On The Dearth of Black Hip-Hop Writers At Mainstream Outlets
After Kanye West implored several “white outlets” to refrain from writing about Black music on Twitter in February, 31-year-old Producer/DJ Temisan Adoki was compelled to do some digging. A self-proclaimed “avid” reader of Vice, Complex, and other music outlets for over a decade, he had become disenchanted with the online publications on many fronts.
Via e-mail, Adoki vented that he’s grown sick of uninformed lists like Billboard’s ridiculous top 10 rappers ever. Ditto gawking articles like a February GQ.com feature in which Devin Friedman expressed a mocking astonishment that Young Thug’s first name is Jeff. The Nigerian-Crucian Adoki rued Vice visiting African countries and “doing their best to present Africans as uncivilized savages.” A piece in the Columbia Journalism review chided Vice for their “cultural tourism,” and Adoki believes NOISEY — the media behemoth’s urban music wing — and other outlets take the same voyeuristic approach with their Hip-Hop coverage.
“I was seeing way too many of these online publications get away with murder in terms of revisionist history,” Adoki said. His frustrations with outlets that tried to make “Tropical House” a thing compelled him “to look behind the front, and see what is going on behind the scenes.”
The results of his search were jarring, and he shared them on urban lifestyle message board TheColi.com. Of the 193 names he had come across via Pitchfork’s masthead, a Complex “Best Music of 2015” list, and Linkedin profiles, he found just 13 Black writers and editors between Rolling Stone, Complex, Pitchfork, Noisey, SPIN, Fader, and GQ. 4 each at Pitchfork and Complex. 2 each at Noisey and SPIN.1 at GQ and a whopping 0 on staff at Rolling Stone. Adoki admits the scope of his search was limited, but based on the current demographics of the Journalism industry as a whole it’s unlikely that his findings were drastically off.
A 2014 The Prospect article entitled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media” tabulated equally troubling results: There were 4 minorities on the editorial staff of 61 at The Atlantic, 2 minorities out of 25 at Salon, and 4 minorities out of 23 at Vox. Also in 2014, Tatsha Robertson, an ex-senior editor of People magazine, sued the publication. She alleged just 5 of People’s 110 employees were Black. Gawker Media’s 2015 diversity report noted their editorial staff as 78% white. Why are these numbers so low, especially in the Hip-Hop industry — a predominantly Black artform?
Perhaps this dearth correlates with the rise of the “hipster” outlet, which has achieved a relatively undeserved ubiquity in Hip-Hop. Both Vice and Complex rode a wave of investments — and ad revenue from click-bait articles — to basically buy their online prominence. In the 2000s, Complex bought out a slew of smaller shoe and skateboard culture sites like 12 Oz Prophet and Sneaker News. While their bottomlines expanded, the racial dynamics of their masthead didn’t.
Meanwhile outlets like the Source, the mic-giving stalwart that reigned as the respected authority on Hip-Hop culture during print magazine’s heyday, can’t afford to pay their predominantly Black staff in 2016. Some Black writers have prospered via Complex and other prominent publications, but for every Ernest Baker there are hundreds more Black music writers who feel squeezed between the sides, resigned to pitching shots in the dark to predominantly white outlets or writing for publications that can’t offer competitive salaries.
When Complex Editor-In-Chief Noah Callahan-Bever was queried on the imbalance by journalist Elliot Wilson on a RapRadar podcast, he didn’t address it. Wilson brought up the “lack of African-American employees” as one of a cluster of criticisms levied against Complex. Bever fixated on readers’ problem with his outlet’s lists, but didn’t broach the topic of Black writers. Wilson didn’t bring it up again for the rest of the hour-long podcast. Perhaps neither Bever or Wilson, as entrenched a hip-hop writer as it gets (who partners with Brian “B.Dot” Miller, another Black journalist), thought it was a big deal. Elsewhere in the podcast, Bever expressed he had a “company first” mindset that trumped individual branding, which may indicate blinders towards the racial makeup at his company.
Preston West, co-Founder of Cypher League, a Brooklyn-based media company suggests the inequality is “part of a larger issue of racial disparity within the workplace, but that disparity is especially ironic when it comes to sites covering pop culture that has been essentially overtaken by hip-hop.”
24-year-old Journalist Ivie Ani adds that, “people forget how much of a stronghold white people have had in the ‘industry’ …especially black music. We already know that a significant amount of major publications — including some black publications — are owned by white people. ”
Indeed, nearly every music outlet mentioned in this piece is owned by a corporation whose hierarchy reflects that of western society’s upper crust — white males. Vice media is in bed with Rupert Murdoch after his 21st Century Fox corporation bought 5% of the company in 2013. Complex was just purchased by Verizon and Hearst communications for an undisclosed — undoubtedly hefty — figure. In 2015, Pitchfork was bought out by Conde Nast. A trickledown effect is inevitable within this power circle.
Pitchfork, who once published a “People’s List” of best indie rock albums that was 88% male (of 27, 981 voters), was acquired by Conde Nast in large part because the corporation saw an opportunity to add “a very passionate audience of Millennial males into our roster, ” as Chief Digital Officer Fred Santarpia gleefully mentioned upon purchase.
Ani referenced Hollywood Diversity Report director Mark Hunt’s recent comments on proximity in Hollywood for perspective on the dynamic. Hunt noted, “people want to surround themselves with collaborators they’re comfortable with, which tends to mean people they’ve networked with — and nine times out of 10, they’ll look similar. It reproduces the same opportunities for the same kind of people: You’re surrounding yourself with a bunch of white men to feel comfortable.”
Rolling Stone head Jann Wenner made the most “comfortable” choice possible when tabbing his 22-year-old son Gus to run the outlet’s website in 2013.
Note to young, Black writers: If your dad isn’t the owner of Rolling Stone, you’ll have to compete with the rest of the pack, which means meeting stringent prerequisites of consideration for a staff position. Many publications require a 4-year degree from a venerable institution and extensive internship experience. Journalist David Dennis estimated in a The Guardian piece that “9 out of 10” successful journalists who spoke to him at Northwestern’s graduate school of Journalism conveyed the necessity of an unpaid internship “in New York for months or years.”
That circumstance is a nonstarter for most aspiring Black writers, who generally don’t have the means to work for free. As Cornell graduate West notes, “who can afford to work without remuneration? Privileged college kids more often than not.” Regardless of its ethical standing, the unpaid internship is still a standard. West alleges his college friends — who worked with Vice media for free — told him “horror stories” of demanding supervisors who made them work excessive hours. .
Their stories parallel that of blogger Kat Blaque, who took media titan Buzzfeed to task for claiming they were unable to pay content contributors even as the outlet makes hand over fist off of their content and prohibits staffers from working elsewhere. Blaque aired her frustrations in a blog post, claiming Buzzfeed “is eager to cash a check that would have less zeros without marginalized voices, but ‘doesn’t have the budget’ when asked to pay the same people for their work and their time.”
Ani, who has been published in the New York Times, says “the hardest part about navigating my career as a young black woman is figuring out how much money I should be asking for.”
Currently a freelance writer, Ani admits “struggling to place my voice in the same space as the fast-paced, hipster-friendly views that some of these popular sites propel.” She managed to place an article with the Times on her first try, but hasn’t had the same success in the music industry. Noisey, Fader, and Rolling Stone are just some of the outlets that she’s yet to receive traction with. Ani believes there would be “undue pressure” put on her as a Black staff writer at a prominent music outlet because “companies haven’t fully figured out how to practice inclusion and amplification of black voices,” instead relying on “tokenization.”
As writer Irenosen Okojie stated in her aptly-titled Black British writers: we’re more than just Zadie Smith and Monica Ali Guardian piece, “it seems the industry likes to champion one or two of us at a time, but no more.”
The industries’ brand of tokenism threatens to sculpt a narrow spectrum for writers of color, any one of whom could be pigeonholed into writing primarily about topics and music that aligns with their race and gender — regardless of their actual interest in them.
Italian-Ivorian writer Sarah Ahinim, who worked for Noisey Italia before moving onto Italian Magazine NSS, says during her formative years she suffered under the bigotry of ‘xenophobic“ white Italians because she was Black, yet has seemingly found a refuge in writing circles for that very reason.
‘The few smart and cultivated white Italians are always just really happy to see different colors and cultures around them,” Ahimin surmised via e-mail.
Ahimin gushes that throughout her career her editors have “embraced” her ideas and given her “total freedom” because they “need and want a different eye on things.”
In a society where identity politics are becoming more prevalent, those eager to examine the issues endemic to their particular ethnic or gender group may not mind the relative compartmentalization that takes place, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. The spotlight for minority voices is so meager that anyone within it feels the weight of an entire people relying on them to “get it right.” Considering how dynamic black culture is — with a slew of divergent opinions influenced by worldwide oppression — that’s an unfair position that could be easily eliminated with more opportunity.
Where is the line between representation and tokenization? More importantly, do editors even care to consider it?
Ahimin says that she will begin pitching American publications in the near future. Time will tell how she fares, but hopefully she has a smoother ride than freelance writer Richardine Bartee, who’s written on the staff of The Source and Atlanta Black Star. She speaks of a similarly troubling experience to Ani as a Black woman journalist. A professional writer for 12 years, she recalls a particular disturbing instance with music outlet Boiler Room, who sought her to write on Hip-Hop and EDM. She forwarded me their email correspondence.
After showing the outlet her qualifications, “everything seemed good,” Bartee says, and a meeting was scheduled. A week and a half later, a day before the interview, the HR person she was communicating with told Bartee that she was going out of town, and wouldn’t be able to hold the interview. Bartee sent an email asking the best date to reschedule, but received no further reply from Boiler Room. Bartee pondered if her race and/or gender was the cause for the snub.
“You don’t know when to say something or who to say something to,” Bartee recalls about dealing with perceived unprofessionalism. “As far as I know there’s no union to [tell]…you don’t know who to talk to.”
Even when Black journalists try to express their qualms to their white counterparts, it may feel like trying to beat down a proverbial brick wall of indignance. Journalist Craig Jenkins recently had a spirited discussion with blogger Anthony Fantano on TheNeedleDrop podcast in which Jenkins highlighted the lack of Black writers hired by major outlets to review albums with Afrocentric themes — such as Kanye West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo.
Jenkins lamented that he saw just two reviews of TLOP by people of color. He expressed to Fantano that on TLOP — and in general coverage of Kanye — there are “certain complexities of the Black experience that you have to have had from being there,” and tasking “writers who aren’t sensitive to the underpinning of the issues” can’t properly address the “matters of Blackness” at hand.
Fantano could’ve absorbed Jenkins’ criticism, but he followed up by stubbornly asking if he or other white writers were justified in questioning the “validity” of West’s cries of marginalization — as if he didn’t just hear what the marginalized Jenkins had said. Fantano’s tonedeaf rebuttals to Jenkins highlighted a glaring cultural disconnect in the industry. It’s not simply about race, but white journalists would be wiser to recognize the theoretical margins — and when to pass (or at least acknowledge) when a topic is too far from the bearings of their experience to fully contextualize.
Modern Hip-Hop journalism’s continued disregard for that margin often results in what former HipHopDX writer Andre Grant describes as work that can “feel mythical or theological or pedantic or exploitative,” but rarely “visceral.“
Grant states, “you rarely get a perspective where it feels like Hip Hop is the lens through which the author is viewing the subject, and that lens carries within it the full history of racism, slavery and death and/or hope of black music.”
Bartee notes having to explain the intricacies of trap rap via G Herbo’s “Lz” song to German Radio Station. Bartee says, “because I’ve lived in those confines and I grew up around Black men, [I] understand the psyche and what Black men have to go through.” She notes it was “simple” for her to explain the psychology that pervades young Black men in underprivileged neighborhoods, but she got the sense that her explanation was “bizarre” to the radio hosts.
“I’m like this is someone’s real life, they’re in pain!” she recalled passionately over the phone. Bartee resolves that many modern journalists “can’t identify that because they don’t live that.”
It’s that flawed perspective that resulted in 2012’s irresponsible coverage of Chicago’s drill scene.
As Chief Keef and other Chicago MCs ascended with songs that chronicled — and intensified — the very real gang issue in the Windy City, many outlets were needlessly hamhanded with their coverage. Pitchfork infamously filmed Chief Keef at a gun range — a mistake that resulted in jail time for the then 18-year-old. They issued an apology and noted the series sought “unusual locations“ to interview–though there isn’t much unusual about a rapper charged with aiming a gun at the police being in a gun range.
NOISEY’s 8-part video series focused almost exclusively on the connection between the music and murder–sparing the artists humanity. A visibly nervous, fish-out-of-water Thomas Morton was biased from the jump, with a trivializing declaration that the windy city was home of “deep dish pizza, the Bears, and the highest murder rate in America.” He seemed like an unlikely tour guide, too awkward to make a meaningful connection with the artists or craft a nuanced macro-inspection of the circumstances that cause an epidemic like Chicago’s.
This awkward dynamic is frequently at play in interaction between “hipster” journalists and rugged rappers, which likely prevents artists from being willing to open up — unless you’re talking about peanuts. One could argue if there were more writers on the staff of NOISEY or other outlets who held an inherent understanding of the socially propagated tenets by which many artists abide, coverage would have a higher sensitivity of its surroundings — and wouldn’t whimsically document when an artist who was just in an attempted murder investigation has guns around him, as Thug’s GQ article did.
Doing such may help publications dodge the reputation of being “the police,” or “zoological,” as The Migos’ Offset and writer Christina Lee respectively deemed NOISEY.
Until there’s a more apparent balance of Black writers covering predominantly Black music, these issues will persist. More fringe genres of Black music will continue to be misidentified. There will continue to be revisionist history from non-policed writers carrying detached, hindsight-tinged evaluations of Hip-Hop history. There will continue to be an imbalance of rock-star ideating, lyrically-deficient trap rappers getting the lion’s share of blog coverage while artists who carry traditionalist sensibilities aren’t fully appreciated by writers who care little for their sonic aesthetic. As Ani notes, “lack of coverage can equate to no buzz, and no buzz can equate to no deal.”
Many critics of these publications, and the larger media, are resolving to patronize predominantly — or solely — Black outlets such as Dead End Hip-Hop and Very Smart Brothas. Ani believes it makes sense to build those publications but it’s also vital to “use major outlets to diversify national conversations.“ It’s worth noting that even when developing Afrocentric outlets, the money needed to compete with prominent websites is harder to come by. Bartee says that the Source — who’s $3.75M debt was assumed by Lawyer Londell Mcmillan’s Northstar Group in 2009 — is attempting to build their online profile with a predominantly Black staff, but is not yet paying writers. It can be hard to get the most talented writers to commit to working for free.
True diversity within the industry can only be achieved by editors and other publishers becoming more cognizant of the racial imbalance and more accommodating to underprivileged writers — specifically when it comes to internships. No one is saying Black people should be the only people writing about Hip-Hop — just that none of us should be the only Black person at a particular outlet writing about the genre. After all, do we really want a world with a dearth of Hip-Hop writers who can get Gucci Mane to open up about “the sauce?”