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White lines: A new book examines hip-hop's crossover appeal

Here's a thought: If entire generations of white kids grow up listening to black music as their default pop music, maybe that music isn't black anymore. Maybe those white kids have as much right to the music as the black people who live in the places where the music was invented. Maybe, just maybe, the white kids who listen to this black music aren't even trying to be black.

Of all the forms of black music the last century has produced, rap is unique in that it has no Elvis figure. White consumers make up huge chunks of rap's audience, but little of the music they're buying comes from white rappers. Eminem is one of history's most popular rappers, but he's still the pale exception, the one cracker who's managed to stay credible for more than a couple of years. White people buy the music in overwhelming numbers (or, as the past year's dismal sales figures indicate, download it), but they're buying (or downloading) music from black or Latino rappers. So could it be that the people who buy music aren't necessarily buying it because they want to identify with the people making that music? Maybe white listeners are learning that they don't need white performers to reinterpret black music for them.

In his book Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, white American Jason Tanz barely talks about the music itself. When he does, his criticisms are often clumsy and dismissive: Tanz isn't a music critic; he's an editor at Fortune Small Business who's more interested in rap's social implications than in its aesthetics. For Tanz, a white person's experience of rap is a fraught tangle of mystification and fetishization. He has fun finding absurdity in that mess, but he leans too hard on the simplistic idea that white rap fans are desperate for authenticity and never finds much time for the suburban eighth-grader who listens to T.I. because she hears more musical force in T.I.'s linguistic twists and blaring synths than in, say, Nickelback. In his persistent refusal to discuss rap's musical appeal, he does it a profound disservice.

Instead, Tanz divides white rap listeners into two camps: wiggers, who use the music for its gut-level aggression, and Wegroes (his own god-awful term), who attempt to understand blackness through the music. "Wiggers seek countercultural flash; Wegroes are drawn by the promise of transcending their racial identities." Tanz acknowledges that both of these terms are abstractions, not hard realities. Even so, that flat binary takes for granted some level of racial identification in white listeners' consumption of music. When anyone with a half-decent Internet connection has the entire history of recorded music at her fingertips, listeners increasingly experience music in ways totally divorced from that music's culture. For Tanz, though, consumption is never passive: every white rap listener is driven by some confused drive to connect with a mythical black Other.

The book shares territory with Ego Trip's (White) Rapper Show, a new VH1 reality program. The difference: So far, VH1 plays its clueless crackers for laughs, plunking them down in the South Bronx and forcing them to rap for actual black people. For Tanz, his fellow white rap fans are tragic figures, attempting to understand or appropriate an alien culture but doomed to fail. Neither Tanz nor VH1 is quite willing to accept the idea that rap has become mainstream culture for an entire generation.

A "shadow history," the book traces hip-hop culture's watershed crossover moments. Tanz also interviews some truly confused and confusing figures, like Williamsburg hipster/bass DJ Tha Pumpsta. More than anything, though, he uses his own experiences with rap as stand-ins for those of every other white rap fan. Tanz explains that he began listening to rap as a way of escaping his sheltered upbringing. Public Enemy was "a mainline directly into the bubbling current of pure, unfiltered, urban blackness, blackness that I could tap into and wallow in until my own soul – if not my skin – took on some of its pigment." That's a brave disclosure, but I'm not convinced that the young Tanz heard the music in such dramatic absolutes. I'm sure Public Enemy's militant blackness was a part of their appeal, but he privileges the group's identity politics at the expense of its music. This is one-dimensional and a little insulting.

He is better when he's working with the messy histories of white rap groups like 3rd Bass and Young Black Teenagers. Discussing Eminem, the one white rapper who escaped novelty, Tanz suggests that class might actually have more to do with the music's underdog appeal than race, but he lets that idea lie flat on the page rather than running with it.

The final chapter deals with Madison Avenues co-optation of rap and Tanz's own anger about it. Suddenly it's apparent that he's been building to this epiphany since the book's beginning. His argument: we white rap fans have used rap to remake ourselves, losing sight of the real anger and desperation at the music's core and corrupting the music in the process of becoming a target audience. For Tanz, mainstream co-optation has chipped away at the music's potential for social change, turning it into an empty signifier. He wants rap to teach us empathy, and that's a lot to ask of a genre of pop music.

 
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