On rap, race and relatability

Rap is black. Despite what anyone says about Eminem, Atmosphere, Yelawolf and the like, the advent of white rappers is always accompanied by discussions of them as anomalous. Historically, black, and more specifically, black male, has been the norm in rap, making everything else other and exceptional.

Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Tiana Reid. I’m mixed and I’m in university. I’m a girl. I’ve never lived in the projects. I’ve never dealt drugs. I’ve seen a gun, like once, and it was registered. In the interest of full disclosure, I come from a single-parent household, but a middle-class one. As such, there’s no way for me (and probably the majority of the people that listen to, or more importantly buy, rap music) to wholly relate to and connect with most mainstream rap – lyrically at least.

Rap is still coded as black and underclass. Regardless of how many subgenres have emerged, rappers – like today’s heavyweights Lil Wayne and T.I. – are still stereotyped as having participated in violence, and many have – and still do – get in trouble with the law. After all, rap emerged from a struggle. It emerged as a distinctly black experience, one that followed in the footsteps of the civil rights movement, and in the golden age, tackled anti-oppression and black consciousness. It emerged from the black working and under-classes as an attempt to overcome distress and to nourish the black musical tradition with awareness and self-expression. It’s a voice that spits fire from the margins. For those reasons and more, rap is heavily concerned with authenticity and legitimacy. But what about its listeners? What does our connection have to be to the struggle – or any struggle? In what ways do we relate to rap?

First things first, what do I mean by relatability? To relate to something is to understand it, connect with it, identify with it, and empathize with it. Of course, there are numerous reasons, besides relatability, why someone would listen to a particular genre: technical aspects, personality, image, wordplay, etc.

Sometimes, though, I need to relate to lyrics. My case in point is Das Racist. Their 2008 “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” became an internet hit, but at the time I had dismissed them as joke rap. I didn’t – no, I couldn’t – relate. And then in 2010, Das Racist released two free mixtapes: Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man. Since then, Das Racist, whose lyrics touch on consumerism, social justice and racism, have been polarizing – sometimes described as clever, and at others, as the demise of hip hop. Personally, I’ve never related more to rap than I do to Das Racist. I’ve never found another rap group or artist to attest to my lived experience. And yet, Das Racist aren’t black.

Das Racist are college-educated. If you listen, it’s obvious. Their songs are packed with sometimes-obscure references and they cite academics like Slavoj Zizek and Gayatri Spivak. My ability to empathize with Das Racist stems from many things: my class, my otherness as a minority, my university education. What’s more, as someone who studies race, class and feminism, I’m aware of the discourse surrounding the arguably less oppressed (white middle-class scholars) attempting to speak on behalf of others. Author and professor Sara Suleri argues against a constructed dichotomy that pits academia against the “real world.” She disputes feminist academics’ emphasis on realism and lived experiences as a legitimization of scholarship. In her case, as in the case of rap, race allows for what Suleri calls a “claim to authenticity.”

Similarly, Das Racist engages in dialogue about their position and legitimacy in the “real world” and in the rap world. In March, Himanshu Suri, one of the members, wrote on his Twitter: “feel like I shudnt rap cuz theres somethin problematic bout middle class indian rappin but then like i’m good at it and at least not white?” By the same token, Suri said in an interview with the New York Times, “I’m an Indian-American who is participating in a historically black art form, while acknowledging that the experience of South Asians in America has been a relatively easier one than that of black Americans.” And because of a worldview like that, one that melds humour, experience, and socio-political awareness, I melt. It’s one of the many reasons I have an undying intellectual crush on the group.

In December 2010, Rawiya Kameir wrote a piece about Das Racist for Thought Catalog and quoted her friend on their problem with the group: “They have nothing to talk about. Their music doesn’t make you feel anything.” Maybe they didn’t relate. I, on the other hand, have never felt more of anything.