Article originally published for NAIDOC Week 2013
Earlier in the month, Australian comedian Aamer Rahman of ‘Fear of a Brown Planet’ fame posted on his blog a ‘WHITE RAPPER FAQ’ wherein he explores the impacts of white America’s involvement in hip-hop music. A few days later Urthboy, artist and label manager for renowned Australian hip-hop label Elefant Traks, posted his own response to the issue. He applied Rahman’s ideas onto a more localised Australian landscape and gave an honest self-analysis of his own position regarding hip-hop and privilege. As part of this year’s NAIDOC week celebrations, Indigenous hip-hop artist Jimblah recently took the stage on triple j’s ‘Like a Version’, giving two brilliant performances including a live rendition of his song, 'March'. Earlier on in the week, he also took part in the online cypher ‘Rappertag’, taking the time to subvert the entire framework of the concept by flowing acapella in order to send a message reflecting our colonial roots and its pervading effect on today’s society. Simply put, the local hip-hop community is abuzz with activity at the moment with accusations of a racist scene surfacing once again. To make sense of this all, and in the spirit of NAIDOC week, I ask the questions, how did this become an issue, why are its implications so terrible and what can we do to alleviate some of these problems?
Before we can discuss these implications however, we need to make some things clear. Please understand – no matter what your opinion of the genre is – that hip-hop developed as a social movement in response to countless years of institutionalised racism experienced by African-Americans and other marginalised groups. That apparent act of ‘stealing’ (we call it sampling) or ‘ripping off musicians who are actually talented/play their own instruments’? The result of black Americans not having any resources – or the right – to instruments or fancy things like ‘music lessons’. Those apparently ‘harsh’ and ‘aggressive’ lyrics? The attempts of a disillusioned people to carve out their identity within a society that shuns them. Of course, I’m oversimplifying things and there are indeed issues to be found within the genre itself (gender politics being the most obvious) but in order for us to have an honest discussion about hip-hop in Australia, dear reader, we must at least have some semblance of a shared definition of what hip-hop is on a larger scale. Please bear with me.
Many years ago, before he blew up to become the worldwide phenomenon he is today, Macklemore recorded a song titled ‘White Privilege’ in which he problematises his position as a white rapper. Acknowledging his white privilege and the concerns of cultural appropriation, he raps, “Most whites don’t want to acknowledge this is occurring / cause we got the best deal, the music without the burden”. Urthboy expresses similar worries in his blog when he writes, “I do know we take the lifestyle and conveniently bypass the life.” So, does that mean I’m saying that all hip-hop made by white people should be instantly discounted for lack of legitimacy? Should it even matter what the fuck I’m saying in this particular section? No singular person should be allowed to speak on behalf of an entire group of people and I’m in no way trying to step up to that plate or to ‘defend those helpless minorities’. That’s not my job to pass judgment. Besides, as Rahman points out, “You’re white. You can do pretty much whatever you want. It’s a sweet deal.”
In all seriousness, though, what I can do is provide an audience perspective – the view of someone on the other end of the business model, someone who actively consumes hip-hop on a daily and practical basis. I will readily admit that I listen to loads of white rappers, just as I listen to loads of black rappers and Filipino rappers and Japanese rappers and Jewish rappers and so on and so forth. Kno is one of my favourite people in all of hip-hop, and he’s white as they come. What matters to me is that he is able to speak from and about his views of oppression, either personal or experienced second hand (“But if they have the time to hate a whole race / how do y’all have the mind to tell me ‘bout my faith?”). His whiteness doesn’t bother me because, just like Macklemore and a myriad of other talented individuals (see: Brother Ali), their privilege is acknowledged and their art is a craft of respect and collaboration with others deeply embedded in the hip-hop community. Hip-hop as a genre is meant to be one of the most democratic forms of music in terms of participation and as long as it’s giving voice to those who would otherwise struggle to be heard, it’s fine by me.
But what happens when we step on to our shores and examine our own local scene? Urthboy was direct in simply saying that the huge majority of successful Australian hip-hop artists are white and male. It’s evident in radio plays and live shows. It’s evident in YouTube hits and OzHipHop forums. It sure as hell is evident when you notice that the crowd for any given Australian hip-hop gig is scarce with minorities. So now we have hip-hop, a genre that originally gave voice to an oppressed people, being disseminated in Australia by and for the group that happens to be the majority. Woops.
Sure, just as Urthboy states, there is no clear or overt racism in the content of the bulks of songs themselves. Nor have I personally experienced any hostility targeted towards me as a minority or any other person based on race in any Australian hip-hop gigs (though the internet community paints a completely different picture). What the real issue is however, is that the demographics of the local hip-hop scene reflects a more systematic and ingrained form of racism – discrimination through disclusion. We simply do not open up a discussion with these marginalised groups and as a result they are less likely to be part of our collective psyche. Music operates in a space that subconsciously and unknowingly informs our view of the world and if we are not listening to music from entire groups of people then we are missing out on another way to know about their experience. We miss out on a chance to share empathy. When I listen to a white rapper in American hip-hop, I am listening to one perspective in a scene that’s rich with varying views from all over the spectrum. When I listen to a white rapper in Australian hip-hop, I am listening to a singular, monopolised and decidedly white constructed narrative of what hip-hop means to the country. Something like Indigenous hip-hop is considered a novelty. Consider the language we use to describe it; why is it ‘Indigenous hip-hop’ instead of just ‘Australian hip-hop’? Why must we attach to the music a tag that signifies a deviance from what is normally expected?
We can’t put all the blame on ‘the powers that be’ of the music industry, though. There is a mutualistic relationship between the industry and the audience; this is our fault too. Before this month I had barely given a second thought to the underrepresentation of Aboriginal people and other minorities in Australian hip-hop. I call the scene a ‘white constructed narrative’ but I fucking bump that shit on the daily. I love the music; I seek it out and support the artists by going to shows. We can blame music labels, radio stations and local venues for not promoting Indigenous or other minority acts, but we must also consider the fact that we as an audience have not given them a reason to. Let’s now give them that reason. Let’s start seeking out Australian hip-hop that actually comes from a marginalised place. Let’s bump their records and go to their shows. Let’s demand this, for where there’s demand, supply will follow.
I commend Urthboy for his stance on this issue. He has acknowledged his pivotal position in the Australian hip-hop community, both as a respected artist and as a label manager and has stepped up to speak out about the inequality. Not only that but he has signalled a call to arms for people all over to take part in the conversation through action. Moreover, he understands that it is “not about charity or well intentioned white people, it’s about recognising how good we’ve got it and paying respect to this great culture created by black excellence,” and we need to understand that too. We must not fetishise charity and a sense of ‘the Other’, nor are you a white knight assisting those helplessly in need. Cultural historian Dominick LaCapra says that “empathy must be tempered by recognition that emotional response does not authorize one to speak in the other’s voice,” and this is something we all need to remember. What I have tried to do in this article and what Urthboy has done as well, is to suggest ways in which we can open up the gates for those marginalised groups to speak for themselves – to create their own stories and narratives.
In his song ‘March’, Jimblah raps, “My heart flows with mad love that is deeper than the ocean ever was / it is bigger than any mountain that any man has stood upon / For a place that we can all call home.” No matter the pigmentation your skin happens to be, I believe that hip-hop can one day be that home.
Click here to check out some hip-hop songs by Indigenous people and other minority groups. I willingly share the blame for the limited scope of artists included due to lack of knowledge and exposure.