The Cotton Club

Bakari Kitwana, Village Voice (New York City), June 24

Armed with messages of Black political resistance, Black pride, and opposition to militarization and corporatization, designed in part to counter the commercial hip-hop party-and-bullshit madness dumbing down the nation’s youth, hip-hop’s lyrical descendants of the “fight the power” golden era today are booking concerts in record numbers—far beyond anything imaginable by their predecessors. Problem is, they can hardly find a Black face in the audience.

As the Coup (Pick a Bigger Gun), Zion-I (True and Livin’), and the Perceptionists (Black Dialogue) get set for a wave of touring to promote their new CDs this summer, the audience that will be looking back at them unmasks one of the most significant casualties of hip-hop’s pop culture ascension: the shrinking Black concert audience for hardcore, political hip-hop.

“My audience has gone from being over 95 percent Black 10 years ago to over 95 percent white today,” laments Boots Riley of the Coup, whose 1994 Genocide and Juice responded to Snoop Dogg’s 1993 gangsta party anthem “Gin and Juice.” “We jokingly refer to our tour as the Cotton Club,” he says—a reference to the 1920s and ‘30s Harlem jazz spot where Black musicians played to whites-only audiences.

Boots says he first noticed the shift one night in 1995, in a concert on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Opening for Coolio, he stepped center stage and grabbed the mic as usual, but then saw something unusual about the audience: a standing-room-only sea of whiteness. Some were almost dressed like farmers, he recalls. Others had their heads shaved. “Damn, skinheads are out there,” he thought. “They can’t be here to see us.” But the frantic crowd began chanting along rhyme for rhyme.

Zion, MC of the independent rap group Zion-I, agrees the similarities to jazz are striking: “Jazz went white, then Black, then white again. At this point African Americans aren’t the ones supporting live jazz [performances]. It’s the same in many ways with independent hip-hop. I’ve been to shows where the only Black people in the place are onstage. It’s kind of surreal.”

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Concert crowds are another matter. Looking for the 70 to 80 percent majority white audience? In most cases you won’t find it at a Nelly concert or any other top-selling hip-hop artist’s show. At large venues like Detroit’s 40,000-capacity Comerica Park, where Eminem and 50 Cent will headline the Anger Management Tour in August, estimates suggest that 50 to 60 percent of the seats are filled by white fans. By contrast, Caucasian concertgoers staring down culturally focused Black hip-hop artists topple these numbers. Although to date there’s been no attempt to track concert demographic data, fans, promoters, and independent MCs who play live more than half the year give estimates of 85 to 95 percent.

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Today’s climate is indeed a far cry from the African medallion mania of the 1980s. In the academy, we’ve gone from 1980s discussions of Black studies and Afrocentricity to multiculturalism to current-day debates about post-Blackness and polyculturalism. At the same time, in the arena of mainstream politics we’ve gone from discussing the collective Black impact of Jesse Jackson’s run for president to the individual career successes of Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. In the streets we’ve gone from the Nation of Islam patrolling housing projects to whites reclaiming Harlem, South Side Chicago, and East Oakland, and Black scholars like Columbia University’s Lance Freeman arguing that poor Blacks aren’t significantly displaced by gentrification.

“So many Black people don’t want to hear it,” Zion continues. “They want that thug shit. That’s why I’m thankful for the audience we do have.”

Mr. Lif, whose success as a solo artist led him to the recent partnering with Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One to form the Perceptionists, agrees. “It’s disorienting. It’s bizarre,” he says. “But no artist is in a position to choose his fans. Whoever is in the audience, I love them for being there. They are allowing me to make a living doing what I love.”

And the demand for art-as-a-weapon hip-hop music is so great that the best-known independent MCs are able to book from 150 to 200 concerts a year in venues where the capacity ranges from 200 to 1,500, all the while not breaking through to the mainstream.

Recognizing the success of such underground white MCs as Aesop Rock, El-P, and Sage Francis—all moving around 100,000 units per release—Brother Ali says, “Our genre is looked at as white rap. It’s almost like a white chitlin circuit of underground rap music.” The more popular underground white hip-hop artists are helping to nurture the audience at venues that now regularly feature conscious Black hip-hop artists. At the same time as political hip-hop’s audience has gotten whiter, audiences for old-school socially conscious hip-hop (think De La Soul) and politically conscious hip-hop (think Chuck D and KRS-One) have merged. It’s an audience that includes white kids, college students, and those tapping into what remains of the counterculture of hip-hop. This requires fans with the time on their hands to search out MCs in independent record stores and on the Internet.

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