I’ve always considered myself a hip-hop loyalist. When I first started DJing, I almost exclusively spun hip-hop, with a penchant for 90’s East Coast rap (see: The Notorious B.I.G.) and party jams of the new millennium (see: Ja Rule). I started incorporating EDM into my sets to cater to the Collegetown demographic, although I didn’t quite appreciate the genre at first. It seemed sterile, formulaic, and void of history — the antithesis of hip-hop, which I admire for its complex lyricism weaved into easy flows, its commentary on real, relevant issues, and its foundation in a rich and multifaceted culture.
To say that I was excited to see Lauryn Hill perform live would have been an understatement. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was a staple of my musical repertoire growing up, instilling my passion for soul music and molding my views on life and love through Lauryn’s honest presentation of her own experiences. Though listening to her music is akin to going back to my musical roots, I felt like a stranger at her show.
The line to enter The Warwick stretched across three long blocks, and I realized that I was in the minority as I walked to the end of the line. Mostly everyone was black, with the exception of a few interracial couples and friend groups (i.e. my fellow concertgoer Keren, and I). This, of course, didn’t bother me, but what did unsettle me was the noticeable judgment from many of those in line. For instance, an elderly black man walking around with a boombox garnered expressions of acceptance, while a middle-aged white man walking around with a boombox elicited obvious shade thrown by the girls standing behind us. These reactions of either acceptance or dismissal illustrated that there was a certain mold of who ‘ought’ to be at a Lauryn Hill concert. I suddenly felt self-conscious for a reason that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
My feelings of “outsider-ness” heightened during DJ Rampage’s set. He played songs that had the audience roaring with approval — songs that they knew every word to, but weren’t the least bit familiar to me. He’d say, “This is for all my real people who know good music.” I was apparently not one of those people.
When Lauryn finally took the stage, all of those thoughts settled into the back of my mind. I was so infatuated with her performance that I didn’t reflect on my feelings of discomfort until two days later. Why is it that I felt uncomfortable wildin’ out to songs about life in the ghetto and gang violence? Why is it that Keren wondered if people thought she was wearing elephant-print harem pants to be cultural, when in fact, she was wearing them simply because she liked them? Why is it that I couldn’t scream “murder,” along with everyone else during Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock?” (I later learned that these lyrics are commonly mistaken, and are actually, “Out on the streets, they call it merther,” a word that describes the trance one experiences while listening to reggae music.)
I’ve concluded that it all amounts to my identity. I’m Asian, and I grew up in a privileged household that has provided me with boundless opportunities. I’ve never known depression, poverty, or violence. Lastly, my hometown, alma mater, and current workplace are pretty homogenous — I interact mostly with well-off and educated white or Asian people on a day-to-day basis.
If I’m unable to identify with the struggles often depicted in hip-hop music, can I be an authentic hip-hop fan? Moreover, am I even further away from authenticity because I’m not black? Lauryn’s concert was a stark reminder that there is an entirely different world out there that I will never wholly know. This essential lack of experience based on my upbringing leads me to believe that I inherently have a superficial understanding of her music.
I do want to recognize the fact that race and social issues, such as poverty and violence, are independent aspects that do not delineate one another. That being said, these issues stem from systemic injustices that unfortunately disadvantage certain groups more than others, although they’re not always clear along racial lines. I’m also tackling the topics of race and social injustices together because they’re both crucial components of the origins, and consequently the current state, of hip-hop.
Just as I sensed at the Lauryn Hill concert, these racial boundaries and associations in the hip-hop landscape are very real and very sensitive. Take the Nicki Minaj/Peter Rosenberg showdown as a well-known demonstration of these tricky relations (check out this kickass podcast by Radiolab for a full run-down of the tiff). Peter Rosenberg is a DJ at Hot 97, New York City’s iconic hip-hop station, and thus, an arbiter on what he calls “real” hip-hop. When he disses Minaj’s “Starships” as “one of the most sell-out songs in hip-hop history,” Minaj takes offense and cancels her performance at Summer Jam. Later, they hash out the conflict on air, and Minaj admits that the whole situation is exacerbated by the fact that Rosenberg is white. In a nutshell, it felt wrong to have a white guy from the suburbs of Maryland tell a black woman from Queens that she’s “not hip-hop enough.”
I personally believe that Rosenberg is an authority on hip-hop. Hot 97 was my jam when I lived in New York, and the countless hours I spent listening to him while stuck in traffic on the BQE convinced me that he possesses a deep appreciation, knowledge, and respect for the genre. Though Rosenberg’s predicament had much higher stakes than mine, I’m able to sympathize with his struggle. It’s frustrating to think that race and social status can disqualify someone from accessing a genre of music.
Is it always going to be like this? Ali Shaheed Muhammed of A Tribe Called Quest offers an idyllic solution. He proposes that in forty years, we’ll be so far removed from the origin of hip-hop that what qualifies someone as a gatekeeper will be how well he understands and is willing to fight for the struggles portrayed.
Although Ali Shaheed Muhammed’s theory is insightful, I think it’ll take a lot longer than forty years for us to uncouple race with the narratives of poverty and violence to which hip-hop was born. Even then, these social issues will likely still exist, which can qualify some more than others regardless of race.
In a perfect world, anyone would be able to be an authority on any kind of music, but for now, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. My once-optimistic view of how to measure musical authenticity was hampered by my feelings of unease at the Lauryn Hill concert. When there’s not an established list of criteria to determine who’s in and who’s out, it really boils down to that gut feeling. And, although I will never deny my genuine love for hip-hop, my gut is telling me that I’m missing a huge piece of the puzzle.