J. Cole turned heads last week when he accused today's white rap and R&B artists of "snatching" hip-hop's sound.
"Same thing that my nigga Elvis did with rock 'n' roll: Justin Timberlake, Eminem and then Macklemore," Cole rapped on the song "Fire Squad" off his latest release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. "While silly niggas argue over who gon' snatch the crown / Look around, my nigga, white people have snatched the sound."
Some on the Internet went into a rage when they heard, accusing Cole of racism and slandering the greats. Cole had to take time during a recent radio appearance to clarify his intentions, but he didn't take anything back. "I fast-forward 20, 30 years from now, and I see hip-hop being completely white," he said.
It may sound wild, but his reasoning is actually sound, and it may mean bad things for hip-hop.
"It's not Iggy Azalea's fault. It's not Eminem's fault. ... It's the system's fault," he told New York radio host Angie Martinez. The perpetrator is capitalism: "There comes a time when the system realizes that 'I can sell this white person a lot easier.'"
His comments have a strong historical precedent. When the industry begins to make decisions based on marketability instead of talent, Cole said, that's when genres die. The trouble is not that white artists ruin traditionally black music, though; it's that white artists make certain forms of music more salable, because mainstream audiences have historically been more willing to pay for a white artist's craft than a black artist's. Once a genre becomes subject to market forces, it can lose its creative imperatives — and then it can alienate the voices of the community that originated it.
The history of jazz illustrates his point best. Jazz used to be a radical and predominantly black art form, in the same way hip-hop has been for years. When jazz first emerged in New York in the early 1900s, critics were taken aback by its bold new sounds and violent rhythmic feel. Many disparaged it as being "strict rhythm without melody," a critique eerily similar to many of hip-hop's own early critiques. Critics argued that black music encouraged listeners to adopt loose moral codes, to commit rape and engage in violence. In 1921, Anne Shaw Faulkner asked poetically (and phonetically), "Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?"
Hip-hop has seen similar accusations thrown its way for years, that it's violent and misogynistic. When N.W.A. essentially created gangster rap in 1988, their music was slammed for the way it portrayed "acts of violence, discrimination and sex in a way that made them appear commonplace and acceptable, when in fact they are not." Many critiques also drew heavily on black stereotypes, which caused listeners to overlook the more redeeming aspects of early hip-hop, such as N.W.A.'s efforts to describe the disillusionment and racism seen in the ghetto on songs like "Straight Outta Compton."
But hip-hop and jazz both experienced similar turning points when white artists rose to prominence in the music. When white bandleader Paul Whiteman became popular, critics began to call him the "King of Jazz." The title drew a lot of controversy, because, as many argued, Whiteman's music fell far short of true jazz — it wasn't improvisational. It was, however, danceable.
That Whiteman moment almost directly mirrors a controversy in hip-hop that broke out earlier this year, when Forbes magazine claimed that a white, blond Australian woman named Iggy Azalea was "running" hip-hop. Fans tore the magazine to shreds. "The author seems not to understand the fact that it is precisely because Iggy Azalea is white and blond that she has 'made a name for herself' in hip-hop," wrote Huffington Post contributor Olivia Cole. "[H]er presence (and success) in hip-hop isn't a shining beacon for feminism, but for the power of whiteness and what it can accomplish."
Azalea isn't here to destroy rap, but she does strongly demonstrate how a market can distort a genre. In her case, her music is closer to pop than true hip-hop, but she's sold as a rapper. And she's sold through powerful industry mechanisms, such as Clear Channel's "On the Verge" program. That program mandated that all of Clear Channel's 840 radio stations had to play "Fancy" a minimum of 150 times. Once she was everywhere, the ubiquity helped convince the public Azalea was popular and subsequently that her music was quality — that it was real hip-hop.
Yet, as has been noted before, Azalea's music lacks unique content or an authentic artistic persona; instead, it's extremely marketable and formulaic. She's built a career out of co-opting black artists' sounds and failing to give appropriate credit. Everything about the beat she used for "Fancy" was ripped from L.A.-based producer DJ Mustard, who built that hollow and dramatic sound. "She used to be chillin' with us. She knows the sound," DJ Mustard said in a recent interview, "She knows how hard we was working to make that sound and for you to go to somebody else or for you to do whatever you did, whatever they did and just be like, 'Oh this is new and I don't know why Mustard dissed.' No. You know why."
The problem is not that white people can't make good music — or even that white people can't love, participate or innovate in genres that are historically black. Eminem, for instance, made some incredibly powerful and countercultural rap all through the '90s and early 2000s. The problem is that white artists are typically an avenue to a genre's commercial success, at which point market forces make genres increasingly "commercial," "safe" and "uniform." Whiteness is only one aspect of this uniformity. Azalea's weaker singles, much like Macklemore's before her, are only promoted because they sound like everything else on the mainstream radio. And slowly, hip-hop becomes more known for those sounds than the ones that birthed it.
In its founding moments, hip-hop was about expressing feelings of marginalization and resisting oppression for the voiceless in the black community. White people can use the form equally well, but as it becomes canonized as pop music, it could lose its appeal for black rappers. As cultural scholars have noted, this divorce from its original culture is one of the first steps a genre goes through on its way to being appropriated for mainstream consumption.
In short, if we aren't careful, hip-hop could end up like jazz. "[T]he black rage we once heard in free jazz had migrated to hip-hop," said musician Greg Tate, quoting fellow musician Vernon Reid in a speech exploring why jazz does not play a significant role in black culture today. Someday, likely years from now, those feelings may migrate from hip-hop again. But the solution isn't for white people to stop making or loving hip-hop — the solution is for hip-hop creators and lovers alike to sort out what in the genre we should celebrate; what flame we must keep lit.
Correction: Dec. 23, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the white bandleader called the "King of Jazz." He is Paul Whiteman, not Paul Whitefield.