I cannot give specifics about my objections here because it would violate beliefnet’s “rules of conduct” but anyone who wants a refresher course on the pathology of these lyrics, or an explanation for the downward trajectory of the black urban culture in the last 30 years might check out samples of lyrics at

  4. iorek, first, your default position seems to be that all hip-hop is “vile trash” and that’s just ridiculous – which is not at all to say that there isn’t vile hip-hop, but it does indicate that you are off the mark right get go and probably not worth responding to… but nevertheless and more importantly, the way you break down everything to one part, the question of authorship, is stopping you from seeing the bigger picture, which INCLUDES the sense that hip-hop plays on a whole bunch of stereotypes that are bad for the black community. have you ever heard of minstrelsy? you’re basically just repeating arguments about the detriments of minstrelsy, which is what bill cosby, often times correctly, is doing… the “big bad outlaw” persona that you’re talking about, the hyper-sexual/violent/misogynistic/gangster image, is a minstrel persona (amongst a variety of others) that are sold to kids (and yes, kids all races…) and, in the process, feed stereotypes of black people, in a nasty process where it becomes difficult to see where the stereotype begins and the reality ends… bill cosby’s position in a nutshell. if hip-hop were thought of as “white,” it would really be another issue. hip-hop is not thought of as white, even if whites are in it. part of the appeal of the music for many is that it is not thought of as white, which in our stupid world is associated with nothing but stodgy, boring, inauthentic, unrhythmic, etc., etc,…

  5. Big_Al, I don’t believe that all hip-hop is vile trash, although I would say that vile trash seems to be the hallmark of the most sensational, famous hip-hop and rap performers that I know of. The vile trash ingredient, and even the semi-vile trash, are what seems to attract most of the attention and proves most titillating to children looking for cheap and easy forms of rebellion. (“Can they really get away with saying all that? And make all that money at the same time???”)
    If you look at my original comment, my concern is not limited to lyrics about defecating in the mouths of freaky hos or killing faggots. The non-vile language is still simple minded and the rhymes are still infantile– these are vocabulary and syntax of a barely literate audience. I’m not saying hip-hop fans have to read Chaucer or Shakespeare, or even know how to diagram a sentence, but what kind of future awaits teenagers who think that (even non-vile) comic book level plots, grunted in half sentences without a subject or a verb, pass for art? How will they hold jobs? How will they ever compete with students in India or the Philipines who speak more thoughtfully and with greater precision? Closer to home, how will they develop the kind of mature, reflective thought processes that their community needs? Even when the lyrics are not “vile trash,” can you point me to hip-hop lyrics that steer its listeners toward empathy, that identify for listeners any redemptive beauty in the world, that serve as a resource for mature relationships in the future? Or can you point out the lifestyle of a hip-hop star that you think is a good role model for the kids whose eyes glitter when they see all that bling?
    I expect kids to think that the alternatives are “stodgy, boring, inauthentic, unrhythmic, etc.,” and partly they are right. I expect adults, who have acquired a little experience and wisdom the hard way, to push back a little bit, abnd train children for the long haul. But if adults default on their obligations, the least they can do is stop embracing these harmful elements as emblematic of the black culture. The white kids, the asian kids will borrow hip-hop long enough to get a childish thrill at being so bad and then go back to their real world where all the jobs and money reside. The black kids will end up in jail or living on welfare (or haven’t you read the statistics?)

  6. @iorek:
    if saul williams, talib kweli, and lauryn hill were throwing out infantile rhymes, i need to go back to school. but since you said you know it’s not all vile trash, i don’t need to continue on that topic. you must know the messages that come out of hip-hop come down to the individual artists, just as in other musical genres.
    you can want different role models for impressionable youth. you can also not like rap. “Would you assume that Bill Cosby has “distaste for african americans” because of his distaste for hip-hop and rap?”
    of course not. but would i assume that someone perhaps has a distaste for african americans if they equate hip-hop and rap culture with black people? yes, because it’s a narrow view of what being black is. but here’s the question – if someone is making that association, is it fair for me to assume they have a malicious prejudice? no.
    i don’t know the motivations behind what you’re saying, nor do you know the motivations behind the white kids who emulate the hip-hop stereotype. we don’t know their backgrounds, just as we don’t know each other’s backgrounds. we don’t know what’s informing how other people think and act. continuing on with statements people make like, “hip-hop is vile trash,” or “i don’t see color,” only serve as roadblocks to getting at the real issues because they’re too broad. they don’t let people talk. and if people can’t talk, how are we supposed to listen and understand any of these complexities?

  7. nshabaz, you write, “would i assume that someone perhaps has a distaste for african americans if they equate hip-hop and rap culture with black people? yes, because it’s a narrow view of what being black is.”
    Unless I misunderstand the trailer for this movie, as well as Nell Minow’s description, there are a number of serious, mature black adults who are saying that hip-hop and rap are proprietary to black people, and that whites who attempt to poach on that territory are engaging in “cultural theft.”
    I would like to believe, as you apparently do, that the world is more complicated than that. But I would also like to believe that adults would be encouraging children to grow out of such a culture, rather than circling the wagons around it.
    Of course, none of this goes to the quality of the movie which, I repeat, I have not seen.

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