Hip Hop Ain’t Dead: It’s Livin’ in the White House
Sanford Richmond ’11 PhD
Mill City Press: 2016
Playing While White: Privilege and Power On and Off the Field
David J. Leonard
University of Washington Press: 2017
During his undergraduate years at the University of Southern California, writes Sanford Richmond in Hip Hop Ain’t Dead, “I began to realize that the world I had experienced as a child was not merely just a sequence of unfortunate coincidences, but a systematic exclusion of an entire population.”
Richmond’s experiences include the murder of a black junior high school classmate, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean grocer, and the city-burning riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. The Harlins murder led to one of Richmond’s favorite songs, Ice Cube’s documentary-like “Death Certificate.”
Richmond celebrates hip-hop’s ability to kick against the traces that bind black American culture to what Washington State University professor David Leonard, in Playing While White, describes as “the construction of blackness as criminal.”
“The panics,” Leonard writes, “surrounding blackness, its scapegoating, and the efforts to source problems to the black community not only replicate longstanding cultural projects that locate broader social and cultural problems through black bodies in general, and hip-hop specifically, but also exonerate whiteness and America as a whole.”
Leonard cites historian Robin D.G. Kelly, who writes about the perception that it is the “inner city” that is a source of “social problems” and how the “‘ghetto’ continues to be viewed as the Achilles heel in American society, the repository of bad values and economic failure” as well as “the source of a vibrant culture of resistance.”
Instead of acknowledging the ingrained racism of American society, then, pundits of all colors prefer to locate the problems in the black family, the places black people live and grow up, or the way they play music and sports.
Black celebrities and critics excoriated hip-hop as a source of negative influence on black culture, even as more stereotypically white music got a pass. Bill Cosby, Stanley Couch, Don Imus, Geraldo Rivera all publicly asserted that hip-hop was part of the problem, thus scapegoating the music in the face of overwhelming evidence that racism is a systemic issue rather than one of self-representation.
Like brown-skinned Muslim women who wear burkas or men who wear khalifas, turbans, or beards, are considered suspect, hip-hop culture made the hoodie notorious. As Richmond writes, when black congressman Bobby Rush gave a speech decrying racial profiling on the floor of the House, he was forcibly removed. Why? He was wearing a hoodie. Rush survived that altercation, unlike Trayvon Martin who, as Richmond describes, was murdered because he was a black man wearing a hoodie.
But emerging folkways often come with changes in fashion. The adoption of beads and paisley prints came along with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The donning of sports jerseys and hoodies corresponds precisely with the rise in popularity of the NFL, the NBA, and hip-hop.
Musicologically and historically, hip-hop is a new folk music, born of African blues and black American jazz. Hip-hop builds on jazz’s rejection of the white European idea of originality and structure. The European classical tradition prizes that which has never been heard before, whereas jazz, as blues before it, favors a perspectival contribution that adds a unique voice to an ongoing project of collaboration.
This new folk music is a living poetry that documents the plight of groups of people oppressed by a racist majority culture. The music documents—and also protests loudly. As one critic put it in a review of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, rap “overturned transnational culture like a police car.”
Even as we preach a doctrine of equality, our language betrays us. Reading Leonard, you’d think it was the sportswriters, not the football and soccer players, who had the concussive brain injuries.
It’s the banality of racism that is so appalling and frustrating to Leonard. Systemic racism is taken for granted, underanalyzed, and explained away. Sportscasters and sportswriters, no matter the color of their skin, consistently criticize black players for exactly the same behavior as their white colleagues, who get a pass. In example after example, Leonard examines the language of sports pundits to make his case. Perhaps the most telling is his consideration of the reception of Johnny “Football” Manziel, “the once famed college football player turned mediocre NFL star…who has always liked to talk trash.”
Even as sportswriters damned black players for talking trash, Manziel was praised as a smart leader and a cunning competitor. As Leonard points out, trash talking in competitive situations is nothing new; so why are blacks and whites judged differently? “Just shut up and play,” the critics say to “Richard Sherman, Beckham, Russell Westbrook, Yasil Puig, Serena Williams and even [Muhammad] Ali,” while players like “Johnny Talker and Marshall Heckler [Henderson]” get to “#PlayWhileWhite.” When Rob Gronkowski or Tom Brady “dance, taunt opponents, and talk trash” they aren’t showing “disrespect” but rather displaying their “passion.”
This isn’t even hate. This is a racism so ingrained, so deeply systemic, that it becomes a kind of blinding fog that causes many whites—and others—to fear every black body as a potential crime.
With Richmond and Leonard’s army of documentary evidence, though, we should all begin to see ourselves in the mirror.