Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Hess, M. (2005). Hip-hop realness and the white performer. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(5), 372-389.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Hess continues the conversation we encountered with Watts by expanding his survey to include several white hip-hop acts that have attempted to maintain their authenticity while performing music dominated by black artists. He begins his analysis by noting efforts by Vanilla Ice to affirm his “social blackness” (p. 374) through claims of “an urban upbringing [in Miami], criminal involvement, and gang affiliation” (p. 373). Following his “outing” as a relatively privileged kid from the Dallas suburbs, Vanilla Ice became a symbol for the need to affirm “authenticity” within the hip-hop community. Following this historical overview, Hess defines three strategies (roughly associated with time periods) of white artists’ involvement in hip-hop: immersion, imitation, and inversion (p. 375). We turn first to immersion.

Immersion reflects an effort by white artists to enter black culture without attempting to imitate it. Hess argues that immersion accepts that hip-hop, for all of its cultural hybridity, must be read first as African-American music. Indeed, “the history of white [hip-hop] artists is a history of their speaking to the black Americans who remain the majority of hip-hop artists” (p. 375). Thus, The Beastie Boys’ distinctly “white” vocal styles and references allow them to enter the culture as “guests” who do not co-opt a culture that is not theirs.

Imitation reflects an effort by white artists to simulate black culture, to argue that they reflect it as much as black artists. By adopting a “black sound,” artists such as Vanilla Ice illustrated an historical poaching of black music, a strategy whose lineage includes Elvis Presley. Perhaps the most obvious example of this phenomenon may be found with the act, Young Black Teenagers, “a group of five white kids” whose songs include “Proud to be Black” (p. 380). [Another example is the website Black People Love Us!, whose play on the risks of imitation still manages to confuse many of its readers]. Of course, imitation (despite its implied flattery) could not secure authenticity and became eclipsed by inversion.

Inversion reflects an effort by white artists to assert that their whiteness is both a hindrance and a help to their efforts to secure hip-hop credibility. Naturally, Eminem provides an exemplar of this strategy. To Hess, “Eminem’s lyrics mark a return to earlier narratives of white artist immersion in hip-hop culture, but it is a return that remains particularly informed by reactions to Vanilla Ice” (p. 383). By recognizing his privilege (and pointing out the privilege of some black artists), Eminem inverts the dominant narrative of hip-hop. Of course, as the author reminds us, no white artist has experienced Eminem’s commercial success. Thus, inversion may be limited in its portability from artist to artist.

Hess concludes with a discussion of the struggles faced by all hip-hop artists, black and white, to maintain their credibility, considering that so many of their listeners are white. Efforts to introduce white artists and simultaneous efforts to hide the presence of white producers create an odd struggle: “Hip-hop music’s attention to its own material production complicates the concept of hip-hop as a black expressive culture resisting co-option by a white industry” (p. 386). Thus, the challenge continues to “keep it real.”

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