Preface: The White Boy Listens to Gangsta Rap
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Preface The White Boy Listens to Gangsta Rap The story goes like this: I perform much of my “research” while riding in my car with my iPod plugged in to the stereo. Music by the likes of NWA, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac Shakur blares from my car speakers as I mine the songs for insights into this thing I call the “mark of crimi­ nality.” I come to a stoplight and look to my side. The driver spies the lily-­ white boy blasting “Fuck Tha Police,” “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” or “Hit ’Em Up.” He and his passengers smile, then chuckle and continue waiting for the light to turn green. The juxtaposition of white bodies with rap music is problematic and therefore comical. When the music industry began tracking record sales with Nielsen SoundScan in 1991, they discovered something that continues to haunt the hip-­ hop nation: white kids love gangsta rap.1 Legions of primarily male, primarily white suburban youth were devouring these sensational tales of black crimi­nality, and they were doing so to such an extent that they constituted a majority of the genre’s market share. Affluent white kids became the chief target audience for the marketing of rap music. Their demand for narratives of black-­ on-­ black violence , vicious misogyny, copious drug use, and unrepentant capital accumulation ensured that gangsta would rule the hip-­ hop kingdom in the twilight years of the twentieth century. This commercial reality has inspired many scholars to critique the white appropriation of yet another mode of black vernacular expression . For what else should we call the white consumption of gangsta rap than a latter-­ day form of minstrelsy?2 But this juxtaposition of whiteness and gangsta is also hilarious. One of the most memorable scenes in the beloved cult comedy film Office Space features the xii / Preface cubicle laborer Michael Bolton (no relation to the eponymous singer, he insists) blasting a track by Houston-­ based gangsta rapper Scarface and rapping along with every lyric. Bolton’s feeble, if earnest, enactment of gangsta bravado is comic gold.3 While Eminem maintains a consistent, if fraught, ethos as a white rapper from tough origins, countless wedding receptions, school dances, and other celebratory gatherings of white people continue to partake in the ritual mockery of Vanilla Ice’s nostalgia-­ inspiring “Ice Ice Baby.”4 Indeed, mine is not the only white body that inspires laughter when it shares space with the discourses of the hip-­ hop nation. But there is also privilege in being the butt of a joke. If we duplicate my experiences at so many controlled intersections and replace mine with a black masculine body, it is not difficult to anticipate how differently the scene would unfold . The glances from the other car would be brief (“Did he see us look?”), doors would lock and windows would roll up (just as Michael Bolton’s did when he spied a black man outside his car during the aforementioned Office Space scene), and the occupants would anxiously wait for the red light to turn green. The image of a white guy jamming to gangsta rap is hilarious. A black man doing the same, for too many Ameri­cans, is horrifying. The music and image fit perfectly— too perfectly. It is a visual and sonic embodiment of our worst racial fears. My interest in the ways these fears mark certain bodies, and how those bodies themselves appropriate and deploy such fears, motivates this project. My scholarly interest in gangsta rap, even race and crimi­ nality, is always an issue. On one occasion, a black woman enrolled in one of my field’s top doctoral programs pointedly asked me, “Why black people?” When I tell my undergraduate students what I study, they almost immediately laugh. When I pre­ sent my research in academic or activist settings, audience members inevitably ask me to account for my white privilege and its connection to what I study. In other words, why do I study gangsta? Why race and crime? What right do I have to do so? Am I not guilty of the same acts of appropriation that SoundScan detected in the early 1990s? I hope to gain an academic thumbs-­ up, a promotion , and a national reputation as a scholar with this work. How do I justify doing so with the experiences of communities whose members disproportionately fill our prisons? All I can promise is an unsatisfying explanation. I approach the very prospect of addressing...


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