Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop and I have a strange history. Four years ago, I bought it as a birthday present for a friend. He read it, thought it was blah and then shelved it. Three years later, he cleaned out his library and offered me some books he didn’t want to keep. WWKLHH was in the pile. After reading it, I can see why he wasn’t reluctant to part with it.
Seeking to explain why white kids love hip-hop beyond typical inane explanations such as, “They want to take hip-hop the same way they take everything else!” author Bakari Kitwana takes us on an odd adventure through hip-hop history. Using interviews and analyses of films, television shows, magazines, and songs, he attempts to make the case that “Generation X” and the “millennium generation” have ushered in a “new racial politics” (Kitwana xiv). This new racial politics is “marked by nuance, complexity, the effects of commerce and commercialism and a sort of fluidity between cultures” (xv). Kitwana argues that it differs from the “old racial politics,” which is characterized by “adherences to stark differences – cultural, personal and political – between Black and White” (xiv).
This idea of new racial politics fascinates me because it makes no sense, especially in regard to hip-hop. Right off the bat, I can think of dozens of examples of “the old racial politics” surfacing in hip-hop:
Kanye West : “You know white people! Get money don’t spend it./ Or maybe they get money, buy a business.” – “Clique,” 2012.
Plies: “I don’t wear skinny jeans like the white boys! But I do get wasted like the white
boys!” – “Wasted,” 2009.
Azealia Banks: “Oh la la la, flirted with a cool French dude named Antoine/ Wanna taste the pastry, chocolate croissant/ Ce soir with ya bitch, cafe au lait.” – “1991,” 2012.
This entire song!:
I could list examples forever, but I think you get the point: there is nothing particularly novel about the way hip-hop uses race to explain stark differences in peoples’ behaviors and experiences. As a genre, hip-hop perhaps encourages the use of race to explain the world. After all, it is one of the few thriving genres overtly concerned with the lives of black people. Nevertheless, hip-hop is preceded by and accompanied by soul and funk and disco and jazz and even gospel, genres that have/had very similar concerns as far as the conditions and circumstances of blacks in America. If anything, rather than supplanting these preceding genres’ concerns, hip-hop reinvigorates those concerns (and maybe even those genres through sampling!). In other words, with hip-hop the significance of the “old racial politics” is heightened because not much has changed, meaning we probably need those politics now more than ever.*
Even more distressing than Kitwana’s patently wrong distinction between old and new racial politics is the one particular “fact” that he cites as the source of the new racial politics: “[Generation X and the millennium generation] are the first Americans to live their entire lives free of de facto segregation” (Kitwana xii). Where is he getting this data? In 3.5 years of attendance, my high school, North Clayton High School, had 3 white people, and one of them was a Black Republican. My graduating class had 0 white people. After our first semesters away at college, one friend from high school joked that he hadn’t seen that many white people in person since he went to a symphony. Beyond my personal anecdotes, de facto segregation is typical. Look at this demographic map of New York City by Eric Fischer. Each dot represents 25 people of a particular race:
Even in one of America’s most diverse cities, segregation persists, almost aggressively. Look at how concentrated those colors are! If New York City were integrated, the colors would be sparse, dull.
Beyond New York City, the pattern is the same across the nation (http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/sets/72157626354149574/detail/) and has been since 2000 and earlier. This is clearly de facto segregration, but Kitwana is so committed to making a distinction between the past and the present that he overlooks their stark similarity.
Because this distinction between old and racial politics underpins the entire of argument of the book, most of the book is ultimately useless. The only chapter I found of worth was “Erasing Blackness,” a chapter in which Kitwana challenges the narrative that white kids are hip-hop’s primary consumer base. His argument is very compelling. Citing the absence of reliable statistics on who purchases albums and the absence of any statistics of who acquires mixtapes, he argues that there’s no conclusive evidence on whether white kids are actually hip-hop’s core audience. I buy that argument and commend Kitwana for doing the work. If better stats are ever available, maybe we actually can draw some conclusions.
In the meantime, I still don’t know why white kids love hip-hop. If you yourself want to know, reading this book is definitely not a recommended first step. That being said, if you want, I’ll send it to you. I could use the shelf space.
When I uphold “old racial politics,” I’m not using Kitwana’s caricatured definition of them. Progressive racial politics of any era are complex and nuanced and fluid.
Kitwana, Bakari. Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005. Print.