White Rappers, Clear of a Black Planet

Jon Caramanica, New York Times, August 18, 2016

Last month, the white rapper G-Eazy–a handsome ectomorph sporting a motorcycle jacket and 1950s-slick hair–headlined a show at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, part of a weekslong tour. Over the last couple of years, this Oakland, Calif., musician has evolved from regional curio to legitimate pop contender: He appears on the lead single from the forthcoming Britney Spears album, and in March, his song “Me, Myself & I” with the guest singer Bebe Rexha–from his platinum album, “When It’s Dark Out”–went to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.

But G-Eazy has achieved a large chunk of this success via a hip-hop side door–not reliant on traditional gatekeepers like hip-hop radio or the support of an established black mentor. And his big single is like a simulacrum of a mainstream hip-hop hit. It has the same structure as a conventional hip-hop crossover attempt–rapper on the verses, singer on the hook–but here, both rapper and singer are white.

The most revealing aspect of the G-Eazy tour was its promotional image: a painted tableau of G-Eazy and his fellow headliner Logic (born to a black father and white mother), flanked on either side by the opening acts, YG and Yo Gotti, both of whom are black. But in a sleight of hue, everyone in the image appears to have similar skin tone. Race has practically been erased.

This gesture was avoidant, devious, disingenuous, rude. It was an inducement to overlook the show’s discomfiting racial dynamic, suggesting that the issues brought up by its lineup–with two popular black rappers, each with more radio and chart success than the headliners, relegated to the evening opening slots–have little to do with race.

That is, naturally, absurd, but it is a clear reflection of a somewhat unexpected emergent racial reality in hip-hop. White rappers–especially in the wake of the success of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and, to a lesser degree, Iggy Azalea–are now finding paths to success that have little if anything to do with black acceptance.

For decades, white rappers who have reached wide renown–and plenty who never did–have employed a handful of familiar strategies. Initially, a co-sign–an imprimatur of authenticity, or at least tolerance, given by an established black artist–was essential. Think of Dr. Dre shepherding Eminem, or Run-D.M.C. taking the Beastie Boys on tour. (By contrast, remember the struggles of the nonsponsored Vanilla Ice.) More recently, fealty to the genre’s black-built history has been essential, as evinced by nostalgists like Action Bronson and Your Old Droog.

But now we have arrived in the post-accountability era of white rap, when white artists are flourishing almost wholly outside the established hip-hop industry, evading black gatekeepers and going directly to overwhelmingly white consumers, resulting in what can feel like a parallel world, aware of hip-hop’s center but studiously avoiding it.

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