Self-Reflexive Whiteness: White Rappers, and the Nerds Who Mock Them
Brief Encounter is not about white people, it is about English middle-class people; The Godfather is not about white people, it is about Italian-American people; The Color Purple is about black people, before it is about poor, southern US people (46).
Dyer does not, however, account for performances of whiteness that self-consciously draw attention to conflicts embedded within their racialization. For example, Annalee Newitz depicts “white trash” as a performance of whiteness that draws attention to the inherent tensions within racialized representation (“Introduction” 6). Representations of white trash’s predispositions towards violence, dimwittedness, alcoholism, and poverty reveals anxieties within whiteness that allow for self-aware racial critiques to escape Dyer’s mold of homogenous normalcy. If all onscreen representations of race are indeed just culturally- and aesthetically-motivated constructions of a type of performance, then parodic caricature presents itself alongside white trash as a potential revealer of whiteness. By presenting an alternate, non-hegemonic version of whiteness, either on its own or alongside traditionally-invisible whiteness, an audiovisual text renders Dyer’s invisibility of white performance visible and, moreover, racialized.
These performances, however, are loaded with an ambiguous racial charge due to their basis in racial appropriation and imitation. The deliberate performance of whiteness becomes a parodic tool which humiliates the authenticity of rap performance’s roots and aspirations as an African- American medium of communal, sociopolitical expression. The tensions over authenticity and appropriation that are embedded in the sincere white rapper’s performance not only transfer to the parodic white rapper but are compounded by the lyrical preoccupation with comedy, which can inadvertently ameliorate, if not validate, the ever-present racial tensions (Park et. al. 160-161). The degree to which parodic white rappers appropriate and thereby disrupt the normativity of white performance requires a careful investigation of white rap’s relationship with rap authenticity and blackness; parodic white rap may smirk at the conventions of black rap culture, but does so by punishing whiteness for attempting to masquerade as anything else but. Ultimately, the music videos of white parodic rappers like John Lajoie and The Lonely Island turn the performance of whiteness into an embodiment of a self-reflexive racial Other, outing the tensions of whiteness by asserting whiteness as bombastic mediocrity, and creating humor by appropriating the appropriators.
Paul J. Olson and Bennie Shobe Jr., for example, stress rap’s value as a public voice for disempowered communities:
Rap is a form of resistance against the racial and economic pressures placed on the truly disadvantaged. It is a medium for challenging authority figures, especially the police. Rap music is a form of political expression and a form of ‘‘oppositional culture’’ for a group that the American political system, media, and white majority abandoned long ago. (994-995)
Ronald J. Stevens and Earl Wright similarly position the rapper as a communal historian, voicing a first-hand account of the grim realities of underprivileged urban life (25-31). In the American context, rap’s representation of urban oppression is readily linked to the plight of many African- American communities. The most important authenticators of rap which can be dissociated from racial preoccupation, however, are the valorization of experience over knowledge, and “the ethic of personal accountability” for one’s opinions (Olson and Shobe 997-998). Adherence to these black epistemological principles (996) racially authenticates a rap performance by connecting the performance to the African-American lived experience (Hess 374) whilst recontextualizing rap’s capacity for social critique to the rapper’s own community, whatever community that may be. The rapper must appear to faithfully represent his own lived experience as part of, and on behalf of, his community of origin, and to uphold the personal convictions about which he raps.
The consequences for a rapper failing to live up to these expectations can be dire. The falsification of claimed experiences, or the making of disingenuous claims, often comes at the expense of one’s credibility and, eventually, one’s career. For example, in the music video for “Ice Ice Baby”, white rapper Vanilla Ice tries to align himself with elements of African-American ghetto culture, such as graffiti and break-dancing, to compliment his gritty persona. In the early 1990s, Vanilla Ice was publicly outed as not being from the Miami ghetto, thus negating his street-hardened persona. Persecuted as a racially-exploitative liar and borderline neo-minstrel, Vanilla Ice’s career came to an early and rapid end. Mickey Hess explains the notorious plummet from popular approval of this non-parodic white rapper as not only compounding these vital errors in rap performance and persona but also conflating these failures with Vanilla Ice’s whiteness:
Because hip-hop lyrics are rooted in autobiography and often narrate black artists’ struggles against systemic racism, Vanilla Ice’s false claims to a background prominently including ghetto poverty and crime breached the norms of rap rhetoric. Vanilla Ice asked listeners to look past his whiteness to see a kind of social blackness that would authenticate him in the context of a rise to stardom that fit with black rappers’ success stories. He failed, however, because his lies and his translation of hiphop to the pop charts made his performance look like he was merely imitating black artists to make himself rich. (373)
By immersing oneself in the rhetoric of the rapper as the spokesperson for the marginalized community, whilst relocating the rapper from the essentialized ghetto to the performer’s own community, the white rapper can demonstrate an acceptably-appropriated authenticity that is deemed credible by fans, critics, and fellow artists. The white rapper is therefore constantly mediating a stylistic homage to rap’s historical roots in the urban African-American experience whilst adapting and incorporating his own community’s vernacular into the performance’s text and appearance. Marcia Alesan Dawkins cleverly likens this liminal experience to “walking close to the edge”, a paraphrase of a lyric from the famous early rap track “The Message” (1982) by Grand Master Flash:
Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge,
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.
It’s like a jungle sometimes that makes me wonder How I keep from goin’ under!
Walking close to the edge becomes a constant motion within ‘‘a space of enunciation’’ and the concept of the ‘‘here and there’’ addressed in hip-hop discourse shows the binary opposition of sameness/otherness at the heart of America’s entertainment and transracial politics. (463)
Most significant for onscreen performances of white rap – and their parodic off-shoots – are Eminem’s semi-autobiographical performance in rap-musical 8 Mile and his music videos “Hi, My Name Is” (1999), “Cleaning Out My Closet” (2002), and “Sing For The Moment” (2003). Eminem self-consciously draws attention to his whiteness by making whiteness inseparable from his rap performance. Eminem’s three performance personas1 – Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers, and Eminem – each self-consciously implicate and expose the artist’s whiteness as a liminal experience in the rap community (Dawkins 470). Slim Shady jokes snidely through “Hi, My Name Is”; Marshall Mathers reminisces bitterly in “Cleaning Out My Closet” and 8 Mile; Eminem vents professional frustrations in “Sing For The Moment”. In turn, the Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers personas provide ample comedic fodder for parodic white rappers, reconfiguring the performance of whiteness as authentic but pedantically uncool.
The parodic white rapper outs the performer’s whiteness by making the rapper’s persona ironic, often through celebrating young, white, privileged masculinity’s expected and acceptable entitlement to failure (Speed 830). The comedy of these performances co-opts and combines the ironic collegiate humor of the New Smart Film (Sconse 350), exemplified by the output of filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, with the sexual obsessiveness and crudeness of the Vulgar Teen Comedy (Speed 823), exemplified by films like American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999). Umberto Eco’s model of the Comic Effect to the parodic white rapper encapsulates the comedic and racial charge of these performances by demonstrating both its progressive and regressive aspirations. When the “animal-like” comic character (Eco 2) breaches a rule of etiquette, the spectator feels validated in laughing at and even welcoming the broken rule because the comic character is solely accountable for the transgression: “[the] comic is always racist: the others, the Barbarians, are supposed to pay” (2). The parodic white rapper therefore breaks Dyer’s invisibility and normalcy of whiteness through his exaggerated racial performance, and the spectator allows the transgression because of the absurdity of the performance, even if this whiteness is a crude caricature a sincere white rapper’s appropriation of various elements of blackness.
Where “Lazy Sunday” and “Hi, My Name Is” differ in terms of racial performance, however, is in how the autobiographical aspects of each performer are embedded in a logic of performative authentication. Whereas Slim Shady is a caricature of the experience of a white rapper in search of legitimization and acceptance, citing the artist’s whiteness as a simultaneous detriment and benefit to his career, “Lazy Sunday”’s Andy Samberg and fellow Saturday Night Live star Chris Parnell reveal their whiteness as a precondition of their enthusiasm for popular culture.
Samberg and Parnell also locate themselves geographically within New York City, implying an allegiance to an urban community that is noticeably lacking in “Hi, My Name Is”. That said, their expression of geographic community comes primarily through references to various online maps that they will use to find the movie theatre in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This conflation of popular culture, established through the Narnia references and the performer’s diegetic debate over the usefulness of cartographic websites such as Mapquest.com and GoogleMaps.com, with the urban experience of New York City speaks to a postmodern interest in pastiche and surface value (Jameson 115). One could interpret this as proof of Dyer’s notion of whiteness’ articulation through contrast: Samberg and Parnell’s surface whiteness becomes just another cultural citation, rendered visible by its place within the pastiche of references, which includes the commonplace association of rap’s urban localization as a primary black experience. However, to follow Eco’s model, Samberg and Parnell are racialized as “barbarians” (Eco 2) because of their performance of a non-hegemonic whiteness, which turns “Lazy Sunday”’s racial deprecation against whiteness for its inability to account for the entirety of its performance types. The humor in Samberg and Parnell’s authentic performance as movie- going nerds erases the possibility of mis-representational fronting; their appropriation of aggressively-delivered rap transforms the musical performance into an expression of their nerd- dom and, vicariously, of their liminal whiteness.
Although T-Pain’s blackness and Auto-Tuned vocals might prove Dyer’s theory of racial visibility through racial contrast, T-Pain’s tongue-in-cheek performance alongside Samberg and Schaffer casts the black rapper in a symbolic and satirical white-face. T-Pain’s dancing style, echoing lyrics, and costuming are consistent with those of Samberg and Schaffer, thereby collapsing all of their racialized performances into a tongue-in-cheek white-face which reveals whiteness as a constructed facade, revealing the invisibility by normalizing and standardizing all racial performances within this music video. If “I’m On A Boat” is a racist text, the butt of the joke is a performance of whiteness whose bombastic mediocrity seems too small for the video’s grandiose formal construction. One would be hard pressed to argue that T-Pain is vicariously victimized racially for being forced to play against his usually-cool stage presence being associated with Samberg and Schaffer’s nerdy antics. For better or worse, the presence of established and successful black rapper T-Pain prevents the appropriation of rap video aesthetics from seeming racially exploitative; tongue-in-cheek T-Pain is complicit in the joke at the expense of Samberg and Schaffer’s whiteness.
Inversely to Slim Shady, the brooding, introspective Marshall Mathers persona achieves rap authenticity by invoking the artist’s troubled childhood and other personal disfunctions cited by the artist as part of his autobiography, such as histories of substance abuse and urban malaise:
[Eminem’s] discourse invites his auditors to view the world as he does, as a solitary environment in which identity, personal meaning, and self-esteem are absent. He engages white ambivalence along with black acceptance by aligning the pains of his experience to the necessary pain of a credible hip-hop persona. (Dawkins 476)
The music video for “Cleaning Out My Closet” grounds the self-loathing of the Marshall Mathers persona in his dysfunctional relationship with his mother, mobilizing rap as a form of aesthetic exorcism of his painful past. Whereas Slim Shady embraces the artist’s whiteness and its roundabout benefits in the rap community, Marshall Mathers indicts his whiteness as a precondition of his troubled upbringing, as if desiring futilely to make his whiteness Other to himself to alleviate his suffering. By doing so, Marshall Mathers inadvertently reifies Newitz’s theory of peripheral racializations as outers of racial tensions; by rebelling against his White Trash upbringing, Marshall Mathers aligns himself with any community except the one in which he grew up. The most vivid and substantial example of the racialization of the Marshall Mathers persona, however, is the artist’s semi-autobiographical performance in 8 Mile, wherein whiteness is racially outed simultaneously through its contrast with blackness and through the film’s construction of an extreme, anxiety-revealing whiteness.
As a musical, the rap battles’ progression from the real to the idealized realm (Altman 60) signifies the fantasy of racial invisibility through a highly-problematic deprecation of whiteness to fit in with blackness. During the course of the final rap battle, Rabbit’s community-forging tactics change from making white and black synonymous, with the unifying 313 opener, to casting himself as so downtrodden that he is effectively black, thereby walking Dawkins’ proverbial line of acceptance between two conflicting racial identities. The performance of the Marshall Mathers persona in 8 Mile, however, becomes a front for the artist because the celebrity artist is “slumming” in a rags-to-(eventual)-riches performance, thereby conflating hypothetical personal poverty with the communal poverty from which rap derives much of its sociopolitical importance. 8 Mile is as much the story of an aspiring rapper’s ascent to success as an established artist’s masquerade as being impoverished.
If you rarely get laid, put your hands up!
If you’re not well paid, put your hands up! If you’ve got a pet cat, put your hands up!
If you’ve got a bad back, put your hands up!
Lajoie’s videos distinguish themselves from those of The Lonely Island and the Eminem with their obviously-minimal budget and homemade aesthetics. The music video for “Everyday Normal Guy” is clearly not financially backed by a major television network or Hollywood studio, and exists instead as a music video only on video-streaming video websites like YouTube. The low- resolution digital camera pans of the Montreal harbor behind Lajoie throughout “Everyday Normal Guy” prevent any notion of slumming or fronting on Lajoie’s part because the mundanity of the background is a perfect compliment to the bored complacency of the lyrics. As a self-reflexive articulation of bourgeois whiteness, “Everyday Normal Guy” relocalizes high-budget white rap music videos to unimpressive urban roots, but also parodies rap by not demanding social change to mollify the rapper’s lived experience of that un-impressiveness. Lajoie has nothing to prove, and even if he did, he would not mind if others were unconvinced.
The music video for “Sing For The Moment”, released shortly after 8 Mile’s cinematic release, relies on a communal bond between performer and audience, who in this video are predominately white teenage girls, to consolidate his ability to resist legal persecution for the occasionally misogynistic and homophobic content of his material. The video’s juxtaposition of documentary footage of the artist in concert with staged sequences of Eminem rapping in a studio soundstage scrutinizes the construction of his racial performance as a fiction based in reality. This conflation of documentary and staged moments lets Eminem cite his own celebrity as a legal liability, as he angrily raps:
Thats why these prosecutors wanna convict me
Swiftly just to get me offa these streets quickly
But all their kids been listen’n to me religiously
So I’m signing CDs while police fingerprint me:
They’re for the judge’s daughter, but his grudge is against me.
Eminem makes rap seem race-neutral to gain access to the sympathy of diverse rap audiences, as if rap itself is what is being prosecuted, and thereby essentializes the experience of all rappers – himself included – as being in conflict with legal authority.
This persona, however, tests the boundaries of acceptability within a rap community that remains vigilant against exploitative white appropriation (Hess 375); if whiteness becomes invisible within rap, the fear remains that the art-form will lose its connection to the African- American experience and, with it, its authenticity and reason for being. “Sing For The Moment” thus walks the line between racially essentializing and alienating the rap community in which Eminem purports to be a member whilst citing his membership as a form of legal defense.
Whereas some of The Lonely Island’s music videos rely upon an essentialized white-face rap persona for satirical purposes, Eminem’s “serious” attempt to appropriate and blend in with black rap’s resistance to white authority could be seen as racialized profiteering. At best, Eminem’s whiteness “provides limited invisibility and unlimited mobility within which he plays on difference and universality” (Dawkins 473). At worst, Eminem reifies the fears of racial appropriation as a form of neo-minstrelsy, donning the wardrobe and musical styles of black culture to assert a safely invisible whiteness (477), and even citing his whiteness as the target of legal racial profiling. This persona’s pursuit of allegiance with the audience through pretenses of racial homogeneity amongst fellow rappers as a shield against sociopolitical and legal persecution is at odds with the parodic whitenesses that undercut the artist’s other personas.
The Eminem persona vicariously restricts rap parodies to the nerdy fringes of rap authenticity. Parodic white rappers have no need to use their performances to align and aggressively mobilize their audience on the rappers’ behalf. Even the most successful parodic white rappers, such as The Lonely Island and Jon Lajoie, have been unable to create sufficient public controversy to warrant enlisting their audience as defensive collateral. Parodic white rappers must accept their comedy as a mild but acceptable form of fronting; comedy alleviates just enough of the burden of rap authenticity to let the front stand in for the depicted racial performance.
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1 One of the difficulties of writing about Eminem is negotiating the taxonomy of his personas. “Eminem” is not only one of the three distinct personas but also the brand name for the combination of the three, and therefore also the referent for the artist who performs these personas. When a distinction between a persona and the rapper performing that persona is required, the rapper will be referred to as “the artist”.