So have you ever thought, “What ever happened to Vanilla Ice?” Or, “What about the Beastie Boys, are they still even alive?” House of Pain, 3rd Bass, Kid Capri, where did the “vanilla” flava of hip hop go? Moreover, was there ever really a “vanilla” flavor of hip hop? Maybe these are questions you have asked yourself or your friends. Or maybe you’re reading this whole paragraph and still wondering who these people even are.
We have seen through the media that hip hop culture has evolved significantly over the last 15 years. What was once thought of as only a “Black” culture, hip hop has become a multi-ethnic, multi-dimensional culture that embodies a host of languages, colors, music, and life. Hip hop culture is more that just the music itself; it’s a way of life for many. But what about you? What if you’re reading this article and wondering what to do with all the white students in your group who want to be like Ludacris? Or, what if you are serving some white students growing up in suburbia, but in many ways act like they have lived in the “hood?”
Well, believe it or not, you’re not alone. In fact, today’s white youth are more attracted to rap music and hip hop culture than they were even 10 years ago, suggests Bakari Kitwana, former editor of The Source Magazine and author of Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. If you’re wondering why Hootie and the Blowfish, Haley Duff, and Britney Spears are not as “popular” with your students as Snoop Dogg, The Ying Yang Twins, and Jay-Z, then hopefully we can begin to uncover some of the mystery for you. More importantly, we can begin to better understand how to see all of this through the missional eyes of Christ.
To begin, as any good practioner should do, we must delve into a little bit of history. The historical perspective described by Kitwana in his book, Why White Kids Love Hip Hop [[Bakari Kitwana, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America, (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005).]] , helps uncover some reasons that hip hop culture is so attractive to suburban youth.
Knowing the Roots, Man!
Hip hop developed in the early 1970´s in the South Bronx. [[Andy Bennett, Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity, and Place, (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 134.]] Its initial practitioners were DJs (often playing disco, funk, or reggae records) such as Kool DJ Herc and Pete Jones who began to draw huge crowds at clubs and block parties. As DJs started to develop the beats and breaks of hip hop, some of the focus was transferred from the turntables to other things such as MCing and B-Boying. The MC was originally a “master of ceremonies” who would assist the DJ by addressing the crowd and leading them in call and response routines and vocal chants. The emcee began to develop a rhyme, and vocal routines of his own. Emceeing became MCing: the “Master of Ceremonies” became the “Mic Controller.”
The live atmosphere and the ability of the DJs to continuously keep the beat flowing between records also created B-Boys. B-Boys were fanatical followers of the music who battled on the floor with dance moves. This became known as “break dancing.” Hip hop also created its own visual art: graffiti. Graffiti has existed in some form for centuries, but the colors, design, and attitude of hip hop graffiti have given hip hop an accompanying aesthetic presence that has survived the years virtually intact.
Despite an impressive urban following and an expanding live circuit, many of these musical acts never released a commercial record. Even still, white urban youth were attracted to the “rebel” feel of the music and the outspoken lyrics. According to William Perkins, “Until 1979 rap was a key component of a flourishing underground culture in the Bronx and upper Manhattan, where parties went on all night in seedy nightclubs or the music was played in schoolyards and small public parks” [[William Eric Perkins, ed., Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, Critical Perspectives on the Past, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 9.]] . Of the groups that did release albums, most never enjoyed significant commercial success on the airwaves, as rapping was seen as a musical novelty.
The Attraction to White Kids
According to Kitwana, in the midst of these historical developments, several themes emerged in mainstream popular culture that made rap music [[In a nutshell, the difference between rap & hip hop is simple: rap is the music and hip hop is the culture…just thought you should know.]] appealing to white suburban youth: [[Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 23-49.]]
- The Global Economy & Alienation: The 1980’s brought much economic displacement and uncertainty. “The generation of white kids in the same age-group, dubbed Generation X, was confronted by socioeconomic issues that alienated them from the mainstream as well.” [[Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 24]] White Gen X youth were being displaced and needed a form of identity. Rap music now had an open door and, more importantly, an open mind/heart with white Gen X youth.
- A Changing Pop Music Scene: It was during this time of rising alienation and displacement that the first young whites were drawn to hip hop. Rap groups such as X-Clan, KRS-One, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Public Enemy were inspiring many young whites politically and allowing them freedom of expression through music. Rap music was also giving them deeper insights into social and economic issues through such artists as Tupac and B.I.G. Kitwana states, “As young Americans, Black and white, accepted hip hop as their own, hip hop CD sales set one record after another. By 1998 when rapper Lauryn Hill won five Grammy Awards for her album…hip hop had already begun to gain regular coverage in mainstream newspapers like the New York Times…” [[Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 31.]]
- The Institutionalizing of Civil Rights Culture: Throughout the 1990’s, it became cool for young white youth to wear African regalia and “apartheid” symbols. By 1996, according to Kitwana, civil rights rhetoric was being adopted by politicians on both the Left and the Right. Black culture was becoming popular, and being “down” with Blacks was almost a rite of passage for many young white youth.
- The Impact of Black Popular Culture: Television shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, Martin, A Different World, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son gave young privileged whites an opportunity to peer into the lives of Blacks. For many, this was an opportunity to see first-hand how Black families lived and operated. Music videos further affected young whites. MTV went from carrying 2-4 rap videos a day to almost 10-20 (during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s). Cultural icons such as Oprah and Maya Angelou were making headlines in white culture as well. According to Kitwana, “The exposure to Black culture that Generation X’ers enjoyed as a result of mass communication should never be underestimated.” [[Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 44.]]
All of these factors combine to bring us where we are today…lots of white kids love hip hop. Hip hop has changed the way white Americans engage with race, and the authenticity of hip hop music made it appealing to live a different way. Kitwana suggests that hip hop gives many white youth an opportunity to experience a unique sense of freedom. [[Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 26-27.]]
1993 marked the first year that hip hop albums were to be sold primarily to a suburban audience. With the release of Dr. Dre’s Chronic album, millions of white youth now began to see into the world of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and the G-Funk era. [[Gangsta Funk Era.]] American popular culture, which was once governed by the Beach Boys and apple pie, now had to contend with popular rappers, “Crips and Bloods,” “pimps,” “ho’s,” and “baby daddies.”
Kitwana suggests six additional themes/ major phenomena that emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s which aided in Black culture’s integration into American popular culture: [[Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 9-24. Cornell West calls this “Niggarization.” We think this is an important term to understand, so we will be addressing issues that swirl around this term in future issues.]]
- Popular culture and the visibility of Black youth within it.
- The rise of globalization and trans-national corporations (particularly those which took advantage of Blacks).
- Persistent segregation in an America that preaches democracy and inclusion, yet contradicts itself by doing just the opposite.
- Public policy regarding criminal justice, particularly policy containing clear racial implications.
- The media’s negative representation of young Blacks.
- The deadly disease AIDS, which was once thought to strike only gay white men, now took its toll on Blacks and the inner city.
These six areas had a significant effect on dominant popular culture, Black popular culture, and white youth in general. Cornel West, noted scholar in the field of urban postmodernism, writes about this phenomena:
“The Afro-Americanization of white youth—given the disproportionate Black role in popular music and athletics—has put white kids in closer contact with their own bodies and facilitated more human interaction with Black people. Listening to Motown records in the sixties or dancing to hip hop music in the nineties may not lead one to question the sexual myths of Black women and men, but when white and Black kids buy the same billboard hits and laud the same athletic heroes the result is often a shared cultural space where some human interaction takes place.” [[Cornel West, Race Matters, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 121.]]
Thinking this through as Followers of Christ
Well-known author Scott Peck [[M. Scott Peck, The different drum: community-making and peace, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).]] discusses four phases many Christians experience as they progress in their faith:
- Chaos: The stage before we meet Christ.
- Tradition: The churched area of the Christian life where things make sense at first and we have nice answers.
- Doubt: When something happens that we cannot make sense of; some kind of “Job” moment in our lives that does not fit our traditional experience.
- Mystery: If the church culture allows us and if we are brave enough, we enter into a stage where all the answers do not fit nicely into the events of life; it is a mysterious stage where God does not always answer us the way our “tradition” has taught us.
Hip hop culture has a unique connection to each of these four stages:
Hip hop culture speaks to that chaotic lifestyle that so many young people are living out today…even the “nice” suburban white kid. Hip hop gives a voice to that chaos and says, “It’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling, it’s okay to deal with it, and we have your back, because we’ve been there too.”
There is a long history of tradition within hip hop culture. DJ parties, battle raps, and break dancing dance-offs are only a few of the traditional elements of hip hop culture. Hip hop gives a voice to the person who wants that liturgical element in their life. As a church, we cannot ignore this. Youth want some type of liturgy. What if we began having spiritual battle raps and dance-offs as a part of a service for students? Hmm, imagine the possibilities.
Youth have to deal with an abundant amount of doubt, especially in the early pre-teen years. Hip hop culture allows the young person to be real and open – in other words, to live in their pain and come as they are—in all their doubt and mess. Unfortunately, many churches who encounter kids who are doubting tend to try to turn them back to a more “stable” thought process. What if we, as a church body, actually allowed kids to deal with their doubt and helped them to arrive at an answer, even if that answer was not what we were expecting?
Hip hop culture neither answers nor presumes to know every answer to life’s problems. Because of this, hip hop culture allows the young person to live in a sense of mystery. Sometimes churches have a hard time fully admitting the mystery of faith and life in general. Hip hop often wrestles with issues that most churches will not discuss—and lets the person live in that struggle/ mystery rather than solving the problem and providing simple answers.
As we move forward and embrace that young Eminem wannabe in our youth ministry, we must begin by asking the question: Why? Why is he/she that way, and more importantly, how can I help that adolescent move forward in their walk with Christ? While not every element of hip hop culture is positive—the objectifying of women, nihilism, etc.—we, as agents of Christ and culture, must begin to unpack those areas where Christ may be speaking.
- Spend half a day and rent the films Malibu’s Most Wanted and 8-Mile. Compare and contrast the two films. What are the similarities? Where are the differences? Did you know that one was written before the other? Guess which one! What does it mean for white students when a white rapper beats out the Black rapper? How is Brad Gluckman similar to some of your own students? What are some of Eminem’s struggles that are similar to impoverished whites? Did you notice that in the film 8-Mile, the battle raps take place in the basement of a church? Moreover, what is the name of the event in the film? Where is God in all of this?
- What have been your reactions to hip hop music and culture in your youth ministry? Does Kitwana’s evaluation bring any new thoughts or ideas for engaging students (white or non-white) who are into hip hop?
- Given some of the ideas presented in this article from Bakari Kitwana, how do you respond to his assessment of why white kids love hip hop?
- How could you harness the potential of hip hop to help students engage with chaos, tradition, doubt, and mystery in meaningful ways?
- What are a few practical steps you can take this week to better understand hip hop culture?
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