FEAR OF A CULTURE BANDIT|
By Bakari Kitwana
Less than a year ago, the rapper Eminem was still widely vilified for his sometimes anti-family, anti-gay, anti-white, anti-authority and rebel without a cause lyrics. Almost overnight, he's been transformed from mere white rapper of the moment to cultural icon-with a box office busting film, 8 Mile (which grossed $54 million opening weekend), several magazine covers and yet another chart-topping cd to show for it. More than anything else, the Eminem-is-for-everyone-even-white-baby boomers craze, is a crash course in America's racial politics.
"It's kind of strange," Eminem told the New York Times Magazine about his expanding concert attending audience in it's recent cover story, entitled "Mr. Ambassador." "It used to range from 10 years old to 25. Now it seems to be from 5 years old to 55."
Long before mainstream America dubbed Eminem their ambassador into the world of hip-hop, he'd gained acceptance from hip-hop community itself, where skills takes precedence over skin color. His ghetto pass was his authenticity and his mastery of the artform. Even Black kids were never unanimously feeling his lyrical content. You'd be hard press, for example, to find a Black rapper-even amidst the billion of references to bitches, hoes and hoochies-who'd ever let a bad word slip from his lips about his momma. But content has always been secondary to flow.
White hip-hop kids too accepted him long before their baby boomer parents. Some along for run-of-the mill, anti-authority, teen rebelliousness ride. Some identified with his message of America's dysfunctional families. Others a bit deeper into the culture, like their Black, Latino, Asian and Native American counterparts, recognized in Eminem's lyrics a similar a lienation that Black rappers articulate and which really brought hip-hop to the center of youth popular culture.
For years some Black baby boomers have been telling us hip-hop generationers beware the culture bandit, the white kid who deftly crosses over the preconceived racial divide, in style form and sound. As long as we didn't own the labels and distribution outlets, hip-hop culture, they said-even as we stared at them incredulously-would one day be appropriated in the tradition of rock and roll, which began as anything but white and ended being identified with Elvis Presley.
Amidst the recent Eminem mainstream craze, some younger Blacks too fear that the pain and despair of young Black America (relative to issues like unemployment, education and inner city economic development) which is at the core of hip-hop's message, will be ignored-AGAIN-as the spotlight shines instead on a similar, but slightly different, middle American alienation.
"I'm sick of seeing him being interviewed and him being named the king of rap," says Lois Swaysland, a 30 year-old senior at Cleveland State University, who's currently leading a boycott of the film 8 Mile. "I think it's an insult to African Americans because after music was taken out of our schools we put effort into creating this music with our hands, mouths, etc. and then over 25 years later along comes this white guy to have his life made into a movie. It reminds me of Elvis all over again."
Just as in the evolution of jazz and blues where dominant concert audiences over the years became almost all-white, a similar trend can be observed at live concert performances of hot, but not so commercialized rappers like Common, Mos Def and Jurassic 5.
I asked Nicole Balin, 30, who is white, a former editor at the top-selling hip-hop magazine The Source and a publicist for hip-hop groups at the Los Angeles-based Ballin' Entertainment if she thought white hip-hop kids shared this fear of the culture bandit. She told me if they did, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would admit it.
"White hip-hop kids have tried so hard to fit into hip-hop culture that to admit that is to admit that we would never be able to culturally mix-it goes against our whole belief system."
Perhaps this is the dilemma of the culture bandit this time around: the naiveté of young blacks and young whites who dare believe through hip-hop we could move closer to realizing Martin Luther King Jr.'s American Dream, the society that our parents told us we were supposed to be building. The irony of it all is that a new generation of Americans, Eminem included, have against their best intentions become victims of America's old racial politics.
And Eminem's new converts are no different. In 1990 the radical rap group Public Enemy dropped their cd Fear of a Black Planet. By 1995 Bill Bennett, Tipper Gore and other high profile baby boomers on both the left and right touted the message that popular culture, especially rap music, was ruining the moral fabric of America (read: too many white kids were emulating black rappers). The quick about-face in regard to Eminem among white baby boomers is no turnabout at all. Unable to escape the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture, they'd rather have Em, then us.
Bakari Kitwana is the author of The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture.
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