Illustration by Jane Kim
In a tradition that began in the days of The Rolling Stones and Elvis, white people have always “drawn inspiration” from other cultures before figuring out how to monetize and claim that inspiration as an original idea. 2014 was a watershed year for white entertainers appropriating black culture, with Macklemore taking home the Best Rap Album Grammy over Kendrick Lamar, Robin Thicke earning all of the money thanks to a Marvin Gaye cover with “Blurred Lines,” and Riff Raff being his ever ignorant-yet-beloved self. But 2015 was the year that the ivory Jenga tower toppled, as white people took a long-deserved loss both inside the music industry and outside it. It may not have been a sudden and steep fall from the top, but the groundwork laid in 2015 may act as the blueprint upon which "white" culture is judged going forward.
It all started at the top of the year, when it was announced that Robin Thicke and Pharrell would have to pay out $7.2 million dollars in damages for ripping off "Got to Give It Up" by Marvin Gaye. In a historic move of white privilege, Robin Thicke pointed every possible direction to absolve himself of guilt, saying that he was high on alcohol and Vicodin throughout the recording process, and that Pharrell "wrote almost every part of the song." Thicke was publicly demonized for this attempt to pass the guilt, and for the first time in his charmed, half-Canadian life, he was made to be the bad guy. Thicke’s wife Paula Patton left shortly after the verdict came down due to cheating rumours, because the world works in mysterious ways.
Iggy Azalea was another artist who had a too-good 2014, but unlike Thicke all she had to do was stay silent and let her radio plays carry her through 2015. At one point, even Forbes touted that “Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman” in a headline about the rapper, assuring her success had she just remained silent. But Iggy decided to not only loudly play the victim, but to ignore people smarter than her who tried to correct her. After a myriad of accusations came upon Iggy for appropriating black culture, benchmarked by a tearful interview with Azealia Banks on Hot 97. "I feel like in this country, whenever it comes to our things, like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever, there's always this undercurrent of kinda like a ‘fuck you. Y'all don't really own shit. Y'all don't have shit,’” Banks said. “That Macklemore album wasn't better than the Drake record. That Iggy Azalea shit isn't better than any fucking black girl that's rapping today." Instead of graciously accepting defeat, Iggy fired back on Twitter, playing the victim while bringing up other artists with histories of cultural appropriation to use as her defense tactic. "Why is it that you can have The Rolling Stones, but a white rapper is weird?" tweeted Azalea.
When Q-Tip tried to educate Iggy by tweeting her the history of hip-hop, she brushed him off saying “I’m also not going to sit on twitter & play hip hop squares with strangers to somehow prove i deserve to be a fan of or influenced by hiphop.” Her continued ignorance eventually cost her, as nobody bought tickets to her international tour, forcing her to cancel it. There’s no direct correlation between ticket sales and claims of racism, but a loss is a loss, and Iggy took a big one that she still hasn’t seemed to recover from.
You could point to artists like G-Eazy as examples of a newer Great White Hope that has emerged, and while these musicians are achieving the same instant commercial success as their predecessors, their longevity has come into question this year. Mac Miller’s attempt at making a grown-up and sober album was recognized as an important step by critics, despite the project continuing his slide down the charts since Blue Slide Park landed him the coveted #1 spot, with Go:od AM landing at #4 with 87,000 units sold. Riff Raff similarly released an album that encapsulated the weirdness that people came to love, but he also ran out of steam—likely because people got sick of what they thought was a joke, or because listeners cared more about what Riff Raff “meant” versus what Riff Raff did, or because he ran out of adjectives to describe his gear. Even Action Bronson, who took bold leaps in his artistry by working with an array of producers and toying with themes, seemed to suffer from people getting too familiar with his personality before he was able to present himself in a commercially-viable way.
It’s hard to point to any one thing that is hindering white rappers, except for maybe the fact that they always seem to be too far behind the curve to benefit from riding a wave. Hip-hop is no longer about lyrically dense bars the way it was when Asher Roth was the dorm room answer to Lupe Fiasco's run, and now the kids just want something they can dab to. White rappers aren’t making that type of music, and the few that do are either being exposed as fraudulent (Stitches vs. The Game) or being surpassed by a greater product (Stitches vs. OT Genasis).
The only bright spot was surprisingly Macklemore, who expressed his white guilt by putting all of the rappers Vince Staples never heard of on his radio single “Downtown.” He also wrongly attributed Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun to Langston Hughes, accidentally tripping over his liberal senses and burying the work of a black woman in the process. But for all of Macklemore’s preachy bullshit, he does seem to have listened to the criticisms he faced last year.
Charlamagne tha God did his part to hand out L’s to the white community as well, taking the time to ask every white artist who appeared on his show what they were doing for the Black Lives Matter movement. Post Malone—who somehow finessed his way right out of the accusations of racism that accompanied the video that surfaced of him dropping the n-bomb—famously replied with “not much,” but other artists visibly squirmed at the implication.
Lil Dicky—whose debut rap project topped both the Rap Album charts, as well as the Comedy Album charts—continued to embody every aspect of white rapping privilege that people can’t stand, right down to making a music video where he goes door-to-door asking strangers to use their house without fear of getting the cops called on him (or worse). During an interview with The Breakfast Club, Dicky said that he didn’t know what he should be doing for the Black Lives Matter movement, implying that not doing it for the wrong reason is an overall positive. The common response was that artists didn’t want to appear as if they were co-opting the movement for their own benefit, because everyone knows you only appropriate the parts of black culture that you stand to make money from.
Hip-hop is a culture that was invented and perfected by black and brown youth in America. It is arguably the greatest export to ever come out of the USA, and there’s a lot of money to be made in it. It’s not hard to understand why people would want to get cut of the pie, but those people need to remember who made the ingredients list in the first place.
Don't @ Slava Pastuk about G-Eazy. Follow him on Twitter.