Jonathan Iwry | A different kind of 'Heist'

The Quaking Point | Not every case of white success in the black community constitutes cultural appropriation

· February 5, 2014, 5:32 pm   ·  Updated February 5, 2014, 9:15 pm

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Jonathan Iwry
The Quaking Point

Last August, I was asked to join the Penn Reading Project’s NSO panel discussion for the incoming Class of 2017. The topic was hip-hop and its relationship to poetry and society. After freestyling for the freshmen, I received an awkward yet insightful question about the place of white rappers in a predominantly black genre. The panel host politely selected a different one.

Though I don’t blame him for skipping over the question, this year’s Grammys made me wish more than ever that I could have attempted an answer. You might have heard about Kendrick Lamar losing to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for Best Rap Album and how Macklemore apologized via text to Kendrick for “robbing” him of the award he rightfully deserved.

Kendrick took it like a champ. His fans did not. Cultural hardliners have been up in arms, arguing that Macklemore’s “robbery” of Kendrick is an example of white privilege in the music industry. The Huffington Post listed Macklemore’s success at the VMAs as a prominent case of recent cultural appropriation. Even Stephen Colbert offered his two cents, declaring (albeit with trademark sarcasm) that “white people have officially won rap.”

As if it makes things better, a few brave souls have conceded that, at the very least, Macklemore “knows his place” as an “outsider” in the rap community.

Attributing Macklemore’s success solely to white privilege is unfair. There have indeed been several cases of cultural appropriation this past year — his musical career is not one of them.

The black community has embraced rap for 40 years, both culturally and commercially. Its constituents sell their music to listeners of all shapes and sizes — they perform for and even collaborate with members of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, including whites. They have acknowledged that hip-hop, like any culture, cannot exist in a vacuum.

We should be promoting cultural exchange. That’s how the melting pot works. To be inspired and inspire in return is the basis of any meaningful social dialogue, so long as such exchange is respectful toward others.

There’s no question that minorities face unfair disadvantages in many aspects of society. White privilege definitely exists. But isn’t there a difference between cultural transmission and cultural appropriation?

I’m not talking about those who really do abuse the cultural markers of others. I’m talking about people who are open-minded enough to fall in love with cultures beyond their own. I’ve been rapping for 12 years because it genuinely resonates with me — I love the culture of hip-hop as an art form, not an accessory.

If anything, the attention being given to Macklemore’s race is distracting us from a more relevant issue: the rampant commercialism of mainstream rap. Macklemore was an extraordinary artist before achieving critical acclaim — his songs were often scathingly nonconformist. But in 2013, he sold the rights to “Wings” (a caustic dig on the materialism of basketball shoes) to the NBA, who then used it for one of their commercials after completely neutering it of its anti-consumerism.

If you’re going to criticize Macklemore, don’t do so because he’s white. Do so because he sold out.

Talib Kweli was right when he said that many of Macklemore’s fans don’t fully understand hip-hop. They’re unfamiliar with its history. As a result, they often buy into trends that neglect the original spirit of the culture, rewarding instead the artists and corporations that have estranged rap music from its tradition of verbal technique and social criticism.

If we want to prevent cultural appropriation, the barriers have to drop on both sides. The majority must be vigilant in ensuring that its curiosity does not devolve into minstrelsy. Likewise, cultural enthusiasts will need to bring foreigners into the fold by welcoming their interest, familiarizing them with the history and encouraging meaningful participation. They’ll have to be comfortable with the ways in which they inspire society at large.

It’s tempting to give the Grammys a superficial glance (as if the Grammys aren’t superficial already) and blame Macklemore’s success on white privilege. Only by taking a closer look, however, can we arrive at a sophisticated understanding — and realize that the issues facing modern rap music are not all black and white.

Jonathan Iwry is a College senior from Bethesda, Md., studying philosophy. His last name is pronounced “eev-ree.” Email him at jon.iwry@gmail.com.

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