02/12/2016

The times they are a changin’


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It’s hard to say what kind of position white rappers occupy in culture — specifically regarding dialogue that centers on the issue of race and social justice. As a middle class Filipino who likes hip-hop but can’t honestly claim to be intimately familiar with its roots, I find it hard to engage and untangle the way such issues and events and ideas intersect. Plus there’s a word limit to this. So. What follows is a list of facts which aims to trace the recent history and progress of race-related dialogue in America, both in relation to and beyond hip-hop.

January 2014: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis take home the Best Rap Album award for “The Heist” at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, winning against Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” Shortly after, Macklemore texts Lamar, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have.” Though receiving several nominations, Lamar didn’t take home any awards.

August 2014: Michael Brown, a black, unarmed teenager, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death was — at least to many members of the press — majorly responsible for sparking a movement that protested the racism rampant in police forces throughout the US. Brown was 18 when he was killed.

October 2014: Claudia Rankine published Citizen: An American Lyric through Graywolf Press. Citizen, a critically acclaimed, genre-bending book, makes it clear that racist microagressions draw power from the same oppressive culture that allows innocent black teenagers to die by police officer gunshot. An excerpt: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”

December 2014: Azaelia Banks criticizes Iggy Azalea on Twitter for her silence on police killings happening all over America, stoking an already fiery discussion on cultural appropriation. One of her tweets: “It’s funny to see people Like Igloo Australia silent when these things happen… Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t huh?” Iggy didn’t do much to engage.

March 2015: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” was released. The album was met with near universal praise, tackling a slew of topics, among them survivor’s guilt and what it means to some to be raised by the hood. The album itself deserves its own article, so instead… (one thousand fire emojis)

May 2015: Key & Peele aired one of their most brilliant sketches on Comedy Central, titled “Negrotown.” The sketch imagines a fictional town that Keagan Key’s character describes as “a utopia for black people!” Most of the sketch is delivered through musical number and everybody’s wearing the kind of clothes that wouldn’t look out of place in Solange’s Losing You video. Jordan Peele, who play’s Key’s tour guide to Negrotown, says that here, there are “no stupid-ass white folks touching your hair / or stealing your culture, claiming it’s theirs.”

July 2015: MTV launched a satirical campaign called “White Squad,” a fake organization that aimed to address racial inequality by offering white advantage services to people of color. Like, hey, get yourself a white person so you don’t have to deal with the injustice you face on a regular basis. Whether you’re trying to hail a cab or get a scholarship loan, White Squad is there.

August 2015: Hamilton, the hit hip-hop musical and brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda on the American president featured on the $10 bill, hit Broadway. Over the last quarter of the previous year, Hamilton made numerous fans out of people who only had the soundtrack to go by, linking the story of immigrant and scholar Alexander Hamilton to the hip-hop narrative of writing one’s way out of squalor. The musical was also known for making strides in representation, casting people of color to play white historical figures. All this happening while Donald Trump is running for president.

December 2015: Noisey published the article “2015: The Year White Rappers Lost,” written by Slava Pastuk. Recommended reading. The concluding paragraph is perfect: “Hip-hop is a culture that was invented and perfected by black and brown youth in America. It is arguably the greatest export to ever come out of the USA, and there’s a lot of money to be made in it. It’s not hard to understand why people would want to get a cut of the pie, but those people need to remember who made the ingredients list in the first place.”

Jan. 6, 2016: Rapper and political activist Killer Mike, best known as one-half of hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, was interviewed by talk show host Stephen Colbert. When asked if awareness and reportage of black killings have generated new dialogue in America about race-related issues, Killer Mike replied: “The same problems that we’re discussing today, we discussed in 1990, 1980, 1970, and 1960.”

Jan. 22, 2016: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released the single White Privilege II wherein Macklemore acknowledges that the same culture that allows racial prejudice to thrive is what allows him to be successful as a white rapper. NPR offers a take on how the song has actually stirred discourse: “Perhaps White Privilege II is meant for young people who are just starting to try on these ideas about relative dis/advantage for size, the kids who are coming to their political awakening in a post-Ferguson world. It’s not clear that a nine-minute treatise that works better as a thinkpiece than it does as a song is the best delivery mechanism for that, but it’s certainly not counterproductive.”

What might be more unclear, however, is how exactly all the lessons we can learn from White Privilege II can apply in a Philippine context. I suppose one way to start would be to stop casually throwing “nigga” around while wearing your Supreme hoodie, or playing up the angry black woman role with your friends for laughs, or calling yourself black, or wishing you were black. Don’t be that person.

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