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Rappin' on Racial Dualism American Studies Today Online

In his 1993 article 'Racial Dualism at Century's End', Howard Winant adapts W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of racial dualism.[1] Winant explains that racism is still a prevalent feature of contemporary American society, and uses racial dualism as a theoretical tool with which to explore divisions between and within black and white racial groups. The following article employs 'Racial Dualism' as a lens through which to explore the racial significance of American rap music from the 1990s onwards. Specific reference is made to the rappers Chuck D, Ice Cube, Yo-Yo and Eminem. These artists candidly discuss race and racism and shed light on the divisions that constitute racial dualism. In drawing attention to racial dualism, these rappers have arguably allowed some 'fusion' to develop. 

By Ashleigh P. Nugent

Posted 23-May-2013

Chuck D: Raising awareness
Racism in the media
The listener as voyeur
Ice-Cube vs Yo-Yo: Misogyny challenged
Eminem: the paradox of white rap
Conclusion
References
Bibliography

Chuck D: Raising awareness

In explaining how racial dualism manifests in contemporary American society Winant says:

 There are now two ways of looking at race, where previously there was only one. In the past…everyone agreed that racial subordination existed…But today agreement over the existence of racial subordination has vanished…Indeed, the very idea that ‘race matters’ is something which today must be argued, something which is not self evident.[2]

With overt white supremacist racism now being a stigmatised ideology, the opinion that contemporary America is a ‘color-blind’ society has become almost hegemonic.[3] The ‘color-blind’ rubric purports that race is no longer linked to social mobility.[4] However, the existence of white privilege and black subordination has not been surmounted. [5] Rather, American racism operates as structural or institutionalised racism. That is to say, a racial hierarchy has become deeply embedded in the state institutions and general mindset of the populous via accumulative inequality passed on through generations.[6] So, white racial domination now seems ‘natural’ and operates under a kind of invisibility.[7] ‘Color-blindness’ overlooks structural racism and the inequality experienced by those in subordinate racial categories.

If the continuation of racial subordination was disputed during the 1990s, rap music is one place where American racism was openly and regularly addressed. One rap group that had the discussion of racism high on their agenda is Public Enemy. In 1990 Public Enemy released their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The final track on that album, ‘Fight the Power’, was used on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989). In the second verse Chuck D, the group’s lead vocalist, asserts:

It’s a start, a work of art
To revolutionize, make a change nothing’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
 ‘Cause we don’t know the game[8]

Fear

Here, Chuck D aims to use rap to ‘revolutionize’ by increasing awareness of the fact that ‘we are not the same.’ This statement addresses the disparity between those who do and those who don’t know ‘the game’, or those who control ideas and behaviours (state institutions) and those who are controlled (the general populous). In asserting that ‘we don’t know the game’, the collective ‘we’ arguably addresses both the black community and the wider community who may believe that race is no longer a salient issue.

Chuck D goes on to elaborate the nature of the ‘game’ in the next verse:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain[9]

Racism in the media

The ‘game’ that Chuck D exposes, then, is the racism at play in America’s media industries, which manifests as the recurring representation of white males as the archetypal heroes. In his 1997 book Fight The Power, Chuck D explains that ‘the attack was directed towards the institution of Elvis…I was dealing with racist America portraying that Elvis invented that level of quality soul, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll singing when there were brothers before him.’[10] So, what Chuck D aimed to illuminate is media-based structural racism that places white males at the top of the hierarchy whilst disregarding cultural input from non-whites. His main focus, therefore, is institutionalised racism as opposed to individual acts of racism.

Chuck D’s tirade is intended to shock the listener by portraying celebrated white male heroes as antagonists. This shock tactic entices the listener, so accustomed to Elvis being hero worshipped, to sit up and listen. White America did listen. The Fear album reached number ten in the US billboard charts and certified platinum sales. In accomplishing mainstream appeal, rap music now invited listeners of all races to consider and discuss the institutional racism at work in American society.      

In explaining why he choose ‘Fight the Power’ as the soundtrack for his film Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee explains that ‘Public Enemy first started out identifying the problems. “Fight the Power” [however] was starting to move into solution based rap.’[11] Chuck D suggests that the knowledge that he expounds may act as a solution to end black repression. In ‘Fight the Power’ he asserts:

What we need is awareness
We can’t get careless…
Mental self-defensive fitness[12]

These lyrics suggest that Chuck D wanted to inspire his audience to overcome their naivety regarding the structural racism that sustains racial disparity. Popular music unites people across racial and other boundaries in the act of appreciation. Angry, shocking or polemical lyricism entices the listener to think about what is being said. It would, of course, be naive to assume that songs can be influential enough to end racism. Their message can, however, open up a dialogue and encourage critical thinking regarding the issues raised: ‘It’s a start, a work of art.’

The listener as voyeur

Some critics, for example, David Samuels, have viewed rap’s message, and its popularity, with cynicism. In his essay ‘The Rap on Rap – The Black Music that isn’t Either’ (2004), Samuels claims that Public Enemy’s ‘white listeners became guilty eavesdroppers on the putative private conversation of the inner city.’[13] According to Samuels, white suburban listeners can only ever listen to black protestations of racism as outsiders, confined to the role of voyeur through their consumption of Public Enemy’s message.  Moreover, Samuels points out that Public Enemy are also outsiders to the urban black cause because of their middle-class suburban backgrounds.

While voyeurism may indeed motivate some rap fans, this is a limited viewpoint since it overlooks the way in which those outside a situation can take a sincere and active interest in it. Being middle class and working alongside whites does not invalidate a black group’s opposition to structural racism that places all blacks in subordination to whites, regardless of class. Furthermore, the idea that one must adhere to binary thinking regarding who are insiders and outsiders can be unhelpful when trying to overcome disparities based on just such binary categories: black/white, urban/suburban and so on. A music fan should not be expected to restrict their listening to music made by those in the same racial and class-based group as themselves. 

On another album released in 1990, Chuck D asserts: ‘The term they apply to us is a nigger. ... Same applies with a PhD.’ Chuck D shows here that race is a more insidious category than class, for whatever blacks achieve socially and economically,  they are still undermined. Chuck D makes this statement on ‘Endangered Species’, a song on which he features as a guest of the renowned gangsta rapper, Ice Cube. Gangsta rap is a term that came into popular usage in the late 1980s and first appeared in an American broadsheet, the Los Angeles Times, following the success of Niggaz with Attitude (NWA) [14], a group for which Ice Cube was formerly the chief lyricist.[15]

On his 1990 debut solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which went platinum within five weeks of release, Ice Cube confronted racism in different terms to Chuck D. Rather than offering solutions and playing the role of educator, Ice Cube played the role of the angry, young, black male, which is a stereotype synonymous with gangta rap. ‘Endangered Species’, actually denigrates the growing trend in contemporary rap music to offer solutions. Ice Cube rages:

Peace, don’t make me laugh
All I hear is mother****s rappin’ succotash
Livin’ large tellin’ me to get out the gang
I’m a nigga gotta live by the trigger
How the f*** do you figure
That I can say peace and the gunshots will cease?
Every cop killer gets ignored
They just send another nigga to the morgue[16]

music-ice-cube-amerikkkas-most-wanted

Ice Cube illustrates the futility of solution-based rap in the face of institutionalised racism, which takes shape, in this instance, in the form of police brutality. He maligns rappers that talk about peace and by accusing them of ‘livin’ large’, he aims his rebuke at black, middle-class rappers and middle-class critics of gangsta rap. Whereas they may be able to live well, as an urban youth Ice Cube’s character feels compelled to take on the gangsta role to survive.

Cleverly, Ice Cube voices these allegations on the very song that features Chuck D, a renowned pioneer of solution-based rap and a middle-class rapper. The juxtaposition of these two rappers, the politically conscious and the gangsta, suggests that those in the black community with different opinions can work together.  The two artists, therefore, offered a creative solution to Winant’s concept of black racial dualism. Black racial dualism describes ‘The divergent experiences of the black middle class and the black poor [which] make a unitary racial identity seem a distant dream indeed.’[17] Winant points out that the disparity between the life experiences and expectations of the black middle class and the black poor is wider than it was during the era of segregation. Winant suggests that the circumstance of racial inequality demands that the black community forge ‘a level of concerted action that division…tend[s] to preclude.’[18] Of course, a rap song cannot fix these divisions, but Ice Cube and Chuck D intend to play their parts: ‘It’s a start.’

In ‘The Rap’, David Samuels overlooks the complexities in Ice Cube’s album and reduces it to pushing ‘the limits of rap’s ability to give offence.’[19] He goes on to state that, ‘the ways in which rap has been consumed and popularised speak not of cross cultural understanding…but of voyeurism and tolerance with racism.’[20] He believes that consumption of negative stereotypes of the black community is evidence of the consumer’s complicity with racism. For Samuels, white youths are maintaining their supposed supremacy over blacks by their consumption of these stereotypes. I would contest that the mainstream audience have long been consumers of degrading and violent imagery played out by whites and, moreover, Ice Cube does tie in his hostile narratives with genuine social commentary. That is not to say that everything portrayed by Ice Cube is a positive or even a helpful representation of the black community. Ice Cube is more concerned with clearly illuminating problems, rather than with offering solutions. Such is the method that he adopts when addressing the issue of black male privilege.

‘Racial Dualism’ also exposes the fact that ‘black men’s and women’s experience probably differ more significantly today than they did at any other moment since the time of slavery.’[21] The black community has become more entrenched in American society, which Winant describes as a Herrevolk democracy, where only white men are accepted as full citizens with the rights pertaining to such.[22]  In this society, each man holds a position of privilege over every woman. Male privilege within America is therefore, at the very least, as rife in the black community as it is in the white community. 

Ice-Cube vs Yo-Yo: Misogyny challenged

Ice Cube addresses black racial dualism in terms of gender with another song on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted  in which he plays the typically gangsta role of misogynist. In ‘It’s a Man’s World,’ he featured Yo-Yo, a female rap artist. The result is a comical rap battle style scenario where Ice Cube’s sexist assertions and put downs are repeatedly met with scathing retorts from Yo-Yo:

Ice Cube: Women, they good for nothing, no maybe one thing
To serve needs to my ding-a-ling
I’m a man who loves a one-night stand
‘Cause after I do ya, I never knew ya…

Yo-Yo: Hell no because to me you're not a thriller
You come in the room with your three-inch killer
Thinking you can do damage to my backbone
Leave your child in the yard until it's full-grown
I'm a put it like this my man
Without us your hand would be your best friend
[23]

Yo-Yo

This song articulates black racial dualism as it manifests along gender lines. It is evident that Yo-Yo does not persuade Ice Cube to see women as equals through the course of the track. He recognises her skills as a rapper: ‘Yeah I admit you can flow’, but that is as close as he gets to forfeiting his male privilege and acknowledging gender equality. It is the articulation of the gender divide in the black community that is of interest here, not the validity, or otherwise, of Ice Cube’s opinions. His voice represents the opinions held by many of his contemporaries, yet the appearance of Yo-Yo allows the oppositional female voice to be heard. In typical Ice Cube style he addresses the problem, but pronounces no solution.

Early gangsta rap voiced the tensions felt by many contemporary urban black youth who faced diminishing employment prospects. Young blacks also faced rising levels of incarceration, along with the proliferation of negative images of black youths in the news and other mainstream media throughout the 1980s and 1990s. These circumstances all fed into the narratives of gangsta rap.[24] Post-industrialisation and cutbacks in government funding for inner city areas also had a disproportionately profound effect on black communities.[25] White communities were also affected, however. The disenfranchisement of growing numbers of young whites during this era may be one reason why so many white youths developed an affinity with rap music and its anti-establishment rhetoric and representations of disenchanted youth.

Samuels claims that ‘rap’s primary audience is white and lives in the suburbs’.[26] The idea that white suburban kids are rap’s ‘primary audience’ is one contested by some, including author, social commentator and ex-editor of the Source magazine, Bakari Kitwana. He highlights the unreliability of the music purchase recording systems which Samuels refers to, and the proliferation of mix tapes and other untraceable ways in which rap saturates black communities.[27] Either way, there is no doubt that rap has a large following amongst white youths, and this allows them to become engaged in dialogues regarding the significance of race and racism.

In ‘Racial Dualism’, Winant points to the discrediting of white supremacy since the civil rights era as a contributory factor to white racial dualism.[28] He explains that some have forged ways to maintain white supremacy through covert forms of neo-conservative racism, whereas others have embraced antiracism through a number of forms, including ‘popular cultural forms’, notably rap.[29] As Winant points out, though, ‘none of these [sources] is free of ambiguity and contradiction.’[30]

Eminem: the paradox of white rap

In a sense, white rapper Eminem, who came to mainstream prominence with the release of his second album The Slim Shady LP in 1999, is an embodiment of the paradoxes present in white involvement in rap. Eminem’s adept usage of the urban black lexicon ubiquitous in rap shows that whites not only consume hip-hop culture, but also develop their own identities through it. Frantz Fanon has said that ‘a man who possesses a language consequently possesses the world expressed and informed by that language.’[31] So, language has the power to promote cross-cultural exchange. As Eminem has made evident to the mainstream audience, whites are not merely consumers of rap music but also architects of the culture.

However, it may be said that the success of Eminem is evidence of white privilege. Eminem is not unaware of the irony of his position. In his song ‘White America’, released in 2002 he says:

Look at these eyes, baby blue baby just like yourself
If they were brown shady loose, Shady sits on the shelf…
Lets do the math, if I was black I would’ve sold half[32]

Here, Eminem recognises the structural racism affords him a position of privilege. He is aware of the fact that being a member of the dominant race makes him a more viable commodity than black artists. His success belies Samuel’s, aforementioned assumptions regarding rap consumer’s voyeuristic racism. Of course, it could be said that Eminem’s ‘white trash’ persona exploits yet another subjugated demographic, deeming the white underclass the subject of the white middle-class consumer’s voyeuristic gaze. The fact that rappers know how to exploit the audience’s desire for hard-luck stories and voyeurism is evident.  However, what is pertinent to this article is how Eminem’s success illuminates racial dualism whilst simultaneously allowing for greater unity and understanding across racial boundaries. 

In the 2002 film 8 Mile Eminem portrays a young rapper, B-Rabbit, who is vying for respect from the local hip-hop community. During local rap battles black competitors make disparagements based on his race. Lyckity Splyt raps:

Take some real advice
And form a group with Vanilla Ice…
This guys a hillbilly, this aint Willie Nelson music…
You’ll get dropped so hard that Elvis’ll start turning in his grave[33]

8-mile

B-Rabbit is put down here via comparisons with famous white artists. These associations are intended to align him with the institutional racism prevalent in American media, which, as mentioned earlier, rappers, such as Chuck D have illuminated. In another battle another antagonistic black rapper, Lotto, states:

I’ll spit a racial slur honkey, sue me
This is a horror flick
But the black guy doesn’t die in this movie[34]

Lotto wins support from the almost completely black audience by referring to the racism represented and reproduced in American movies, thereby correlating the white rapper with institutional racism and in turn questioning B-Rabbit’s validity as a contributor to the rap genre.

Eventually, B-Rabbit wins the final battle, against Papa Doc, by way of his outstanding ability and willingness to mock his own ‘white trash’ background. This is, then, a narrative of hope where racial boundaries are overcome and cultural alliances are prompted through skill as opposed to race. One of the put downs in B-Rabbit’s winning rap states:

You went to Cranbrook, that’s a private school…
This guys a gangsta but his real name’s Clarence
And Clarence’s parents got a real good marriage[35]

By pointing out that his opponent comes from a privileged background and has had good educational opportunities, B-Rabbit embarrasses the antagonist and questions his authenticity as a rap artist aligned with the gangsta image. So, race is used against the white rapper, showing racial dualism, and class is used to disconnect the black rapper from the audience, showing black racial dualism. These rap battles, therefore, illuminate racial dualism and show that integrity can overcome racial duality and also that disingenuousness, as in Papa Doc’s gangsta posturing, may maintain duality. 

This narrative, however, could also be read as an allegory for ‘whiteness as disadvantage,’ which, as Winant explains, is a product of the neo-conservative backlash against anti-racist policies. Elements of the white working class community have been ill informed that declining living standards, under deindustrialisation, are a result of welfare state handouts and affirmative action policies. This feeds into the idea that whites have become America’s last priority, and that they are disadvantaged by such policies. Though there is ‘almost no evidence’ for this ‘imaginary white disadvantage’, the idea has ‘achieved widespread popular credence.’[36] Indeed, the 8 Mile narrative shows a young white man placed in a position of disadvantage, who finally overcomes this adversity (in terms of cultural acceptance) by pointing out the disingenuousness of black, middle class rappers playing the role of the disadvantaged. The message is not ‘free of ambiguity and contradiction’[37] but unity is the end result in the narrative, and its willingness to address issues of race, class and duality encourage critical discussion on these topics.

Conclusion

Rappers are not necessarily community leaders. Moreover, rappers’ and rap fans’ opinions are as much a product of America’s structural racism and sexism as any other citizen, regardless of race. The significance of rap with respect to racial inequality is therefore ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory. On one hand, it has helped united fans of different races in mutual, cultural appreciation and expression. On the other hand, rap may at times support racist ideology by reproducing black stereotypes, as in gangsta rap. However, when rap highlights racial dualism in a ‘color-blind’ era, it performs the function of provoking discussion, thereby allowing for direct scrutiny of structural racism. In this sense, rap has the ability to serve as an illuminating and unifying force in American society. Finally, then, rap has encouraged dialogue and cultural understanding by uniting fans and performers across racial boundaries: ‘It’s a start, a work of art’.  

  References
 

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Paperview, 2005) pp 9-12

[2] Howard Winant, ‘Racial Dualism at Century’s End’. In The House that Race Built (New York: Vintage Books, 1997) pp 87-115, 88

[3] Howard Winant, ‘Racism Today: Continuity and Change in the Post-Civil Rights Era’ In Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 21, no 4 (1998) http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/winant/what_is_racism.html p 6

[4]Winant, ‘Racism Today’, p 6. In this article, Winant describes the two sides of color-blindness: ‘[T]he claim, first made in 1896 and recently elevated to nearly hegemonic jurisprudential doctrine, that “our Constitution is color-blind,” can in fact be understood in two ways. It can mean, as Justice Harlan evidently intended in his ringing dissent in the Plessy case, and as the early civil rights movement clearly understood it as well, that the power of the state should not be used to enforce invidious racial distinctions. But it can also mean that the power of the state should not be used to uproot those distinctions either.’ 

[5] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’, pp 87-115, 88

[6] Howard Winant, ‘Dealing with Racism in the Age of Obama’,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/howard-winant/dealing-with-racism-in-th_b_141634.html...

[7] Patricia Williams, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ In Seeing a Colour Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (London: Virago, 1997) pp 391 – 399, 398

[8] Public Enemy, Fight the Power: For full lyrics, see http://www.publicenemy.com/index.php?page=page5&item=3&num=74 [accessed November 2011].

[9] Public Enemy, Fight the Power.  

[10] Chuck D, Fight the Power – Rap Race and Reality (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1997) p 196

[11] Alex Ogg with David Upshall, The Hip Hop Years – A History of Rap (London: Channel 4 Books, 1999) p 98

[12] Public Enemy, Fight the Power.

[13] David Samuels, ‘The Rap on Rap’: The Black Music that Isn’t Either’. In That’s The Joint (New York: Routledge, 2004) pp 147-153, 150

[14] Eithne Quinn, ‘Black British Cultural Studies and the Rap on Gangsta’ In Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2, European Perspectives on Black Music (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000) p 195

[15] Joel Mciver, Ice Cube – Attitude (Surrey: Biddles Ltd, 2002).

[17] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’, pp 87-115, 100

[18] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’, p.100

[19] Samuels, ‘The Rap on Rap’, pp 147-153, 151

[20] Samuels, p 153

[21] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’, p 100

[22] Winant, Racial Dualism’, p98

[23] Ice Cube, It’s a Man’s World. For full lyrics, see http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/It's-A-Man's-World-lyrics-Ice-Cube/9B58F645E1D1F2EC482568D9000CEB65 [accessed November 2011]

[24] Bakari Kitwana, The Hip-Hop Generation (New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2002) p 38

[25] Tricia Rose, Black Noise (Middletown: Wesleyan Press, 1994) p 30

[26] Samuels, ‘The Rap on Rap’,  pp 147-153

[27] Bakari Kitwana, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop (New York: Perseus Books, 2005) p 124

[28] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’ p 87-115, 102-103

[29] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’ pp 103 & 106

[30] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’ p.106

[31] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press Limited, 1986)

[35] 8 Mile. dir. Curtis Hanson. For full lyrics, see http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/e/eminem1371/8milebattlevpapadoc267931.html

[36] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’ pp 87-115, 104 & 105

[37] Winant, ‘Racial Dualism’ p 106.

Bibliography

8 Mile, dir. Curtis Hanson, 2002

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop – A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2nd ed. St Martin’s Press, 2007)

D, Chuck. Fight the Power – Rap Race and Reality (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1997)

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Paperview, 2005)

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press Limited, 1986)

Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip-Hop Generation (New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2002)

Kitwana, Bakari. Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop (New York: Perseus Books, 2005)

McIntosh, Peggy ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ In Working Paper 189 – ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies (Wellesley: Wellesley College Centre for Research on Women, 1998)

Mciver, Joel. Ice Cube – Attitude (Surrey: Biddles Ltd, 2002)

Ogg, Alex with Upshall, David. The hip hop Years – A History of Rap (London: Channel 4 Books, 1999)

Quinn, Eithne. ‘Black British Cultural Studies and the Rap on Gangsta’ In Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2, European Perspectives on Black Music (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000) pp 195 – 216

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise (Middletown: Wesleyan Press, 1994)

Samuels, David. ‘The Rap on Rap: The Black Music that Isn’t Either’ In That’s The Joint (New York: Routledge, 2004) pp 147-153

Williams, Patricia ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ In Seeing a Colour Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (London: Virago, 1997) pp 391 - 398

Winant, Howard ‘Dealing with Racism in the Age of Obama’ cited http://www.huffingtonpost.com/howard-winant/dealing-with-racism-in-th_b_141634.html...

Winant, Howard. ‘Racial Dualism at Century’s End’ In The House that Race Built (New York: Vintage Books, 1997) pp 87-115

Winant, Howard ‘Racism Today: Continuity and Change in the Post-Civil Rights Era’ In Ethic and Racial Studies Vol. 21, no 4 (1998) http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/winant/what_is_racism.html

Winant, Howard ‘Race and Race Theory’ In Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 26 (2000) pp 169 - 185

 

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