President Obama says he’s a fan of everything from opera to jazz, but it was his appetite for hip-hop that was at the center of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ op-ed in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. In the piece, Williams took issue with remarks made by the President in a recent Rolling Stones interview, namely:
“My rap palate has greatly improved . . . Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated, but now I’ve got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff, but I would not claim to be an expert.”
Williams’ piece criticizes President Obama for praising “a hip-hop culture that is ignorant, misogynistic, casually criminal and often violent,” saying that Obama is sending the wrong message to Black America. And while some have said that dropping the names of well-known rappers is part of the President’s attempt to seem more relatable or cool, it is an attempt that Williams finds disappointing.
“For so many black Americans, Barack Obama is appealing and promising precisely because he represents a powerful, necessary alternative to Jay-Z’s version of blackness,” writes Williams.
Reading through Williams’ piece, I could only imagine the look on his face when he saw the pictures of the Brooklyn rapper sitting in President Obama’s Situation Room seat. And while it is easy to get into a debate about what exactly Wiliams means by “version of blackness,” I have to question why our country’s discourse on race continues to be premised on undefined interpretations of Black life.
Trying to describe one’s Blackness is an impossible task. Off the top of my head, even with some long thought, I don’t think I could quite describe exactly what I think my version of Blackness is. Sure, I come from a certain place and, yes, I grew up in a certain way. But others who also did have had different experiences from my own and have other points of view. Attempting to nail down Blackness would be like attempting to describe what womanhood is. And, yet, many discussions on race start with the assumption that there are prototypes imbedded into Black America’s racial identity. The assumptions are usually the fuel behind the media’s spastic love for the often cycled news story, “Is Barack Obama American like you?”
But even within Black America, ambiguous versions of Blackness have shaped the way we ourselves talk about race. We throw around politically correct labels like “urban” or “upwardly mobile,” and sometimes less formal ones like “bougie” or “hood.” Whatever the descriptive, we use our labels to paint pictures of the groups we see, the ones we’re in, and of the others who are not in our group. And while these categories may be our way of delineating who we consider to be “Black like me,” increasingly, Black America has drawn lines that have only served to box us in.
In 2007, Williams made a similar case against hip-hop in an article for the Washington Post, writing: “Whatever the nomenclature,”cool pose” or keeping it real or something else entirely,this peculiar aspect of the contemporary black experience—the inverted-pyramid hierarchy of values stemming from the glorification of lower-class reality in the hip-hop era—has quietly taken the place of white racism as the most formidable obstacle to success and equality in the black middle classes.”
Buried in Williams’ argument is a false choice between who is hurting Black America more. And while demonizing hip-hop for its reprehensible parts is easy to do, Black cultural critics like Williams have left out an inconvenient possibility: maybe it’s not that hip-hop is holding back Black America—maybe we’re leaving our own behind.
The argument against hip-hop stems from this false attempt to create a line between those uplifting the race, and those who are dragging us all behind. So cut loose the Wacka Flockas and give us more Esperanza Spaldings. It’s an intellectualized version of Dave Chappelle’s race draft—letting go of the people who won’t let us rise.
But saying that hip-hop promotes a version of Blackness unsuitable for the President’s ears assumes that the genre tells one story, one version of Blackness that shouldn’t be told. It is an attempt to cage certain Black people into a pre-fixed narrative, to tell only one side of what they are.
While Williams cites that Jay-Z has been behind lyrics like, “Get a crate, some crack and some house slippers,” he doesn’t mention that he has also written lines like, “Praying for young souls that laugh at life through the stars.” He doesn’t mention Lil Wayne’s lyrics about New Orleans rebuilding after Katrina, with just a few lines about murder and blood. To strengthen his argument, Williams hand-chooses what he sees as hip-hop’s detrimental version of Blackness, the part of hip-hop’s story he sees as worth telling. He ignores that hip-hop is, like we are, complex and ever changing. Contrived notions of a hierarchy of acceptable Blackness alienate segments of Black America rather than include them.
Speaking to a crowd in 2009, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”
This is not a defense of hip-hop, nor an attack on it. It is a reminder that there is no single Black story and that the realities of Black life are as heavy as they are wide; that this music, for all its faults, is powerful enough turn a Brooklyn rapper into a millionaire and make it onto the playlist of one of the most powerful men in the world. Hip-hop’s lyrics are not our single story, but, whether we approve or not, hip-hop is a chapter of Black America’s book.
Instead of trying to rid hip-hop from who we are, maybe it’s time we try to change the story it tells. It’s a challenge that could allow Black America to answer the question President Obama’s favorite rapper asked best, “Do you have the power to get out from up under you?”