A new movement of non-black rap artists is inspiring heated debate on the meaning of "blackness" and the role of the popular culture in transcending racial barriers.
Chuck D of the black nationalist rap group Public Enemy has called rap "black America's TV station," and many performers on that station consider the music their cultural property. They are singing "It's a Family Affair" and defining that family on the dark side of the color line.
Yet as one of its former members, Professor Griff, admits, Public Enemy drew a largely non-black audience. Now these and other performers who pioneered the form are hearing a growing number of Anglo and Latino rappers chatting back at them in "their" language. Many identify explicitly with "Afrocentric" themes. For instance, the white group 3rd Bass' new song "No Master Plan, No Master Race" professes: "Original man's a black man/said by a Caucasian."
Recently an all-white rap group called the Young Black Teen-agers put out a controversial song -- "Proud to Be Black" -- in which they stake their claim on this contested turf:
So to whom it may concern here's a fact
That the minute you hear a rap you think black . . .
The truth is sharp and proven that
It ain't where you're from it's where you're at . . .
New styles, new rules, new facts
That's why we're proud to be black.
Although the song admits "we were born of the Caucasian persuasion," some blacks have accused the group of being "culture vultures." The group defends itself by pointing out that they grew up in black neighborhoods. "Blackness is a state of mind," they argue. Soul Records co-owner Bill Stephney, who supports the group, predicts "They will make African people in this country question what the term black really means."
Joe Wood, Village Voice music critic, agrees. The Young Black Teen-agers, who walk and talk "blacker" than he does, pose a timely question to African Americans, he says: "Can right-thinking whites be a part of our 'we'?" He concludes that YBT are part of "Phase II" of America's racial reconstruction, which consists of "redefining the fictions of blackness and whiteness."
Latin American rappers like Mellow Man Ace and Kid Frost have also staked their own claims on the rap crossroads. "Rap is not a black art form, rap is an urban art form," says Kid Frost, of the "Hispanic Causing Panic." These emerging Latino rappers define American "his-story" in their own way. The group Aztlan Nation puts a twist on the "illegal alien" issue: "I didn't cross the border, the border crossed me."
Many blacks, such as Cecil Brown, a University of California professor, argue that the use of rap by non-blacks is not "legitimate." Yet this "nationalist" stance, as others point out, ignores the fact that rap (like virtually all American art forms) is a hybrid creation. As a post-modern "collage" art form, rap draws from the entire spectrum of American culture.
Early rap records were built on drum "breaks" taken from rock records as well as James Brown; from recycled TV themes as well as Malcolm X quotes. This has resulted in a hall of mirrors with surprising reflections: blues-based rock guitar riffs have a shotgun marriage with "black beats" programmed on drum machines manufactured by the Japanese. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince sample TV's "I Dream of Jeannie" theme for their song "Girls Ain't Nuttin But Trouble." De La Soul samples the Turtles and Liberace, and claims David Bowie as a career model.
The entertainment industry has recognized rap's enormous commercial potential, as can be seen from TV shows like "Fresh Prince," or MC Hammer commercials. On a cultural level, some black educators credit groups like Public Enemy with helping create a demand for the inclusion of "Afrocentric" perspectives in schools. On a more personal level, I know one 22-year-old white drummer who works in a hamburger shop, yet became a vegetarian after hearing the KRS-One song "Beef."
Rap music is "double-voiced" or "two-toned," in the words of Duke Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- reflecting both African and European sources. So calling rap "black" is a partial truth, at best. Rap has not only crossed the color line; it has emerged as the only form of multi-racial popular "oppositional" thought in America.
Gregory Stephens, a former rock musician, is a doctoral student at the University of California-Davis specializing in interracial communication and culture. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.