My second day of basic training I met this guy that would ultimately become my brother. In the moment, I had no idea, obviously because I’m no clairvoyant. Those that may not know firsthand, the military attempts to strip people of their uniqueness to make the individual one of many. Their goal is to break people and build Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sea Men…and Guardians (Space Force). Part of this process is shaving your head, putting you in a uniform, and unrelenting menial tasks, marching in large groups and of course heavy-handed discipline. The result, or at least the desired result, is a group of people that think like a team and not a bunch of individuals. Yeah, you still have standouts, but they get paid the same and have the same access that the dirtbags have, albeit with more respect than dirtbags.
While standing in line to provide urine to the Air Force, there was a White guy to my right side, and another one to my left. People came from all over, but I assumed all of the White people came from the middle of nowhere in their state of origin. Not only because they were White, but all of the guys I interacted with up to that point were from the middle of nowhere Alabama, with country accents and very little in common with me as a Black kid from Chicago. In that moment, I heard the guy on my left mumbling Jay-Z lyrics. Using my peripheral vision, I checked to make sure I was hearing these familiar lines from this unfamiliar face. Yup, it was the White guy to my immediate left. Shocked, I asked “what do you know about Jay-Z” to which he responded in a distinct New York accent “what do YOU know about Jay-Z” and that began a conversation about hip hop that blossomed into a lifelong friendship.
Blaming the Camo
My ignorance in this situation was actually fueled by the environment. In Chicago, I knew White guys that were just as involved in hip hop culture, if not more so, than many of the Black people I knew. They tagged trains and buildings, some knew how to dance, they wore similar clothes and had very similar tones in their speech patterns as me. I never looked at them or questioned their hip hop chops because it was obvious to me that we were coming from the same culture. They were deeper into the Wu Tang Clan music than I was, but it was all love. That said, the military camouflage and forced assimilation worked. He blended in with his surroundings…until he spoke at least.
Fast forward to now, and he is now family. Our kids refer to us both as “uncle”, we started this business that is doing well, and we still have in depth conversations about hip hop, basketball, and things typically discussed in Black barbershops. My dad has told me on several occasions, “anyone can stand on their head for a little while” meaning ones truth will always reveal itself at some point. Outside of the initial meeting, I never questioned Joe’s authenticity…and truth be told, I only questioned it when I asked “what do you know about Jay-Z”. From that point on, it was evident that no one involved was standing on their head.
Do It For Hip Hop
I honestly feel as if hip hop culture and the associated music (rap, conscious rap, backpack rap) has bridged more gaps in the modern era than any other form of art known to man. Sure, it helps that hip hop encompasses music, dance, fashion, visual arts and has expanded into other areas such as advertising and marketing. Not bad for the fad that was supposed to be dead by the mid 1990’s. None of that would be achievable without diverse appeal, which speaks more to socio-economic conditions than physical features. It is with this lens that I view cultural appropriation as it pertains to hip hop, and I must say, people need to relax.
Blame It On Ice!
I remember when Vanilla Ice dropped “Ice Ice Baby”, I hated that song when it came out and I still do. I have no idea what other songs he dropped, but I do know he switched over to Rock music. Vanilla Ice was never a good rapper, and his music sounded like a record label took stereotypes of a rapper and just added him as the face. A clear example of someone not in it for the love, they gave him an image, song and even stage name to capitalize off of a White rapper, and it worked for a hot minute. Fast forward to Eminem dropping his first album, I didn’t care for the subject matter at all, but I immediately noticed there was a huge difference between him and Vanilla Ice. Eminem, even when talking about nonsense, crafts his songs in a way that shows he worked on the skill. Yet, so-called hip-hop purists and so-called gate keepers act as if he is a vulture, picking at the authenticity of the culture for profit. Going so far as to call him a guest in the culture. That label has been applied to plenty of White rappers since then and I think it’s lazy to do so. Yeah, Vanilla Ice was trash, but you can’t reasonably dismiss every White rapper because of that.
What’s The Issue?
The definition of cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. Hip hop was born from struggle and the act of struggle is not unique to Black Americans. I know several people that are White that come from poverty, that listen to 2Pac to get through tough times. I’ve seen a White guy from Atlanta have a spirited debate about why both members of Outkast should be considered top 10 all time (I disagree with that). When I first got back into rapping in Vegas, the sound engineer was a White guy from Serbia with pictures of hip hop figures and Allen Iverson up in his studio. He also happened to rap in Serbian, and it wasn’t because he was trying to be Black…the art form gave him a pathway to express what he was feeling, sad, happy, aggressive, angry and any other emotion one can feel. He rapped for the love of it, not because he wanted to inappropriately adopt customs or practices of Black people.
Mos Def once said, “I don’t care what brand you are, I’m concerned what type of man you are, what your principles and standards are” and I feel like THAT sums up how we should look at diversity in general, but especially in hip hop. The term cultural appropriation is one I understand, but I typically disagree with those applying it to whatever they apply it to. I watched, “highlights” of early basketball games. Let me tell you, those games were tough to watch, and had Black people not gotten interested and passionate about the game when they did, there’s NO WAY the NBA would be what it is today. Same goes for NFL football, MLB with Latin American ball players, modern Golf without Tiger. It wasn’t appropriation when those Black people started doing professionally what was 100% White before them. To that end, Eminem is not a guest to the culture, he is the culture, so are Mac Miller, El-P, Aesop Rock, Beastie Boys, Rittz, and Jack Harlow. Vanilla Ice…not so much, but there is no denying these other non-Black people love(d) hip hop and sought to add their own flavor to it.