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When Beyoncé’s Lemonade dropped a couple of weeks ago, white girls the world over fizzed their Elle Macpherson panties. Finally, their political ‘wokeness’ was legitimised by the Queen herself. Beyoncé has become the conduit between the politically charged African-American artists, whose work could be deemed by the mainstream as ‘polarising’ (such as Killer Mike), and the hip-hop loving, radical wannabes whose engagement with racial politics is troubled by their ability to speak about such things as non-people of colour (POC). This pisses me off.
I have my own opinions on Beyoncé’s ‘awakening’ but that isn’t the point of this piece. It’s not up to me, or anyone for that matter, to police a woman of colour’s personal awakening, whether genuine or fabricated. It’s just that having to witness every second middle-class white girl practically cum whenever the words “Beyoncé” or “Lemonade” are mentioned—usually followed by a diatribe of some regurgitated crap about political wokeness and black lives matter by people who know fuck all about it—is, in my opinion, annoying as hell, and shows the effects of the gentrification of hip-hop and RnB culture.
The gentrification of hip-hop—its commodification into mainstream white culture—is a difficult subject to approach. Can anyone own something as nebulous as culture; can something then be stolen if it was never owned in the first place? Is appropriation wrong if those doing it mean well, if they’re doing it out of a place of respect? And then when commenting on this topic, who can meaningfully speak about it? Whose say is more important? Can someone of the colonising culture have a say? These are all open ended questions, ones that I don’t think anyone really has the answer to, but they should all be considered when a meaningful discussion of cultural appropriation is had.
Cultural appropriation commentary has been the shining star of newsfeeds, timelines, blogs and magazines (radical and mainstream) over the past while, so much so that the term “appropriation police” is hurled at anyone who dares write about the issue. Though not a new concept, it’s part of a wider politically charged movement from mostly young POC around the world, with a strong focus in the US, that seeks to decolonise the ostensibly sturdy structures of colonialism that are the matrix of the world most of us here live in. So I guess, if we think of it like The Matrix, when we take the blue pill, and (okay fuck) become ‘woke’, we see that everything is really fucked up and the givenness of everything we have come to accept is all bullshit. This awakening is happening, and bad news for white people… it incriminates them and threatens the status quo that their privilege is so firmly rested on.
Hip-hop as a movement was born in the South Bronx (the South South Bronx), New York in the 70s as the streetwise child of African-American kids. Hip-hop is more than just music. It has five essential elements (later to be added to by KRS-One in his song “9 Elements”): emceeing (rapping), DJing, B-boying (breakdancing), graffiti, and fashion / street knowledge (interchangeable). The Temple of Hip Hop gives cultural currency to these elements, calling them “our intellectual property […] our capital.” It’s not just music and fashion that people are ripping off when they appropriate hip-hop culture, it’s the mana of that movement that they’re leeching.
But, you say, just because the subsuming of hip-hop culture into mainstream could mean the dilution of the cultural elements from which the culture was born, it doesn’t mean that the mana or strength or power of the movement is any less to the people who care about it.
Sure, I say, in fact, it could mean that they’ll guard it more fiercely. But think about it in your own life. If there was something that you cared about immensely, that is unique to you, that gives you power and a sense of purpose and well being, and you woke up one day and there were people taking this thing away from you, relinquishing your right to ‘ownership’ or ‘guardianship’ of this thing. Those people take it because they like it, and because they have more power than you. But they don’t just take it, they also give it to lots of people, regardless of what you say. They make money off it, and even sell it back to you in a shiny new package, and when you speak up about this they tell you it was never yours to begin with: your special thing is now being worshipped for other purposes than intended, mutilated, discarded, treated like yet another piece of commodified junk. So yeah, you would guard it more, and you would fear for its well being, and you would grieve that it was taken from you, and grieve that the sanctity of this thing was not lost to you, but it was lost to those who might take something from it.
So it’s not cool to like Iggy Azalea or Macklemore anymore, but Kendrick is ‘lit’ right? Hate on Kylie Jenner for wearing braids, but ‘fam’, Beyoncé’s are kosher, aye? Many of the young white population seem to be occupying a schizophrenic state of mind right now, and it’s a phenomenon that is as intriguing as it is disturbing. What concerns me the most is that on the one hand it’s all very superficial, but on another hand, it appears that the concern and engagement with African-American politics is, in-as-much as this word has any gumption these days, genuine. It’s as if this generation has no ability to look outside of themselves and see the contradiction that they inhabit. That the causes they are so concerned with they are also complicit in.
What disturbs me the most when I think about the gentrification and commodification of hip-hop is that it is literally becoming just another commodity of colonialist, capitalist white culture. If there were a mutual cultural exchange happening, or some other method of maintaining the power of the thing being appropriated intact, or if it wasn’t being used for sales or public image, then maybe this could be a different conversation. But mutual exchange is dependent on both parties being equal, and the white majority versus the black minority is far from equal.
I am not saying that white people can’t like hip-hop, I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t wear braids in your hair—but understand your position in this system. Don’t claim wokeness when you don’t even know what it’s like to have your culture ripped from you and turned into a commodity, when every year at the Grammys a white person wins a hip-hop award.
If this is hard to hear, think about the multitudes of cultures who have been victims of their precious culture turned into colonialism’s play things. If you’re white, you can decolonise your mind. If you’re brown or black or whatever, you can decolonise your mind. We’re all complicit in this to a certain degree. You can still appreciate other cultures, you can still listen to hip-hop. Understand that the process of decolonisation means first assessing your place of privilege in the world. It means dismantling the ideas you’ve accepted as truths and if you’re white it means accepting that your worldview, the world that you’ve so easily grown up in, is not the only one. Recognise that it can and will be dismantled.
Beyoncé might have provided an easier version of racial politics to swallow, but when you’re sipping your lemonade and getting into formation, remember that for some, this isn’t a trend. If you’re really as woke as you say you are, then commit to decolonising your mind and your consumption of colonialism dressed as radicalism. Don’t go half way. Don’t add sugar. Suck that lemon and get used to the sour.