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Throughout American history, white Americans have expressed fascination with black culture. This fascination has often manifested itself within the entertainment industry. Through the voyeuristic mechanisms of radio, film and television, white Americans have been able to safely regard African Americans without having to make intimate contact with them. In order to maintain this distance, according to Ralph Ellison in his controversial essay "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," white Americans have forced African Americans to don masks which conceal their true identity while, at the same time, allow white Americans a safe glimpse of the exotic black Other. Notably, these masks are most often worn for the sole purpose of white entertainment. A deeper purpose, however, lies beneath this mask.

Black culture, this seemingly exotic entity, also intrigues whites because of its ability to offer them an opportunity to act out against the conventions of mainstream white society. In her essay "Eating the Other," bell hooks contends that, in accordance with this fascination, "ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture." Significantly, only white males are permitted to express this fascination.

Rap music is the latest African-American cultural commodity to titillate white audiences. Not only has this music become increasingly popular among white Americans, but its characteristics have infiltrated numerous aspects of mainstream white culture including its fashion, movies, and vocabulary. Most striking is the embrace of this traditionally black cultural item by young, white males.

I personally witnessed this phenomenon in rural Vermont, an almost exclusively white state, which prompted me to conduct this study of the reasons generating such interest. In order to discover answers to these questions, I interviewed four white males. For purposes of comparison, I also interviewed two African-American males, and one young man of mixed European and Persian heritage.

I discovered that, in keeping with the aforementioned theories about fascination with the black Other, the hyper-masculine aura which surrounds rap music appealed to their adolescent desires to rebel against the constraints of their parents and white society, in general. Such actions uphold hooks' assertion that ethnicity can be used to enliven experiences within mainstream white culture. Hooks also maintains that "to seek an encounter with the Other, does not require that one relinquish forever one's mainstream positionality." Significantly, my white informants uphold this assertion as well for once they became older and felt pressured to conform to the constraints of white society all but one of them admitted that their interest in rap music has dramatically decreased. Unwilling to embrace the African-American culture which produces rap, which true identification with this music requires, they abandon this cultural item and turn their interests to more acceptable forms of mainstream American culture.

Throughout this study, all of my informants implied that an overtly masculine culture surrounds rap music. According to their responses, barring a few minor exceptions, such as L'il Kim, Foxxy Brown and Mary J. Blige, females are virtually non-existent in this culture as performers or purveyors of rap music, although they are often the subject of rap songs. My informants' responses also belied their adherence to traditional stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, i.e. that men act and women are acted upon. They also reported listening to rap exclusively with other young males and almost always in a group. As such, their decision to listen to this music may be related to an awareness of their own masculinity.

My white informants began listening to rap around the ages of twelve or thirteen, just as they were entering adolescence. In comparison, my African-American and mixed race informants reported listening to rap all their lives - from a very young age. A connection may be inferred here between the hyper-masculinity of rap culture and their growing awareness of their burgeoning masculinity. Perhaps, during adolescence, when these boys were trying desperately to become men, they turned to rap music as a way of asserting their manhood by associating themselves with an overtly masculine culture-one in which femininity had no place.

According to Dr. Keith Clark, black society has traditionally been labeled an "outlaw" culture. Notably, black culture, as manifested in rap and hip-hop music, is most often embraced by white youth. Thus, it makes sense that young, white, male teenagers, when trying to assert and define themselves against the dominant group, turn to black culture in order to do so. Accordingly, in describing why rap appealed to him and his male friends, Andy says, "It's kind of like an escape; it's like its different." Essentially, he implies that young, white men are drawn to the escapist and exotic aspects of rap and little else. Given the fact that my white informants reported that their interest in rap waned dramatically once they grew older, it is a short-lived embrace, for these youth most often "outgrow" this fascination.

In keeping with Andy's emphasis on escape, rap also provides these young men with an opportunity to rebel against mainstream society and parental rules due to its adulterated content centered upon such taboo subjects as sex, drugs and violence. In regards to the explicit lyrics heard in many rap songs, Tom recalled that "when you first hear it, you're like man, this is every word that I'm not supposed to be saying." He also remarked that rappers' prolific use of swearing added to its original appeal: "You get to that stage when you're around with your friends and you first start cussing and you think it's cool … It kinda breaks the rules." Tom describes listening to rap as a rite of passage for young men while tacitly emphasizing the hyper-masculinity surrounding this music. Rap functions, in this instance, as a way of introducing young boys to the language which men use, i.e. swearing. One also cannot ignore the forbidden quality of rap music's proliferation of swear words and its function as a vehicle by which young men may assert themselves against their parents, and society in general, by breaking the societal mandate against impolite language.

Similarly, in an attempt to explain why young, white males listen to rap, Ray, who is of mixed European and Persian backgrounds, states that "a lot of people want to be 'hard.' There's very few things out there that they can listen to that makes them feel hard. The whole boastful tradition... you don't see that in too many other types of music forms." This toughness appeals to young men attempting to develop themselves and become men. Accordingly, Andy describes rap's appeal by saying, "It makes you feel like 'we're going to go out and kick some ass.'" Listeners, such as Andy, may implicitly associate this toughness with masculinity.

In discussing whether or not rap's appeal for young male listeners is due, in part, to its negative connotations associated with it in mainstream American society, Jesse, who is white, agreed that it was and recalled his parents' initial aversion to rap because of its explicit lyrics. He contends that his intense interest in rap lyrics stemmed, in part, from his parents' negative reaction to the music, "I started listening to the lyrics [to see if they really were negative]... I was going to try to find the positive message no matter what so I could bring up [to the critics] 'you're wrong about this.'" As such, Jesse took it upon himself to disprove the criticism surrounding rap's explicit content. Although this sounds like typical teenage rebellion, in accordance with Dr. Clark's theory, it is significant that Jesse uses a cultural commodity from African-American society to do so.

Interestingly, upon first entering adolescence, Doug, an African-American informant, also used rap music to assert his identity. However, as his statements indicate, he used it more as a means of affirming his cultural heritage rather than his masculinity, although that may have been a part of it as well. He says that a severe shift in his musical tastes occurred when he was in eighth or ninth grade at which time he started listening to hard-core rap. He says:

I remember the first real hard-core CD I bought was called The Gravediggaz which is like a take off of Wu Tang [Clan - an immensely popular hard-core rap group]... I kind of took that CD and I brought it with me up to boarding school [in a predominantly white suburban Connecticut town]. And it [boarding school] was like a big culture shock for me. And I kind of felt like I was keeping myself grounded through that CD... it was pretty hard for me... It was pretty segregated [there].

Here, Doug implies that this music was a way for him to demonstrate loyalty to his African-American heritage - an especially significant action due to the fact that, at the time, he was in a predominantly white and, hence, unfamiliar culture. He felt that this music served to keep him "grounded" that is, informed and tied to his heritage. Thus, according to Doug, rap music possesses the ability to convey a sense of African-American culture. Notably, this assertion greatly contrasts with the efforts many of my white informants make to disassociate themselves from the African-American culture that creates this music.

In conjunction with rap's exclusively masculine environment, many of my informants made connections between rap music and sports. Andy recalled listening to rap with members of his high school football team. He and his friends would also listen to rap as "theme music" while they wrestled. Accordingly, Tom says that he first started listening to rap with "basically all the guys I played sports with when I was in high school and middle school" while Michael says that he would often listen to rap before a basketball game. Doug also made this association, recalling that he "used to listen to rap before [he] wrestled because it used to get [him] going, like in that angry-like, focused mood." The connection which Doug and Andy make between rap and wrestling is particularly significant since wrestling itself is such an extremely masculine culture and further attests to the masculine aura which surrounds rap culture. Furthermore, these statements, made by both white and non-white informants, indicate that rap's exclusive masculinity occurs across racial lines.

One of my white informants, Andy, who spent the most time discussing the association that he made between rap and sports, made a particularly interesting admission. When asked how he felt when listening to this music, he responded by saying, "I'd see these things on MTV and I would see these basketball players listening to it. And I would see baseball, football players listening to it. And I want 'to be like Mike [Jordan].'"

Andy takes the sports correlation one step further by associating famous male sports figures with rap music. He continues this discussion and says that he did not "want to be like the rappers, but [like] the people you'd see on TV listening to it, like the sports stars and celebrities." Andy is obviously unwilling to identify himself with rappers. He refuses to recognize similarities between himself and those who create this music. However, he would like to connect himself with the famous celebrities and sports stars whom he sees listening to rap music. Accordingly, none of my other white informants reported wanting to be like the rappers either. These remarks simultaneously illustrate their desire to embrace this music and their unwillingness to accept the culture that produces it.

In accordance with rap's emphasis on masculinity, several of my informants deemed this music and its environment inappropriate for women. Tom, for example, although he admits that he knows some girls who listen to rap, expresses amazement at their knowledge of rap lyrics. He says, "I know girls who know the words just as much as the guys would think that's a guy's song. You would associate it with guys, just because what it says in it." He implies that the content of rap music is inherently masculine due to its explicit lyrics and references.

Michael also suggests that women have little, if any, place in the world of rap when he says that "girls, they didn't really come into rap until the late 80s and early 90s." His statement is noteworthy due to his failure to acknowledge female rap acts such as Sequence, M.C. Lyte, Yo Yo, and Salt n Pepa; all of whom have been around since the early 1980s. Doug, however, expresses the strongest sentiments regarding the inappropriateness of females in or around rap music and its culture. He reports that he only listens to rap with other males:

I never like to play rap when I'm with a girl. If you're with a girl you think is cute or something you wouldn't listen to rap. Because you wouldn't want to give her the wrong hard-core impression. 'Cause it just sets the mood off - like a more rough, you want to wrestle mood... That's the type of mood you do with your friends.

Ultimately, he says that he doesn't like to play rap around girls because he thinks "some of the words they use and some of the things they are saying are very disrespectful." As these comments indicate, according to Doug, rap is strictly a masculine thing and not appropriate for girls.

Ray implicitly concurs with Doug due to his contention that females are not as deeply involved in rap music as are males. When the subject of female rappers comes up during our interview, Ray states that, although "there's a lot of girls who are into rap, few of them are into rap the way I'm into rap. In other words, they listen to a lot of mainstream [rap], a lot more soulful things. I don't know too many girls that just recite educated lyrics like from the guys [artists] I like." Here, Ray makes a marked distinction between female listeners and male listeners such as himself. He clearly distinguishes himself, and presumably other males, who can recite "educated lyrics" from females who listen to "mainstream" artists. Essentially, he doesn't see many women possessing the same authenticity as listeners as he does. The statements made by these young men uphold traditional stereotypes about masculinity and femininity; namely, that swearing, violence and sex (all major components of rap music) are typically masculine subjects and, therefore, inappropriate for female ears.

Although it has surfaced implicitly throughout this study, a pronounced disparity arose in my informants' responses when they were directly questioned about their ability to identify with rap music and artists. My white informants emphatically denied relating to rap music in any way. When questioned, Andy immediately stated, "No, I've never been able to relate to rap songs or what's going on in a rap's like, in a way you almost pity these people because they are talking about what a hard time they've had. I understand that. I can't relate to it." By pitying "these people" he tacitly distances himself from them. He clearly places himself apart from them as he looks down upon them.

He also acknowledged that his taste in music has changed dramatically as he has grown older: "I've started listen to more and more country...which is totally about relationships whereas rap music is totally about thugs and 'I've had such a hard life and listen to my sob story.' Which it really is." Noteworthy here is the distinct line he draws between the content of country music, which he regards as implicitly noble, and the content of rap, which he sees as wholly violent and base.

The obvious stereotypes in this statement belie Andy's own prejudices about the African American community which further indicate his unwillingness to relate to this music. Similarly, although he enjoyed listening to rap, Tom admits, "I never really did find myself identifying with it. I don't know - that's just not me [italics mine]." Like Andy and Tom, John, too, clearly disassociates himself from these artists by stating that he "definitely can not" identify with rappers because "it's just completely opposite of the way I am." The overt denials of identification with rap music made by these white informants reveals their innate desire to distance themselves from these artists and, implicitly, the African-American community.

In keeping with this desire, both Andy and Tom noted the prevalence of interracial relationships within their integrated county high schools. Andy reported that some students from predominantly white towns came into contact with African-American students for the first time in his high school. The novelty of meeting students from different ethnic backgrounds, according to him, lead to the formation of many interracial relationships between white females and African American males. He says:

All of a sudden, you are seeing all these girls all over these guys-these black guys. It's just like, we've grown up around it [African Americans] all our lives. So, it's no big deal to us. I mean we understand that we are in the South. And we understand the history around the friction between us [blacks and whites]... And then, these people from the Western side of the county [who haven't gone to integrated schools before], they go nuts. This is nothing they've ever been around before. And it fascinates them.

Tom made similar remarks, recalling, "It's [interracial relationships] a really big thing in my high school, just within the past few years, a lot of white girls have started to date black guys for some reason…I have no idea why". Both of these young men, significantly, express bewilderment as to why white girls would want to date African-American males. Their remarks exemplify their discomfort with the fact that white girls in their community are attracted to and involved in relationships with black men. This discomfort, while symbolic of age-old fear that racial integration will lead to miscegenation, stems from their own unwillingness to interact with African Americans. These statements reveal a double standard, held by both of these young white men, in regards to the level of permissible involvement with black culture.

Furthermore, these statements reveal a double standard held by both of these young white men in regards to the level of permissible involvement with black culture. It is acceptable for them to take an interest in African-American males and their culture via rap music and videos, but it is definitely not permissible for white women to demonstrate this same interest. Accordingly, white women's interest in the black community is neither encouraged, nor tolerated.

Significantly, the efforts made by my white informants to distance themselves, and their women, from African Americans while, simultaneously, participating in certain aspects of their culture exemplify white fascination with the black Other; a phenomenon that has been present in American society since the days of slavery. These young white males demonstrate the constant distancing which almost inevitably occurs between the white (usually male) voyeur and his black subject.

This distance is reminiscent of the masking involved in blackface minstrelsy; namely, the desire to experience blackness while at the same time keeping a safe distance from it. These rap artists are, essentially, wearing a mask through which they parody particular aspects of black culture. Many young white males buy into this masquerade and, like my informants, presume it to be an accurate depiction of black culture.

In his discussion of American minstrelsy, Ralph Ellison remarks that "the mask was the thing ...and its function was to veil the humanity of Negroes thus reduced to a sign, and to repress the white audience's awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities pushed behind the mask." Yet, whether they recognize the personas of these artists for the masks that they are or not, they, almost always, irretrievably distance themselves from the actual wearers. Accordingly, my white informants go to great lengths to deny any similarities between black rap artists and themselves. This mentality is also inherent in the objections raised by Tom and Andy to the incidence of white girls in their high schools dating black men. What upsets them so much about these girls' actions is that they are transgressing that implicit safe distance - something which they, themselves, would never dare to do.

In comparison, my African-American and mixed race informants emphasized their ability to identify with rap music and its content. Although my non-white listeners were all raised in different areas and had unique experiences growing up, all three of them identified rap's depiction of the struggles of the lower-classes as the underlying element in rap music which enables listeners from various backgrounds to relate to and, consequently, appreciate this music.

Accordingly, Ray reports that he will always be able to identify with rap music because of this element. He says, "I don't want to say street poetry [is what I identify with], but... That 'thing' is basically the experience of the under-privileged." It is "the experience of the under-privileged" depicted in rap that enables listeners from a myriad of cultural and racial backgrounds to relate to this music. Similarly, Doug, although he admits that he hasn't lived the same under-privileged lifestyle that these rappers have, claims that he can still relate to the experiences that rap artists sing about in their songs. He says, "I mean, my grandmother's still in the projects. I have a lot of family still in the projects. And I still see it. And I still have, like, an emotional connection to it [their struggle]." Doug demonstrates that, like Ray, he identifies with the struggle that rappers sing about by connecting it to the struggles of his parents and other members of his family who have experienced similar hardships. His admission that "I haven't been of it, but I've seen it" reveals that, though, he has not directly experienced such poverty, he has been in close proximity to it and, consequently, can recognize and appreciate the feelings and messages that rappers express through their music. Doug also referred to rap as a "black magnet" because of its "representation of the struggles and things that most black people have been through. And that's the connection." He contends that rap holds particular relevance for the African-American community because of its ability to represent the struggles of the black community. In making this point, he implies that white listeners would have a harder time identifying with and understanding rap music because they have not experienced the same struggles which many African-American listeners have.

In the end, however, identifying themselves with rap artists and, consequently, black men in general is too daunting for my white informants. With the exception of Jesse, they all inevitably stop listening to rap. Thus, as demonstrated by their virtually non-existent interest in rap once they grow older, this music has been relegated to the closet since these young men are now entering the real world, i.e. mainstream white society. Their fascination with rap, although it may have accompanied their entrance into the world of masculinity, no longer serves an acceptable purpose for them. It is no longer appropriate for them to listen to rap, and, consequently, display an interest in or fascination with black male culture once they have entered the adult world of college. In the end, however, most white male listeners fail to make any significant connection with rap music due to their unwillingness to associate themselves with the African-American community. Instead, their encounters with the Other, as manifested in this cultural commodity, never progress beyond its ability to enliven or, according to bell hooks, "spice up" their mainstream white lives.

December 2001

From guest contributor Fiona Mills

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