On the Popcast, it's clear that Caramanica views The Source's coverage of the riots as revolutionary and necessary writing for the past and present. He commends Dennis for "really painting a picture… from a perspective that was radically different from how the mainstream was covering Los Angeles in that moment." And yet, he fails to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Rap coverage as we know it was built off the seminal work of journalists like Dennis and Bernard. To credit their reporting as being groundbreaking for its immersive style of journalism is only one part of the truth; the other key factor was the reporters’ Blackness.
The call to "amplify Black voices" only further magnified how many had been silenced, and still are.
The narrative around Black music is often about how it's been co-opted, transformed, and repurposed back to us, as it was in the commercialization of rock 'n' roll, country, and house music. But far less space is dedicated to the role the music media itself has played in this process and the weight of the stories that are lost when that media is majority white.Black music coverage dictated by white supervisors isn't a phenomenon unique to our current reality. According to Dennis, even The Source's coverage of the LA Riots almost didn't happen when he pitched it to John Shecter, the magazine's co-founder and editor-in-chief. Shecter, who is white, "thought the mainstream media would do a competent job in covering it and there really wouldn't be anything for us to add," Dennis said on the Popcast episode.
But it didn’t last. Two years after its revolutionary LA Uprising coverage, The Source staffers found themselves in an editorial dispute with the company's white founders after one of them, David Mays, started managing a group rapper Benzino was in. After Mays snuck in an article about the group, despite the conflict of interest and without consulting the rest of the staff, Bernard, a senior editor, quit. "[Mays'] fatal flaw was that he had a ghetto phase," Bernard told Pitchfork. "And he needed the approval of those he saw as real and authentic. The Source, at some point, was positioned to be VICE—we were there first." Mays' working relationship with Benzino provided him with a new level of access into Black culture—and it cost him the magazine.
Since the founding of Frederick Douglass' The North Star to John H. Johnson's Jet to the current influx of Black writers putting out newsletters on their own, Black people have had to create their own forums when they've been shut out of the prestige of mainstream newsrooms.
As a college student, I'd read album reviews and longform interviews, then Google everything I could about the author. As an aspiring culture critic, I was indulging more than just curiosity. Sifting through bylines was my way of discovering their path to writing professionally, as a way of figuring out how to forge my own. The more I read, the more I dug, and the more I felt like I lacked two major qualifications for success in the digital age of rap criticism: being white and male.Media in its current state will allow you to believe that there are a finite amount of positions reserved only for "the best candidates for the job." That's a myth. In reality, nepotism is still the rule of the day—reducing "diversity" to the status of company programs or one-off initiatives, rather than a principle that is actually practiced. It keeps very few Black people in the room to begin with and ensures that even fewer of them have the power to change its structures. It relegates Black writers to the freelancer pool, just to be overlooked in the end anyway. It judges Black writers based on their qualifications when white writers with the same credentials (or fewer) are given the opportunity to grow on the job.Even today, there are white critics who admit that rap was their entry point to Black culture, even if they'd never hadn't met any Black people until they left their hometowns. There are white critics who seem determined to obscure their identity as such, setting random cartoon characters or worse, using images of Black artists as their default photo on Twitter like a form of digital Blackface. These are the people the industry deems as custodians of culture. And just like the minstrel artists of the 19th century, who traveled the country singing songs impersonating Black performers, they benefit from a system of privilege that makes it harder for actual Black people to find work—while watering down Black narratives in order to make them more palatable for white audiences.
By not having the infrastructure to support a fully-functioning Black press, we stand to lose the ability to give voice to those who weren't deemed worthy. It eradicates the unfiltered accounts of anyone who doesn't fit the mold of what's American. Historically, Black music is a response to systemic racism. How can those who are not oppressed accurately relay the message while simultaneously pretending those issues don't exist?The path forward is unclear, but the key to its much-needed overhaul, like larger societal issues, starts by dismantling it all—proverbially burning all this shit to the ground and starting fresh. It starts with understanding the value of Black stories told by Black voices and the innate perspective that comes with that. There's no magical quota of hip-hop album reviews that grants you the experience of being Black in this country, which is why when Caramanica needed to understand how to talk about the death of George Floyd, he sought help from two Black men.The Source wasn't just a magazine, and pioneers like Dennis and Bernard, and the slew of other journalists found on other mastheads, weren't just other journalists. Their Blackness was their press pass. And just like Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and DeFord Bailey—they were there first.
The path forward is unclear, but the key to its much-needed overhaul, like larger societal issues, starts by dismantling it all—proverbially burning all this shit to the ground and starting fresh.