American music has always been and will always be synonymous with Black music. Every single genre of music that originated on American soil, whether it be minstrel, jazz, blues, rock in roll, yacht rock, country, or disco, was all created or inspired by Black artists. Before Black music, white people in America only really listened to classical music imported from Europe.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Black people in America began to create more music, only for it to be co-opted by white artists who were more palatable to white audiences. In recent years, our awareness of this historical pattern has grown as more and more people credit Black artists for the fame of artists like Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra. The song that gave Elvis Presley his longest-running number one track, “Hound Dog,” was originally sung by Ellie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Frank Sinatra also gained fame and fortune by adapting the works of Black Jazz artists like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Sammy Davis Jr. for white audiences.
I don’t say this to discredit white artists, but instead to point out that oftentimes when white Americans think of popular culture, they actually think of Black culture. Culture, in other words, the art that is produced through a people’s survival, is often critiqued without any effort to contextualize the environment in which it was created. This pattern often occurs in right-wing spaces, where political pundits like Ben Shapiro link hip-hop culture to the structural inequality Black Americans face. They blame poverty on lyrics rather than on centuries-long policies specifically aimed at disenfranchising America’s Black people.
Now, hip-hop music has become the most popular genre of music in the U.S. However, the 2020 U.S census report showed that white people make up 57.8% of the population while Black people only make up 12.4%. These demographics prove that now in the 21st Century, white people are actually listening to art made directly by Black artists. Does this signal a fundamental shift in America’s race relations, or that white Americans all of a sudden admire and respect Black creatives?
No, in fact, I think any glance at the newspaper would say otherwise. I would argue that white Americans have always loved the Black culture, just not Black people. This longing for proximity to blackness, I think, is what explains why white people love hip-hop music so much.
The YouTuber, Contrapoints suggests that Hip Hop is a signal of the American Dream, that its aesthetic of opulence “isn’t just gratuitous glitz and hedonism, it’s a celebration of success for people who often come from different backgrounds where that kind of success is really improbable.”
Yet, I think hip-hop culture is more than just Black people celebrating their newfound access to the American dream. It’s an authentic demonstration of their resistance as a people. Therefore, white people are not simply vicariously celebrating American opulence through listening to Hip Hop music. Instead, they are putting on a performance of this authenticity. An authenticity to which their whiteness prevented them from ever laying claim to.
In a country whose policies have always protected white people yet, memorialized the concept of a struggle, how do white people get to feel authentic? The answer is simple; through appropriating blackness. In an age where blackface and minstrel shows are no longer acceptable, what is left is Black music.