“180” S1 E3 – Are White People Guests in Hip-Hop?

Macklemore Sesame Street
Macklemore on Sesame Street in 2015 (PBS Kids)

For the 180 podcast episode, listen here. To keep up with 180, subscribe to the 180 RSS Feed.

This piece was adapted from Zander Tsadwa’s Quora response to the question “Are White rappers guests in hip-hop?“.

Hip-hop’s origin story is that of a genre, a culture, born to young people on the margins tired of being cropped out of society’s picture. From scratching up disco records to creating a new style of vocal performance by riding beats in near-speaking cadences, hip-hop differs from other popular subcultures because it is built on the innovation of Black and Latine artists most affected by America’s social ills (e.g. racism, poverty, mass incarceration). That’s why their stories are central to hip-hop.

Even the waviest party songs from a Black/Latine rapper have at least one of these truths as a backdrop.

Saw the police and they rolled right past me

“It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube (1992)

I had to find the buried treasure, so grams I had to measure/
However living better now, Gucci sweater now

“Big Poppa” by Notorious B.I.G. (1994)

Growing up in poverty or being Black are not prerequisites to being a valuable part of hip-hop culture. That being said, if the statures of two figures in hip-hop are roughly equal, the one who doesn’t hold those identities should defer to figures who do in crucial discourse about the culture.

Jimmy Iovine should never be louder than Dr. Dre.

The Beastie Boys should never be louder than Public Enemy.

I’m sure you get the idea.

This does not mean a White participant in hip-hop should always defer to a Black or Latine. For instance, if the question “What makes a rapper skilled?” became a hot-button topic, Eminem’s opinion would be as authoritative as any. Of course, the people have the final say—if hip-hop depended too much on gatekeepers it wouldn’t be hip-hop—but Em has more than earned his right to make declarative statements on what makes a good rapper.

There are certainly moments where diligent White figures in hip-hop can be assertive. But for the most part, White people in hip-hop should follow the lead of their Black and brown peers.

Down to its nuts and bolts, hip-hop is about justice in and freedom from a racist-capitalist world. Even when the justice looks like a crack dealer leaving a courthouse in a Rolls-Royce, or the freedom looks like Playboi Carti’s baby voice, hip-hop’s spiritual aim remains the same: let the marginalized flex.

White people can have as deep of a bond with hip-hop as anyone. But since White people do not suffer systemic racial injustice, they cannot viscerally connect to one of hip-hop’s essential purposes as a pro-Black, anti-racist space. Hitting back at racism is at hip-hop’s core, a part of the culture’s soul meant for people who live life swimming against the current of the world’s racist onslaught. For this reason, hip-hop will never be as crucial to the well-being of White people as it is for people of color, particularly Black people. And since Black people are the most invested in hip-hop’s survival, it only makes sense they should have the most authority in that realm as a guiding rule.

So, are White people guests in hip-hop? Yes. They’re very welcome in the house and can even be the life of the party. However, they won’t ever have the right to say who else can be in the house. If someone asks them to help around the house or step outside for a second, they should oblige proudly.

At the end of the day, a White participant can leave hip-hop whenever they want and have a greater chance of finding another home—musically, professionally, socially—than their Black and Latine peers. Because of this freedom, labeling White people as “guests” in hip-hop is parity, not oppression. Awareness of this freedom is key for White people in hip-hop to have.


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