I am often conflicted by the increasing contradiction of cultural barriers and unification among people of color and their allies (white people). I am someone who advocates for self representation and autonomy from out group misrepresentation. This is often seen in media in how minority groups are represented by writers and producers who are white or unrepresentative of the groups they portray, such as men creating female characters. This is also seen by individuals who are of an out group and culturally appropriating the cultural practice of another group. This was seen with Eminem, and the infusion of a white man into a cultural phenomenon (and movement) that was historically reserved for the Black community and communities of color throughout the United States. However, while Eminem did use rap and hip-hop as an artistic venue, the realities of racial identities still existed, and the privilege of being white in the US did not fade because a community who was oppressed had let him in.
Divisions exist within different cultural paradigms, and sometimes these cultural drifts come in the most significant form of division. Take the word “nigger” for example, or any variation of the word. There is a belief and constant struggle that is had within different communities of color and with white people of who has the “legitimate” license to use the word. Even within communities of color, especially between Latino and Black/African Americans in the United States, the license to use the word is reserved for those who have a phenotype in which is identifiable with their African heritage. In other words, the less “black” you look, the less of a legitimate claim you have of using the word nigger. This creates a “cultural visa” process, in which dependent on certain characteristics or traits, people from different groups must give permission to others for certain practices: one group needs to issue a visa to an outsider to be legitimately let in. This is not only used in controversial instances such as using the n-word, but also in areas of artistic expression such as rap and hip hop. Race still matters in these instances, and in either direction, each group must give a visa for certain practices to be used, and if they are not given the visa, then the use is rejected by that group altogether (and when still used, it is done so “illegally”). This also means you have to apply for the visa, and this becomes extremely problematic when you’re white.
This cultural visa process is a detriment to the collective movement of equity and rights. It is almost as if we’re saying “well, they can’t be as down with us as our own, because they are not us.” In the lens of the white patriarchal elite, the division is obvious, in political, social, and ideological terms. However, when a Latino creates a division in the use of cultural practice toward other communities of color, then we weaken our commonality, if not that we are all human, but that we are all oppressed, and so we succumb to be a weaker resistance movement against the systemic oppression that exists in this country. Summing this up, we (communities of color) don’t get along for a thousand reasons and has serious consequences when we use those differences as social barriers. But this also highlights a necessity. If we don’t have the cultural visa process, then anyone can use a cultural practice and claim ownership of it – and we have seen this in instances of Anglos claiming a cultural practice as their own (jazz) or that they can use it because no one owns it. While it is seemingly necessary, it causes divisions between people of color – which in turns destroys potential unification against racism or systematic oppression.
Then I discovered Macklemore. Thanks to my good Friend Lucia, she sent me one of his songs (A wake), and I listened to it. In disbelief of how amazing the track was, I had the sudden realization that there was a possible intersection of cultures that was not inherently oppressive and didn’t require the visa process. I then listened to white privilege, and flipped out. What!? A conscience white rapper – rapping about his own white privilege and cultural appropriation when it came to Hip Hop. Now, here it was – the intersection of cultural practices and race, not necessarily done right, but done differently.
I want to flush out my sudden epiphany. Che was a white Argentine. He went to Cuba, fought a revolution, among Cubans, many whom were brown and claimed descent from Africa. Yes, some pointed out during the revolution that he should not be there because he was not Cuban, and yet, he rose through the ranks and become beloved by Cubans while simultaneously acknowledging that we was not Cuban but that they shared a commonality – capitalistic imperialism and a resistance to its oppression. Imagine that today. For me, I can’t imagine it happening so easily. Riddled with accusations of a white savior complex (which is a legitimate claim), or how you cannot represent me because you did not live my experience, or by pointing out differences – you’re a man, you’re Latino, Black, Asian, don’t speak my language, rich, poor, – and so on. We need visas to be down with a particular movement. So how did Macklemore bypass visa application, use rap and hip hop as a avenue for artistic expression, NOT appropriate a culture, and still be vested in social change and justice?
Macklemore recognizes the difference between hijacking a culture for your own benefit and using a practice for artistic expression. Macklemore does not claim to understand the perspective of the original founders of hip hop and rap, and also acknowledges his strange identification with a world he loves but is not a part of in the same ways others are because he is white. He knows he’s white, he doesn’t try to be anything else. He also respects the historical context of hip hop, its origins, and how he will never be able to be an equal to other rappers (though this does not mean a hierarchal equality on ability or talent, but one of representation and what hip hop means for an entire community). Eminem, on the other hand, failed at this. His use of the film 8 Mile as a form of identification through a struggle is trying to identify with the struggle of the black man in the hip hop culture is misleading – he tries to equalize his struggle to that of black people and people of color, yet his struggle is not the same. I’m not denying his own personal struggles, they are his right to claim, but that does not play into the narrative of hp hop as is historically communicated by rappers of color and its founders. Eminem is still white. This is extremely important. Yet he tries to intertwine his narrative in order to gain access (8 Mile was part of his Visa application – among other things). His work is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but his approach is problematic in the sense he tries to equalize his struggle with that of his black counterparts (Black Artists), which is, at the end of the day, not the same.
What does this mean in a larger societal context of the visa problem. First, it shows that there can be an approach in with cultural practices are not limited to cultural self identification and one specific group – we don’t necessarily need a visa. Rather, such practices can be used as a form of communication and expression, so long as there is an acknowledgment that the use is for that purpose. Furthermore, the practice must be understood as being a product of history. Those who use such practice must make clear they understand its roots and do not desire to identify with them as their own, but rather, will interweave their narrative not as an equal, but as different and part of an evolution or construction of a different narrative (Macklemore does this by conducting a critique of society and social injustice through his music, as well as his experiences with drugs). Lastly, the people who make claim to such cultural practices must acknowledge it is not theirs by right, but theirs by virtue of history. No one owns a genre of music, but of those who listen to it understand it is part of their identity and helps give themselves definition. The genre is not intrinsically theirs, but they must call out and make sure others who come forth understand its origins (the value of education) and are sure not to misrepresent that history (not the evolution) when using it. This is especially important when a white artist uses artistic expression that has origins in communities not their own (of color or who have been historically oppressed) and then acting like they invented it, like Jazz.
Macklemore has a message. Sometimes his messages are fun. But he knows that the use of hip hop has baggage with it, and it is essential to recognize it through his music. And, I’m sorry, but the man is a genius. His music, his last collaboration album with Ryan Lewis, near flawless. Lord. I simply can’t begin to express the gratitude my soul has for the existence of that album. Shakira, look away for a few minutes.
However, the VMA’s just happened, and Macklemore, along with Ryan Lewis and Mary Lambert (who is amazing) won Best Music Video w/ a Social Message, which was well deserved. However, Macklmeore and Ryan Lewis also won best Hip Hop Video of the Year for Can’t Hold Us. Personally, out of the other nominees, which included Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, and A$AP Rocky, I thought Macklemore did have the best Music Video (not necessarily the best record – by far). Even so – what does this mean? Did Macklemore hijack the category and is he disenfranchising other artist? This is an entirely different blog post, but it is part of a discussion on the intersections of cultural practices, and the effect of Macklemore being on that stage, let alone being nominated.
The lesson to be learned, for everyone, is that we need to stop this visa access process the way it is now. We need to stop dehumanizing each other simply because we think our cultural differences are so ingrained in our identities that when it is used by others we think our identity is being stolen. Historically, yes, it has happened, but that is why we should educate and not isolate. Isolating others who are oppressed in the same national narrative are allies, not enemies, and we must begin paths of unification through the welcoming of instances of intersectionality of cultural practices. This is especially true for our white counterparts, specifically when it comes to expression through the arts. If a white person one day begins to use Salsa, Bachata, or Merengue as an avenue of artistic expression, they need to recognize and understand its history and not hijack it by claiming it as their own. They need to understand its baggage, and let other white people know, too.
People of color need to welcome intersections of cultural practices, and learn how to respect those intersections. At the end of the day, the world I want to see is where we acknowledge the past and her history while collaborating in music, art, and literature. But this is something our white artists need to really get. You can use our cultural practices, but don’t think you invented it, or that its yours, or that its okay to use it without recognizing where it came from. Thats modern colonialism.
I want to note that this critique of the cultural visa is limited to artistic expression. Capitalistic appropriation is extremely problematic and dangerous, as well as oppressive and done with a (perhaps subconscious) colonial mindset, and never okay. Just to make that clear. And using the word Nigger artistically as well. For example – in Literature.