Academic journal article American Studies

The Identity Joke: Race, Rap, Performance in CB4

Academic journal article American Studies

The Identity Joke: Race, Rap, Performance in CB4

Article excerpt

Since their birth in the 1970s, hip-hop music and culture have repeatedly been framed as black cultural forms that give "urban" youth a voice in American society to speak the truth of their lived experience and feelings of political anger. Steven Best and Douglas Kellner are representative of this approach. They note:

Rap is thus at once a formidable form of musical expression, a subcultural means of opposition, a cultural idiom of counterhegemonic anger and rebellion, and an indicator that existing societies are structured according to a system of differences between dominant and subordinate classes, groups, races, and genders. . . . Rap can force white audiences to reflect on their own racial construction, on the ways that whites oppress blacks, on the ways that their own subject positions are constructed in opposition to an Other who is often presented in a negative light. Rap is thus a significant part of the postmodern adventure that forces an increasingly multicultural and multiracial society to become aware of its differences and to learn to live with otherness and dissimilarity.1

Though optimistic, this assessment of hip hop as a political art form that questions whiteness as a political identity is a fair assessment, in spite of its totalization of rap as a singular style/genre. Many black fans and critics often disparage nonblack fans, largely whites from non-urban environments for misappropriating their form of urban culture, a debate that has roots in rock n' roll, jazz, and even the minstrelsy. Although black fans and critics may have a point in their critique of white performativity of black cultural performance, what they may not analytically see is the meaning that various groups attach to a set of social practices or cultural inventions. Rather than seeing this form is mere racial imitation or racial fakery those whites are in fact positioning themselves in the world through their performances of certain genres of rap. The point is no one is truly a racial insider, especially in the tradition of performance. The dichotomy of insider and outsider makes little sense. Performance of any form of entertaining style is open to multiple meanings and interpretations. In short, racial identity is never fully transparent to anyone in American culture.

Hip hop is so thoroughly associated with blackness (even though Latino/as were equally important to the genesis of hip hop) that to separate the two is tantamount to genocide for the most committed fans and critics since African Americans dominate the form in the music industry. Most popular musical genres have a philosophy that shapes their aesthetics (e.g., how fans dress, behave, and discuss the idiom). These are its rules of identity and determine the fan's level of commitment to the musical. To propose hip-hop fans are following the rules of a musical culture rather than a race is an incendiary claim in the United States. Black American fans might especially fear white economic exploitation and the deracination of their cultural contributions. This is due in large part to a long history musical and economic exploitation and the mainstream, commercial musical industry that sold rap in record numbers as solely a hardcore and gangsta genre. The commercial music industry not only sold rap in this form, it also portrayed blackness in as monoracial, exclusionary urban identity.2

All entertainers engage the role of storytelling in creating their stage persona. However, in this article I'm interested in the question of racial identity as a social construction and performed fiction. In much of commercial hip hop, blackness is often staged as one uniformed cultural expression of masculine prowess and violence, even when an artist tries to avoid being singularly categorized. In defending hip hop against the charges of being violent and misogynist, many critics, musicians and fans blame this state of affairs on the recording industry. In Byron Hurt's 2006 documentary film Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes on representations of manhood in rap, this argument is one of the guiding themes. …

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