Do white performers (eg. Eminem, Vanilla Ice) have a moral right to perform hip-hop?
The question of who to perform which music is a form of control of who and how best to give to the audience the best of the art form giving them (the audience) a heart thrilling and mind blowing treat. But the question of who has the right to perform which music (hip-hop for instance) is a sensitive issue that could ignite an unending debate of who should be considered the founders or who has the monopoly of a universally accepted and performed art, music. The question of authenticity of hip-hop, an art of African-American origin has become a major issue in the music industry since the inception of the art in the 1970s, raising critical questions as to what constitutes authenticity and who has the prerogative of deciding the fate of the stylized rhythmic art. Although it has an African or black origin, hip hop has gone beyond that, transcending cultural, ethnic and geographical boundaries giving it a large followership in the world today having about 50 million fans in the United States alone and about 100 million around the globe (Motley & Henderson, 2008). It has been described as a “global epidemic” spreading throughout Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. (CNN, 2001).
Giving the popularity and influence of hip hop today it would, therefore, be pertinent to review its origin/history order to understand fully the issue in discourse.
Hip hop is a form of art and culture made up of elements like music, especially rap; disc jockey, dance and art. It originated from New York City, The Bronx precisely with the arrival and settlement in America of DJ Herc from Jamaica who actually was the first to use the name hip hop to denote his form or art. He tried to integrate his Jamaican form of disc jockeying and when this did not interest his audience, he found new and more appealing means of impressing his audience. Later, he developed the act of combining several similar songs with an audio mixer and playing them over and over getting an extended segment of a song (Light, 1999). This signaled the birth of what would become a popular genre of music and it began to spread to other parts of the city. It also saw the development and spread of rap. People began to tell their stories and experiences in the form of rap deriving their similarity from the poverty, violence and hardship that characterized their culture.
By the 1980s and with the foundations set by DJ Herc, hip hop has already become a household name and has gained widespread popularity occasioned by other entrants into the industry like Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five.
At about the same time, a movement – the Hip Hop movement started to spring up from the South Bronx area. They organized house and street parties starting from the house of DJ Herc who was instrumental to the development of hip hop music and within the neighborhood. Herc incorporated the Jamaican content of “impromptu toasting” into hip hop music. The concept of speaking while music is playing in the background became what is now known as emceeing. By the end of the 80s, the hip hop movement has gained widespread publicity wile rap music has shifted from mere partying to passing social messages and activism.
In the American society, hip hop played a very important role in keeping away people especially youths from violence. The outdoor parties and music fiestas provided them with opportunities and avenues to exhibit their youthful energy. It provided an alternative to violence and was a veritable means of expressing the social issues and problems of their culture as contained in the lyrics of their songs. An important element hip hop music is rap. The Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were instrumental to the development of this aspect of hip hop releasing albums and songs that were the best at that time and topped the list of music charts. The Sugar Hill Records by the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five debut was in 1980 titled “Freedom” and was on the top 20 of the National R & B charts. Others followed, “Birthday Party”, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the wheels of Steel” in 1981, and “The Message” in 1982. Their works redefined hip-hop as a tool for social commentary and bringing out the realities of life in the ghetto so that by the end of the 90s, rap music has dominated the world. The art form that had the humble of beginnings (DJing) has become an epidemic, a “music epidemic”
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Hip hop today has gone beyond the marginalized African-American inhabitants of New York to mainstream music. The crux of the matter is that the proponents of “Black hip hop” claim are that the mainstreaming of hip-hop has undermined its values and richness of culture and has turned it into a mere money making venture, hence, advocating for a turnaround. Hip hop’s authenticity stems from the expression the social and economic marginalization of African-Americans, hence, the commercialization of hip hop and scouting for followership and customers downplays this fact. The proponents of a “black hip-hop” argue that hip hop should be authentic and real and reflect the true spirit of the founders which is believed to have kept it going all this while, bearing in mind that hip-hop sprang up from people that were oppressed, from people who to capitalized on the conditions around them and put them into beats and rhythms forming music. It, therefore, suffices that hip hop was founded upon pain and people that got relief by sharing their sufferings. Hence authenticity in hip hop is seen as a very valuable and important element.
These elements are believed to have been suppressed since the advent of hip-hop as mainstream music and the involvement of “non-black/ghetto” artists. An artist must work to gain wide acceptance and popularity by being truly authentic. Defining authenticity here may be a bit difficult but there are elements that suffice, which including being true and speaking the truth of yourself and others as well as presenting the true situation of your culture. The artist by so doing becomes a vehicle for transmitting his culture to the rest of the world, representing them truthfully and naturally.
When an artist fails in this regard, they loose the support of their people. Those that are termed successful are those that maintain the link to the ‘hood’, and singing about their experiences while remaining relevant and appealing to the mainstream audiences. Another way of defining authenticity is by asserting your “blackness” and these were seen in the lyrics of songs.
“The lyrics of many MCs affirm the importance of blackness to hip-hop authenticity. For instance, Ice Cube connects black pride with authenticity in his song “When Will They Shoot”: “Calling me an African-American/like everything is fair again, shit/Devil, you got to get the shit right, “I’m black/blacker than a trillion midnights.” (Hess, 2005)
Hip hop lyrics is more like an autobiography which talks about the pains and struggle of the blacks who fought for freedom from racism and other problems suffered in the hands of the white. Hip hop fabricated a form of authenticity around the black culture that will enable them maintain the link to their root and at the same time having a commercial breakthrough.
A very complex task here in maintaining authenticity is one of not “giving in” to the mainstream which has its origin in remaining credible and being true to oneself.
Other aspects of authenticity in the hip hop culture include; adherence to “street” values, knowledge of the hip hop culture and hyper-masculinity.
Maintaining this authenticity which is of utmost importance, could be quite complex and challenging especially when the artists themselves have become “commercialized” in a way after rising to stardom and fame. This is common among modern artists who are more concerned with making money than maintaining the “hood” link. Also, the fact that some artists may meet up with the obligations of conforming to authenticity in some aspects and fail in others makes the issue of authenticity a subjective issue.
Artists reflect the realities inherent in their culture and society, they must change constantly as their conditions change to remain relevant and meet the demands of their people, a point that makes it possible for not just black rappers to venture into the hip hop industry.
Moral right presupposes that your work is original and that the artist is the legal and rightful owner of the work. It gives the author of any work the right to make claims and demand for financial reimbursement in case of copyright infringement. The author in question can object to any changes that would invariably dent his image. Moral right aims at maintaining the integrity of original works. I see a link between moral right and cultural heritage an aspect of hip hop culture that is being upheld till date. Therefore, the question of the moral right to white artists should not be seen as a big deal because they still preserve and maintain the cultural heritage and integrity of the hip hop culture.
White artists’ involvement in hip hop has a more lasting effect than it is envisaged as these artists tend to identify with the struggle and “selling” it to the white community in particular and the world in general. Artists like Eminem for instance, “emphasizes the autobiographical basis of his lyrics and his struggle to succeed as a rap artist; he presents a new model of white hip-hop authenticity in which being true to yourself and to your lived experiences can eclipse notions of hip-hop as explicitly black owned” (Hess, 2005). He integrates his whiteness into hip hop and coming from a poor background, he sees his whiteness as a privilege that makes him marketable.
Hip hop music like any other form of music is universal, no matter which language it is sung or whoever sings it, it makes an impact. Emotions, feelings are expressed in music, it captivates the audience and speaks to different people stirring the very emotional depths and awakening corporate feelings. Hip hop is the Black American Music by birth and the phenomenon of originality is linked to its root and culture. The concept of an artist being true is of ancient African tradition of honesty and of African practices like testifying and bearing witnesses. The forms of the music, the socio-political styles and setting make it even more African. The influx of white rappers into hip hop does not make it less an African than it was even if it is a mainstream artist and some of the white artists were recorded by black artists. However, some of them deviated from the main aim and turned it into money making venture, even topping the charts and earning more than the African Americans that invented it (Hess, 2005).
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Despite the transformations and modifications of hip-hop, it still remains an art form, exerting its influence on the society; giving its tale of struggles and fights for survival and quest for freedom, as well as mainstream acceptance. Its founders have laid a very good foundation and have empowered many people with their wonderful acts and lyrics and the inherent message it carries. Those efforts by the pioneers, remains a source of inspiration to upcoming artists and whether black or white, the most important thing is that the message of the hip hop culture should be projected to the world. The struggles and arguments on who should perform hip hop should not undermine the fact that it is an art form and should be recognized and treated that way.
Although there are instances of proliferation and abuse that has crept into this act and has met many problems in this regard. Some rappers put things of explicit nature in their art depicting violence, and dehumanizing acts like presenting women as sex objects. These acts has brought with it bad reputation to the industry, attracting lots of criticisms especially from the media. The soul of the hip hop is still alive and should be preserved.
Efforts should rather be made enlighten upcoming artists on the origin and history of the hip hop culture and encourage them to preserve same.
Hip hop is seen by many as a way of life, combining character and rhythm. This unique nature of the art expresses the culture and creativity in expressing the yearnings of the people, thus rap artists must reflect all these in their arts which would lead to a psychological reorientation and a wider acceptance of the hip hop culture. White Artists involvement in hip hop is a way of pushing forward the hip hop culture and the original African-American identity which is more important that whoever that is performing it. This is even more effective when the artist arouses social consciousness and politicking on the people. The artist, thus asserts himself as a leader (in this case, of the hip hop movement), and bearing in mind the importance of leadership in movements like this which inspires action in a seemingly dormant people, it is just fitting to support such leadership.
From the foregoing, we can conclude that the moral right or act of performing hip hop should not a prerogative of a particular people, albeit it may have originated from a group of people or from a culture, it is still an art form that has gone beyond the original “owners” to mainstream art. Hip hop have garnered a lot of influence around the world with a substantial number of white fans. The impact of hip hop should be seen as one of varied cultural expressions and has multiple consciousnesses with regards to race and gender.
Conclusively, hip hop today, though created by blacks, transcends beyond cultures and suburbs. It is touted as one of the most influential in American history and has the potentials of mending ethnic quibbles. I think that whites doing hip hops is a positive sign as it shows some kind of sympathy with the original owners and portrays peace and acceptance by the whites. Hip hop has its principal elements as DJing, MCing also known as rap, breakdancing, arts or graffiti and beat boxing and has influence in other spheres of life as in fashion, funk styles, etc. They are there to portray the stronger significance of the hip hop culture which continues to arouse the spirit of social consciousness on the people. It is a tale of sorrows and joy, of pleasure and pain of victory and defeat, of anger and happiness, of confusion and clarity, and of life and death. This tale of in-betweens connects the past to the present and the present to the future.
Enormous impact on ethnic relations in our society can be made by hip hops message of love, peace and anti-racism.
- Light, Alan (1999). Vibe History of Hip Hop. Book & CD ed. New York: Three Rivers Press
- Hess, Mickey (2005). Hip-hop Realness and the White Performer. Critical studies in Media Communication.
- Motley, Carol & Henderson, Geraldine (2008). The global hip-hop Diaspora: Understanding the culture.
- Jonathan, Williams (2007). Tha Realness: In Search of Hip-Hop Authenticity. College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal of the University of Pennsylvania.
- CNN (2001). Hip-hop music goes global. CNN online publications
- Ogg, Alex., David Upshal., and Alexander Ogg. (1999). The Hip Hop Years: The History of Hip Hop. Book & CD ed. Trans Atlantic Publications, Inc.
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