The Cotton Club

Black-conscious hip-hop deals with an overwhelmingly white live audience

The largely Latino concert turnouts for these MCs in specific areas of cities like Houston, El Paso, and Los Angeles, however, quickly reveals that none of this is an exact science. In Oakland, one MC reports a majority Black and brown audience, in contrast to a mostly white audience when he performs next door in San Francisco. In the South, in cities like Baton Rouge and Charleston, independent labels like Slaughterhouse and Pure Pain are posting Aesop Rock numbers and their concert audience is nearly all Black.

"None of these factors change the fact that the audience supporting Black hip-hop artists with a political message is mostly white," says Nicole Balin of Ballin' Entertainment, a Los Angeles- based PR firm representing underground hip-hop artists. Yet according to Wendy Day, no matter how many white kids are being drawn in, the Black stamp of approval is critical even when the audience is primarily white.

"I can tell you as someone who works with independent labels in parts of the South and Midwest that if you are breaking a record at the street level in these communities, and you don't have young Black kids buying your record, you will not go anywhere," Day says. "Unless it's legitimized by the Black community, these kids are not buying a damn thing other than what their friends of color are listening to."

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the Perceptionists
photo: Maya Hayuk

Black hip-hop kids as the gatekeepers for what's hot has long been the state of affairs for mainstream and cutting-edge hip-hop—but that may be changing in some parts of the country like Minneapolis, for example, where white MCs and white audiences have it on lock. And while there are countless white hip-hop kids supporting the underground who see Blackness as key to hip-hop's sense of urgency, growing numbers believe white underground MCs are hip-hop's avant-garde. More and more they insist without pause that their favorite white underground MCs are smarter and hence better.

"One of the hardest things we're dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs," says Brother Ali, who recently toured with several old-school legends together with Atmosphere—a biracial independent rap group who, like Brother Ali, hails from Minneapolis. "They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are Black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from Black people, but [their fans] don't want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it's the white MCs who created the styles they like. This isn't an underground-versus-mainstream thing—it's a racist thing."


Bikari Kitwana's bookWhy White Kids Love Hip Hop came out June 5.

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