Hip Hop and the white kid

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Cast your mind back to the summer of 1978, if you're old enough to remember it. I was young, naive and living in a bubble. My favourite music was the Wombles second album "Remember You're a Womble" released in 1974 and I used to play the tape over and over driving my parents mad.

About a year later something happened: Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang dropped and my world changed forever.

Living where I did on the Isle of Wight was sheltered, detached from the mainland in a typical tourist driven seaside environment that might as well have been completely closed between October and Easter.

There were two black kids at school, one of whom was the son of a very straight-laced, white teacher and white in all but skin colour. I was born in south east London which was more cosmopolitan but we moved away when I was 6 so hadn't really become aware of myself or my surroundings yet.

But in 1979 it was as though my bubble had burst and I was suddenly exposed to the big wide world. People talk about the moment a light turns on in their minds and this was just such a moment; I instantly knew who I was.

I was the kid who would live for this music.

Isolated

It was strange growing up with no one else who shared that passion; my best friend had originally been into electro but that soon passed. Not being able to listen to London radio stations with the likes of Tim Westwood, I was reliant on the late, great John Peel and the Streetsounds Electro series to keep me supplied with new music during the early to mid-eighties.

I was introduced to a couple of kids who had moved from West London and were into rap so there was an instant camaraderie: I had finally found some kindred spirits, and they had found the one person in this backwards place who knew what they were talking about. I taught myself to DJ, rap and beat box, as well as getting into graffiti and dancing, though I could never break properly.

But I was still isolated.

It wasn't so much of an issue at first but, as time went on and hip hop became more mainstream things changed.

Power

By the late eighties, rapping shifted away from the braggadocio rhymes of the "old school" and started getting more political, more militant. Hip Hop had power and artists realised they could use this for more than just music.

An undercurrent of dissatisfaction was gaining momentum but one of the first albums to really illustrate this for me was "Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop" by Boogie Down Productions. Consider the track "Why is that" where KRS One asks:

"Why isn't young black kids taught black? They're only taught how to read, write, and act."

In the second verse he goes on to explain how the characters in the bible must have been black because of their location and ancestry.

In fact, this post was inspired by accidentally seeing a WhatsApp conversation over someone's shoulder on the train in which he was explaining that of course the characters in the bible were black, they were from Africa and the Middle East but you couldn't be surprised that they were portrayed as white by Europeans.

As Eddie Izzard quipped, John, Simon Peter and the others "out from Oxford on a fishing trip." The bible was westernised for popular consumption and conversion.

On the other foot

Public Enemy had gotten more political with their second album: the brilliant "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back." By their third release in 1990, however, pro-black felt like it was becoming more anti-white.

The same year - with their album "To the East, Blackwards" - X Clan were so far off the other end of the spectrum that it was outright offensive. Musically, it was a great record but impossible to listen to and enjoy as a white person; not to belittle the experiences of black people over the centuries but you suddenly knew how it felt to be racially abused - even as the majority. Perhaps some of it was justified considering the course of history but it went way too far and genuinely invested white kids like myself instantly became alienated.

Consider the lyrics of Eminem's song "Yellow Brick Road" released in 2004:

"Now with this being the new trend we don't fit in. Crackers is out with Cactus albums, blackness is in."

"Cactus albums" here referring to the music of white rappers 3rd Bass who were ironically very pro-black in their lyrics.

The first time I listened to Yellow Brick Road I was blown away as I could relate perfectly to the different phases of the musical journey that Eminem described.

Over the next couple of years the number of blacks who would confront me saying "what are you wearing that for?" or "you can't listen to that, you're not black" increased enormously - it was never something I had faced before and was incredibly unsettling.

The shoe was on the other foot.

It was this period and this attitude that pushed me away from Hip Hop for a number of years and left me having to rediscover who I was. I had identified so closely with Hip Hop culture that a big part of me felt like it was being ripped away, I felt empty.

Exclusionism

One thing that always stuck with me through this whole experience was the sense of division, not just from the experience of black people as described by the music but also the subsequent exclusionism.

From the outside, as the white guy, the bad guy, it felt like barricades had been erected and a siege mentality overtook much of what I used to love. What originally began as a call for equality seemed to morph into a call for control: to oppress the oppressors.

Some reading this may be thinking

"the poor entitled white guy getting upset, a wannabe who wouldn't know racism if it came up and smacked him in the face.

Maybe they're right, but I'd argue that this is more than just someone appropriating another culture and feeling put out when it's taken back.

I felt fortunate to have been exposed to all of this growing up, to have learnt truths that my bubble would have shielded me from, so I was frustrated the message seemed to be only to empower the black youth. Instead of just teaching black kids to be black surely all kids should be taught black history.

Why aren't they?

We've come a long way but maybe "the establishment" is still too institutionally racist.

Hip Hop and the white kid