Mad Ethnic Right Now26 March 2018
Hip-hop culture and black culture: are they the same? So often, these terms are used interchangeably, as if driven by the same experiences, based on the same values. Yet this might be a bit of misnomer, as black pop culture includes so much more than music (hello Black Panther). Historically, yes, hip-hop existed as a subsection of black culture, and it is imperative that we recognise that black artists created, developed, and popularised the genre. However, given the recent domination of rap and hip-hop in top-40 charts, the demographics of their audiences, and indeed their creators, have broadened. Western discourse surrounding the impact of hip-hop on mainstream culture typically exists in a racial dichotomy, revolving around those who are black or white. But with accessibility to global music at an all-time high, hip-hop now caters to a more diverse crowd.
‘Third-culture kids’ is a phrase used to describe young people, myself included, who grew up in a culture different from that of their parents. While the phrase is frequently used as a buzzword in articles about the future and citizens of the world, we rarely see accurate portrayals in music and television of the struggles we face growing up. Turning to the next best option, many third-culture kids attach their sense of cultural identity to the only ‘otherness’ visible in white- dominated media—black culture.
I was at a house party recently with several others from my high school. As hip-hop music played, a few showed off their (self-perceived) musical prowess by rapping along to the lyrics, n-word included. Yikes. It is not uncommon to see South Asian and Arabic boys claim that it is acceptable for them to say the n-word—disregarding any sociocultural implications—as if their dark skin is the only necessary qualifier.
To some young people of colour, appropriating the blackness of hip-hop culture is a means of escape from the myth of the model minority, a stereotype of themselves which they are unable to relate to. A model minority is a ‘positive’ stereotype that suggests certain demographic groups achieve a higher level of wealth, education and success than the average population. Think back to high school, with the stereotype of Asians excelling academically and taking on an impressive range of extracurriculars. For young Asian men, this perception has further harmful effects. In the media, they see themselves portrayed as unaggressive, unappealing and almost effeminate—the antithesis of black men’s hyper-aggressive, hyper-sexual and hyper-masculine stereotype. Is it any surprise that these young people, who belong in a culture where nerdiness is the inverse of attractiveness, turn to black culture to escape such restrictive perceptions of their race?
For decades, Asian immigrants and African immigrants have been pitted against each other on a spectrum where only White is Right. Nonetheless, using blackness as a counterculture to another ethnicity is dangerous as it perpetrates notions of anti-blackness, implying that being black is inherently rebellious or threatening.
Still, I believe that other minorities can appreciate the political significance of black culture in music without appropriating it for our own. When I first listened to Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’, I broke down in tears after hearing her encourage her child to embrace features of their race that are typically shunned rather than fetishised.
Perhaps now, this diverse generation of listeners simply wants more from their music. Unable to relate to the simplistic narratives of white artists’ romantic pop, they want songs in which they can see themselves, with their intricacies. Turning to hip-hop makes sense; its historical role was an outlet for the anger of the marginalised and isolated. Third-culture kids can relate, not to allusions to slavery and police brutality, but to the belief that the world doesn’t understand them.
In turn, this self-identification of people of colour has encouraged a new wave of hip-hop experiencing success in the charts, with the rise of Asian artists like Rich Brian, Keith Ape and Joji. New organisations like 88rising, a record-label- management-company-content-platform, exist to exclusively promote Asian music acts in the American music industry.
Hip-hop culture is expanding, keeping its gritty origins and continuing to offer a voice to underdogs, but now opening its doors to non-black people of colour and their stories as well.