White Boys + Wu-Tang: Where Does the White Hip Hop Critic Fit In?
By Jaylin Paschal
A friend of mine recently suggested that I listen to a Hip Hop criticism podcast, Dissect: A Serialized Music Podcast. They raved about the production, commenting on how detailed and well-written critiques of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were. He said they were culturally savvy and contextually relevant.
You can imagine my surprise when a white voice came over the mic. I spent half of a thirty minute podcast waiting for a black voice to join the conversation. No way, I thought, that a white guy has twenty-two episodes on To Pimp A Butterfly, one of the blackest albums released this decade.
So, I googled the writer. Cole Cuchna was the voice. I ended up on his Instagram account, to discover something more confusing. Cuchna had written a book. Title?
The Blacker the Berry: The Book.
Cucha described the book in a caption as a “130 page visual exploration of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Blacker the Berry.’” The project was done in collaboration with a black man, at least.
JK. It was with a white girl.
If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, what the fuck? Or How could they have so much to say about this song? Or It really had to be THIS song?
Which made me wonder — why was I so uncomfortable? The book appeared to be full of pro-black messages and imagery. And after all, my friend didn’t think Cuchna’s race was noteworthy. And it was a damn good podcast. Did it really matter that The Blacker the Berry: The Book was curated by white people?
And to me, yes. It did.
Where there is white critique on black culture and art, there is tension. It’s been that way long before Cole Cuchna launched his podcast. There is an underlying strife between Hip Hop and whiteness that begins with the marginalization in the 1970’s that birthed the genre and continues with modern white-owned “Hip Hop” publications telling us who or what is and isn’t for the culture.
The fact of the matter is, I’m never ever ever going to ask a white man what he thinks of “The Blacker the Berry.” The song is not for, about or centering him. It is very literally and specifically about blackness and the black experience. So while I’m glad Kendrick has a fan in Cuchna, it’d be great if he had sat this conversation out.
Curious about how others in Hip Hop felt on the position of the white Hip Hop critic, I talked to some of the most knowledgable people I know.
The “White Hip Hop Critic” is obviously a subjective topic. I thought it’d be best to address the question emotionally.
Question: Do you feel like your opinion (on Hip Hop) has ever been devalued or discredited because you’re white?
“Nah. I work in Hip Hop and people might test me sometimes, but once I prove that I’m knowledgeable and passionate about the culture, they calm down,” says Matthew Whitlock. I don’t know anything other than diversity, it’s a part of where I come from, and it’s a part of who I am. I don’t have time for people who want to discredit anyone’s opinion based on their skin color.”
Matthew is a Hip Hop writer from Brockton, MA. He has bylines in the likes of The Source and DJ Booth. Whether it’s an article or a Twitter thread, he’s constantly producing good content.
Question: How do you feel about white Hip Hop critics and commentators?
“I think if you genuinely love the culture you’ll understand that this is a F.U.B.U. [For Us, By Us] event that we’ve invited you to. Like Nas said on ‘Destroy and Rebuild,’ ‘We invited you to the hood, rep it right,’” says Hip Hop writer Xavier Hova. “There’s a space for you if you understand the plight of black youth. If you don’t — if you try to turn this into ‘just music’ — than you can’t sit with us.”
Xavier conducts a series of interviews, “Country Grammar,” for RESPECT. magazine. With an obvious passion for and deep knowledge of Hip Hop, all of his work — from interviews to album reviews — is done thoughtfully and analytically. He regularly punctuates his statements with “I write about rap.”
“I think we’re quick to write them off or say they don’t know the culture, which is true in some cases,” Aaron Paschal says. “But there are some who truly embrace it and know and relate to Hip Hop just as much or more than some so-called ‘Hip Hop’ heads.”
My father, Aaron, is not only the person who introduced me to the world of Hip Hop, but is also a photographer. He’s captured several artists, including Big Boi, Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek, Anderson .Paak, Raphael Saadiq, etc.
“For me, it’s a little strange, even when they do know the music and history behind it really well,” Cierra Hardy explains. “I have always wondered what has made someone of another race have an affinity for a genre that can at times refer to them in a negative light, as well as how they are able to interpret the music.”
Cierra has built a creative relationship with Spotify and other industry giants over the last year. Her Twitter bio is “Hip Hop + Hard Work.” Needless to say, her vision is wide enough to scope the business and the cultural elements of any Hip Hop discussion.
Question: Emotionally, what’s your initial reaction or immediate impression when meeting/reading the work of white “Hip Hop heads?”
“I’m like, ‘Okay, word. That’s what’s up.’ Because I assume he knows about the culture. But it becomes leery when he tries to appropriate it for his benefit, like it’s a fad or fashion. Nah, these stories are our life. You have to assimilate and immerse yourself into it. You can’t appropriate the soundtrack of our struggle,” said Xavier.
“ I have read articles by white journalists and publications where they write about Hip Hop and they usually always get it wrong. The language they use to write about our artists, our fashion and our culture almost always misses the mark. It’s disappointing to say the least,” Cierra adds.
In a space with so much grey area, it becomes difficult to sort the appropriate from the invasive.
Question: Is there anything you feel is “off limits” for white commentators to critique or discuss? When, if ever, can they cross the line?
“Outside of the use of ‘nigga’ — violence in and out of music. You gotta have the combination of poverty and race to speak on why these kids act this way. You can try to understand it but you can’t rationalize it unless you have those two things working against you,” says Xavier.
Cierra also lists boundaries stating, “I feel like there a quite a lot of things that are off limits to white commentators, considering our genre tells the stories of our lives and the lives of people we know. I don’t want to ever hear a white commentator tell me if I can say nigga or not or how men in Hip Hop degrade Black women. I’m not trying to make excuses for those parts of Hip Hop, but I think that is a part of the black experience and we as a people understand why those things take place. White people don’t always understand the social construct that has initiated those things; even if they do, it’s just not their place to speak on. Personally, if a white person has to think twice about if they are crossing the line they shouldn’t discuss it.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty simple — if you don’t know about it, don’t speak about it. There are far too many white commentators jumping into convos about Hip Hop, race, and other topics that they have no experience in,” says Matthew.
But regardless of these subjective boundaries, Hip Hop has found itself in such a public, prominent space because as a genre, it is inherently inclusive. Right?
Question: Do you feel that Hip Hop is inclusive as a genre? As a culture?
“Hip Hop is very inclusive as a genre, although I feel as though our genre is the one of the only genres — other than country — that is exclusive to an experience or culture. Hip Hop invites everyone to the party, and I’ve never understood why,” Cierra says. “While it can be a beautiful thing to bring people together, I think the lyricism in real Hip Hop can’t be relayed to white counterparts. For example, for some reason white people love Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN and they will even rap the lyrics and be the majority of ticketholders at his concerts, but it’s almost as if they aren’t really listening. If they were they wouldn’t like what Kendrick was saying. As a culture, I feel like we’ve become too inclusive. Everyone shouldn’t be invited. I could listen to a Taylor Swift song and relate to some element of the song, but I feel like as a white person you can’t relate to a Jay Z 4:44 song or a Kendrick TPAB song.”
“People in our community look at how white people hijacked blues music to the point that it inspired the British invasion where white artists came and learned from black blues — even took their songs — and now Eric Clapton is one of the first names out of people’s mouths when they talk the blues. We see how jazz started and formed in the black community and has been whitewashed. So that makes us protective when it comes to Hip Hop,” Aaron says. “But we don’t support it financially. Most Hip Hop crowds are 50/50 or so white. When I go shopping for records, I see white people buying a lot more than us — so we want Hip Hop to be just ours but…”
“I like to think it is, but I feel that outsiders (those not involved in the culture) see it as the opposite, or a way to keep their negative agenda going. Their miseducation and inexperience of what they think Hip Hop is causes their imaginations to run wild and misinterpret an entire society (basically) of people. Hip Hop is universal and it brings people together. It’s love, it’s family, it’s experiences shared and discussed. I’ve met 95% of my closest friends through being involved with Hip Hop,” Matthew says. “Anyone can listen to Rap, but not everyone will be able to relate or see why the words were written the way they were. I think people judge before they have all the info, and that leads them to go down a rabbit hole of assumptions. Hip Hop welcomes you — as long as you ain’t here to hate, we all have open arms.”
Question: Do you feel that there are any elements of Hip Hop that can’t transcend the race barrier?
“I don’t. Hip Hop was created to empower and uplift the urban community. It is a people-based culture that shares its experiences, trials, and tribulations through the arts and outlets of graffiti, DJing, rapping, and breakdancing. Rap music reflects these struggles, which were majorly faced by the African-American and minority communities. As I said earlier, you can’t speak on things you don’t know — but you can help push the cause forward if you know it’s the right thing to do. The Hip Hop community has come a long way since it was first birthed only a short time ago. It is now comprised of people of all backgrounds, nationalities and races. It is up to Hip Hop as a collective whole to let the culture spread as far as it can, so people of all kinds can share their stories and relate them back to why/how it all started in the first place — to get us through the tough times, and to give us hope and inspiration that someone cares,” Matthew answers.
“As people of the diaspora, we have a connection to generational poverty that stems from slavery. No matter how rich you get, you have that connection. That rawness and relatable experience can’t transcend race,” said Xavier. “Not to say that there aren’t white rappers who have amazing things to tell, but that relateable struggle can’t be duplicated unless you’ve been an impoverished minority. That can’t transcend race and once you try to remove that racial aspect from Hip Hop it won’t be Hip Hop anymore.”
Ultimately, the White Hip Hop critic isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Whether you think of them as thought-leaders in oddly clean Yeezy's or outsiders in dingy Wu-Tang shirts (cause it's usually one or the other), they're here to stay. As Hip Hop becomes more prevalent, more people of many races will add their voices to a global discussion. Added perspective can never really be a bad thing as far as cultural conversations go. So while I’m not buying Cuchna’s book, I am interested and seeing what it is about TPAB or “The Blacker the Berry” that’s so strangely and ironically transracial. The conversation continues. So where does the white Hip Hop critic fit in? Maybe they don’t. But maybe that’s the point.