Black lives, white writers, and Hip-hop

On launching a hip-hop magazine in the context of 2016 America.

Illustration by Youaintryan for Super Empty

Full disclosure: This is a publication written by a white person about an art form that is historically and culturally black.

As such, for those who care to look, Super Empty often flirts with the uncomfortable territory of a white person grading the value of black art, of ostensibly deeming which black people are worthy of praise, and which are not (Super Empty’s omission of number or letter grades for album reviews is intended to somewhat ameliorate this problem, but by no means does it do so completely).

What’s worse, from photos to writing to the design of the website, I do it almost entirely myself. There are a number of talented people I call on for their contributions in photography, writing, editing, and artwork, though even many of those people are themselves not black. Would a racially diverse staff of regular contributors result in a more balanced, knowledgeable publication? Most likely, yes. Do I currently have the bandwidth to spearhead such a team? Not even close.

So in the meantime, I did something that thousands before me have done — set up a personal blog, with no staff beyond myself, and started writing. But having a food blog that occasionally dissects the pros and cons of kale is a little different than a music blog that regularly makes assumptions about, forms critiques of, and kicks knowledge relating to, black people. All blogs, ironically, are not created equal.

Now, as that blog seeks to transform into a more consistent, high-quality online magazine, the question I’ve tried to ask myself is: When the subject matter is hip-hop, is it appropriate for a white writer to have his own platform? And if so, what responsibilities come with it? This publication may not always be a one-person endeavor, but I hope the directives below remain useful far into the future.

If I’ve learned one thing since buying the double album The King of Crunk and BME Recordings Present: Trillville and Lil Scrappy in the 7th grade, or attending the AND1 Mixtape Tour the summer before that, it’s this: no degree of participation in black culture, no number of black friends, no number of times you’ve been called “n — ,” turns a white person into a black person. This is, I believe, one of the laws of physics. You can deny it if you want, but the fact is, by age 18, there are already too many times guardians, authorities, and supervisors have looked the other way when you did the wrong thing, too many times the justice system gave you a “Get Out of Jail Free” card (in some cases quite literally), too many times you saw heroes and role models who looked like you in every industry and career profession imaginable, not enough times you had sports, entertainment, or service labor rammed into your skull as your only lot in life. And no, having a two-term black president hasn’t magically changed all that. Many aspects of life are fluid, but race, as I learned in middle school, is concrete and permanently fixed.

Hip-hop, on the other hand, is not a pre-determined human characteristic. It is all-accepting and ever-enrolling: take an interest, participate in whatever way you choose, and that’s about it — you’re in. Mac Miller is hip-hop. Brother Ali is hip-hop. Asher Roth is hip-hop. Macklemore is hip-hop (if you haven’t heard of anything earlier than The Heist, do your research). Action Bronson is hip-hop. Peter Rosenberg is hip-hop. Know your shit, respect the culture, and you will be welcomed. Here in the Triangle, where Muslim photographers, Asian emcees, black and white hip-hop duos, Latino videographers and people of all walks unite around hip-hop, that fact could not be any more plain.

I cannot be black, but I can be hip-hop. And yet that distinction, clear as it may be in my mind (black-and-white, even), does little to change the simple fact that blackness and hip-hop are eternally intertwined. The stories we hear, recite, and ultimately sing aloud at parties, in our cars, and in concerts are often black stories. Many of the headlining acts at most major music festivals, on stage in front of a sea of white hands, are often black performers. Hip-hop, no matter how many people have been welcomed under its widening umbrella, is still black music.

Super Empty is not a black magazine. It is, however, a hip-hop magazine, which inherently means constant coverage of black people. It will document the stories of black artists, it will review and “grade” the art of black people against or alongside the art of other black people, it will interview and showcase the voices of black people. Other races will be represented as well, but basic math suggests that the overwhelming majority of content will feature black people. I don’t believe these facts preclude me from writing Super Empty, nor taking pictures for it, nor editing it. But they do carry with them a certain burden of responsibility.

For anyone who has never read my music reviews before, I take pride in a sincere, sometimes harsh level of honesty, grounded in the belief that honest critique improves almost everything. My approach to societal issues is no different. Super Empty will always affirm the basic truth that Black Lives Matter, it will stand alongside friends and help spread the word for community stakeholders who seek to organize events and demonstrations, it will attempt to raise the most necessary voices above the din at the times when they are most needed, especially when mine is not sufficient. To do anything less would betray the spirit of doing this magazine in the first place.

Too often, publications like Super Empty hide behind the bulletproof glass of “we’re promoting the artists” as a sufficient token of their good deeds to the black community, apparently rendering any overt political stance unnecessary. But to willfully promote, cover, and generate revenue from an art form so disproportionately shouldered by one minority community (labor, ideas, trends, talent, etc.), and then not be willing to fight for the societal well-being of that community, smacks of the detached, pretentious cultural tourism through which white people too often (even including your humble author at times) consume hip-hop.

With a building in Dallas probably still smoldering as I write this, the façade of a color-blind America should now be as dead as Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, even to the most strident of social conservatives. As the viral videos pile up, they — and I mean this absolutely in the sense of DJ Khaled’s “they” — are swiftly running out of explanations (many, including Glenn Beck, have even gone so far as to express understanding for the #BLM movement). Our country is moving slowly, inexorably closer to a mainstream understanding that growing up black in the United States is objectively different than growing up white. That’s encouraging, but we need to move faster.

We need people and entities as varied as writers, shop owners, neighborhood grocery stores, clothing brands, and professional baseball teams to shout, without shame or embarrassment or a flicker of a doubt, that Black Lives Matter. We need to show up to town halls about community policing and downtown demonstrations that raise awareness. We need to talk to our friends about the things taking place in our country, and if the future we’re moving towards is one we’d like to live in.

This is as much a call to action for myself and Super Empty as it is for you. We can all do better, not because of race (whatever yours may be), but because of our shared participation in hip-hop culture. Blackness and hip-hop are not the same thing, but they can never be pulled apart.

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