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
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
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
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
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 do...you 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
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
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
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 video...it'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
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
From guest contributor Fiona Mills