Although I grew up on Rhymesayers music, Slug wasn’t my introduction to Hip Hop. It was series of gems, golden tickets to a history of the culture, that started me on a deep journey of exploration across the globe through the trenches of “underground music.” During my youth I was into a lot of politically rebellious music and deeply inspired by a few strongly outspoken artists, such as the Twin Cities' own Brother Ali. That was long before I'd ever heard of ‘Hip Hop Activism’ or begun to consider the dynamics and responsibilities of being white and moving within Hip Hop. “Cultural Appropriation” sounded like a new-age college crash course, and I didn’t think it really mattered. "It’s just music," right?
For numerous reasons I was drawn to that culture, and underground Hip Hop came to be something I could identify with to my core. Even though I could relate with far more diverse subject matters and a wide collection of MCs, naturally white-skinned rappers became something I could more easily identify with. The '90s and early 2000s Hip Hop radio stations conditioned me to crave something sweet, but I started to feel a growing hunger for something more nutritious. I remember first hearing Trying to Find A Balance and thinking “this is Hip Hop.” I was a young skateboarder trying to find my own place in society where I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. That joint possessed everything I’d come to see as Hip Hop — the elements of boom bap beats laid down by Ant, as well as Slug's intense rapping style. There was never a point in my adolescence when I consciously felt that skin color had anything to do with my early obsession with Atmosphere, until I came across a copy of Punk-O-Rama. I'd seen breakers getting down to local music, and seen the aerosol artwork (that we used to be allowed to call graffiti). Hip Hop had a white face during my teenage years, leaving me with many false impressions. I didn’t really see it as a “white face” at the time, though. In fact, most of the faces within the scene weren’t white but I still felt we were connected. If I were just some kid who was a casual listener of Hip Hop music it really wouldn’t matter, right? But I knew Hip Hop (or so I thought)! This was before I was bold enough to say I was Hip Hop. Was I walking a thin line? Did Hip Hop have to be black, or did I have to be black to belong in it? I knew it was started by African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, but I still didn’t get it. It sounded crazy to me - how could a genre of music really be a color?
I am straight, I am white, and undoubtedly male. I never felt like I knew what privilege was growing up in America, especially the affluent suburban experience. I knew about wealth inequality and poverty. Chemical dependency was common within my community, as was much of what I’d identified with in Rap music and Hip Hop culture. I could relate not only to the vivid pictures painted alongside the experiences I was feeling, but also through the ways in which I came to cope with many of the challenges I faced in my youth. I didn’t see how my race could make my accomplishments or my struggles any less significant...or that is at least how I felt when being confronted on the premise of what was considered “white privilege.” Pretty much all of my friends were brown or black, but I also knew racist people. My crew felt like we were the solution because we "didn’t see color," and many of my friends of color live by this ideology to this day. We accepted that many older people had prejudice, but we knew America had come a long way…
The original drug of choice for me was Gangster Rap, and it served as an early soundtrack to my childhood. I was a '90s baby, born alongside the legendary Nas album Illmatic, and my introduction to the culture was unsightly, to say the least. Keenan and Kel became a big part of my life, and Coolio came along with the package; popular Gangster Rap was the thing. There I was at 6 years old, rapping along with Coolio in front of a black-and-white television in some beat-up, drug infested apartments in Anoka, Minnesota. How many other 6-year-old white boys can relate? Hip Hop crossed over from the mid '90s to the point where us white boys had become the majority of its consumers. In fact, in 2005 when I was 14 years old, around 80% of Hip Hop’s audience was white (Simmons Lathan, forbes.com). I definitely wasn’t alone.
It was only when I began to realize what Hip Hop Activism really is that it began to make any sense. The artist that really helped to light those early sparks for me was Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. I am only one late example of how white consumerism influenced, and may have even dictated, the direction of Hip Hop music. In 1994 the Wu Tang Clan boosted St. Ides Malt Liquor in a commercial that aired on national television. Many would say it was historic - Hip Hop now had corporate pull - and some even said the music had finally made it into the major spotlight. Hip Hop had been on the radio sporadically, slowly gaining momentum from the early days of the Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow & Run DMC, then Public Enemy, 2 Live Crew and NWA...but nothing hit as hard as the late '90s. Everyone in my generation had seen the Twix commercial with Rahzel (beatboxer with The Roots and Björk), and long before that had been legendary Hip Hop pioneer Kurtis Blow’s ad spot pushing that “Sprite is better than 7Up.” By the new millennium it was a wrap, and rap was here to stay, solidified with a suit and tie, and even the executive cashflow to back it up. That is the cashflow to the executives (white), and not so much to the rappers (black). However, Hip Hop was under threat, and many would contest it still is to this day. As Brother Ali once said from a stage touring for Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color: “We are all in danger of missing our opportunity for what Hip Hop really is…”
I never heard the term “Hip Hop Activism” until I was a grown-ass man, which is strange to say, even reflecting on it now. As I came into many different circles and gained even the slightest bit of insight into many other’s experiences, it threw up a few red flags that maybe I had been missing something all these years. The idea of a “Hip Hop Activist” seemed way out there. As I began to peel back the layers of Hip Hop culture, it began to make sense why though, and I will go all in by saying it is a redundant term. Hip Hop is activism. We don’t need to draw distinctions, but we’ve really watered it down to a point where it is almost embarrassing to consider so many people engaged in the culture do not even know of it’s nature. White America’s pop culture began to adopt Hip Hop’s music and swag; in many ways, at the expense of African-Americans and the black community as a whole. While we can confront inequalities, it is easy for white people to overlook the many aspects of racism and privilege which are recognized as sociological problems today because our life experience is typically far different. I and many others believe that if you represent Hip Hop, you should be expected to know these things, but I obviously was not on that back then.
Today we see what we consider “mainstream” rappers, like Iggy Azalea, who don’t seem to get - or care about - what it means to have white privilege and be a guest within the house of Hip Hop, but that’s too much for me to try to tackle here, and I think it is disrespectful to Rhymesayers to even put her into the conversation— unless I ever see her on a Soundset line-up, but that’s a whole other article! Back to the topic at hand though: Soundset, and Why It Matters! Whether white Hip Hop contemporaries like it or not, we must all come to terms with, and admit that Hip Hop is a culture that was spawned and nurtured in the heart of the Bronx, primarily by African-American & Puerto Rican people. We must be able to recognize what appropriation actually is to be able to overstand its position in relation to Hip Hop culture. If you want to argue what Hip Hop is to to an African-American Hip-Hoppa, be quick to argue with a Dominican about Bachata, their cultural traditional dance enjoyed by people today worldwide. If your version of Hip Hop history was professed by other white people, who learned it from other white people, you may want to reconsider your source. We must be able to understand where our modern overstanding of racism has grown from to be able to comprehend where the corresponding black ideology has grown from that is determined to reinforce and restore pride in the wake of a horrendous and dehumanizing history in America. It was from this abandonment by mainstream society of entire communities of color that Hip Hop was born.
White, male author and Father Figures radio host, Adam Mansbach, addressed white privilege in Hip Hop with a statement as follows “[we’ve] created this equation where the opposite of white privilege is blackness. Now that equation does not balance. The opposite of white privilege is dismantling white privilege.” Let’s look at this and be able to evaluate what privilege actually is. We all have privilege in some way, shape, or form, if we really want to be technical. For example, straight people have the privilege of being able to hold the hand of their significant other on a stroll around Lake Minnetonka without a worry in the world, at the very least a gay-male couple (especially) has to fear for dirty looks at the least, and at worst being killed. We have to be honest to be able to see inequity for what it is and be able to say that we do not have an inequality problem but an inequity problem. The black community especially, and all communities of color, have never in the history of America ever had equality. You cannot simply state because equality is philosophically determined within a culture that a shift has suddenly occurred to manifest a state of relative equity in regards to equal opportunity. White privilege is not something you should be asking your other white friends about, but every time you hear an experience from people of color that are incredibly hard for you to understand or be able to relate to, maybe you should check your privilege. Today we face the challenge of dismantling a prison industrial complex that incarcerates more prisoners than any other country in the world here in America. The United States has 25% of the world prison population, but only makes up 5% of the world’s population. (NAACP) This is the only land on earth that allows children to be incarcerated and left to die in prison due to crimes they’ve commit as minors. It isn’t beheading, we have many qualities that other countries may be able to learn from, but who is America if it cannot learn from it’s own mistakes and inequities. Tell me why 1,000,000 of the 2,300,000 incarcerated in this country are African-American/black, yet they only make up 13.2% of the american population? (Gallup poll) Either you believe we have a problem in this country systemically, or you believe we have a problem with black people. White on white crime runs rampant but I’ve never seen news headlines about it in America. Justice is applied differently, as is judgement on personal levels. How do we overcome this state of indifference? I receive far different service in not only publicly owned business, but also government centers, and not only by white people, but by people of color as well. There is a subconscious understanding in American culture outlining that white is good, and dark is bad or scary, as reflected the time when Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton called black men “super predators.”
I share my experience to be able to relate with other white people who identify with the beautiful culture that is Hip Hop, because we have limitless opportunity with this art form to be able to expand consciousness and dismantle white supremacy. We have so very much to fight for in this day and age, and we can only do so if we come to see and respect one another’s struggles and differences instead of being indifferent. However, I believe it is critical to be able to see and overstand where we are and where we’ve come from. Have respect for the experiences you’ve never endured and learn from others' struggles. If we do not come together and embrace one another we will never be able to move forward. If you ignore white supremacy and you ignore systemic racism, you are simply choosing to ignore Hip Hop culture, and you have no place at Soundset. You have no place identifying with Hip Hop, because Hip Hop is the opposite of white supremacy. Before you ‘turn-up’ on Coors Light this weekend make sure that you take some time to at the very least understand what Hip Hop - and the communities who birthed it - endured to be here before you today, still serving fans world-wide. Take time to contribute back to Hip Hop culture by, at the very least, simply listening to the people directly connected to the lineage we’ve all come to love. Get comfortable being uncomfortable talking or thinking about race, until the discomfort is gone and you can stand on the right side of the equation, in solidarity and unity with all of your Hip Hop brothers and sisters.