It was good to see Nicki Minaj at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. Of course, she was riding shotgun on “Bang Bang,” even though the video for “Anaconda” has become an instant sensation. Minaj shared the stage with Ariana Grande and Jessie J. while Iggy Azalea—whose hit “Fancy” seems destined to be the “Ice Ice Baby” of the new millennium—hit the stage after quite an introduction from Jennifer Lopez, performed her hit “Black Widow,” and left the stage to a rousing ovation that truly belonged to her.
This seemed to pick up where 2013 VMAs—the tribute to Brooklyn that fittingly seemed to ignore the people who were there before the hipsters showed up—left off. Last year’s show was frightening to the informed observer. Rappers were few and far between, especially those who didn’t fancy themselves as singers. The rapper du jour was Macklemore—who has good intentions but average music—the sort of hip hop star few could have dreamed possible 15 years ago. He didn’t have much edge, and he didn’t really have a gimmick. He was just a white guy who rapped, and his performance of “Same Love”—which has good intentions but average music—had the crowd at the Barclays Center downright transfixed. It wasn’t your dad’s hip hop, hell, was it hip hop at all?
Now we’re in 2014, further removed chronologically from Doggystyle than it was from Parliament’s Mothership Connection. The staying power of rap hasn’t been a discussion for 20 years, and some of its legends have been stars of stage and screen for 30. It has become so entrenched that it is truly impossible to imagine a world without it. But could you ever see a day when Snoop Dogg could host the VMAs but there seemed to be no place for a guy like him in stage?
Now, it’s not hard to imagine a world where rap was stripped of its blackness. Rap has long been analogous to rock and roll and jazz before it—a prevailing cultural force that gives shape and context to a historical era. And now, in the worst way, the analogy is continuing, with those most like its originators being pushed out of the limelight. When an aesthetic is divorced from anything essential, from any soul, it becomes little more than a sound. And that sounds bad for the future of black music.
Once it was clear rap was here to say, it seemed inconceivable that it could exist in the mainstream without black people. Sure, every black artform to that point had eventually become co-opted, but it seemed impossible for this one. Not only did its essence seem too strong to be diluted, but consumers demanded credibility, and that only came from a general co-sign from the people who created rap and those who personally identified with it. Hobbyists were appreciated—those albums weren’t going to buy themselves—but their opinions were only valued at the cash register.
Looking back, it sounds silly to think that could last forever. But rap seemed to be different from rock and jazz. Even if hip hop could be watered down and repackaged, few ever believed that music would be preferred. We’d seen the Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass and Eminem prove that hip hop could accept white stars. Vanilla Ice, the closest thing rap had to Pat Boone, was summarily dismissed by black listeners after being deemed an imposter (even if he went diamond along the way). The market demonstrated a preference for black rappers that it never did with rock and roll. In the late 1950s, the mainstream bypassed Chuck Berry and Little Richard for Elvis. Jazz had been co-opted to the point where bebop emerged as a response to it, but faking the funk seemed an easier task on a saxophone than the microphone. Hip hop didn’t just demonstrate mainstream viability with much unforgivable blackness on display. From the music to the fashion and art that surrounded it, blackness seemed to be one of the biggest part of its appeal.
As much as hip hop’s DNA is black, the music was urban from its origin. Its ability to evoke the pain of struggle and the temporary relief of celebration seemed to rely on an underlying strife, and living life black in America provided inexhaustible reservoirs of pain and exaltation. The expression of that hurt wasn’t always decent, but it had to be real. Faking was understandably distasteful to anyone who understood that being downtrodden was nothing to brag about. Express yourself however you choose, but the emphasis was placed on “self,” and the tastemakers of the genre had a keen eye for who didn’t mean what they said.
Fast forward to 2014, and Forbes went so far as to say Iggy Azalea, an Australian who does a bang-up impression of a Southern black rapper, “runs” hip hop. Forget that they’d say that about Azalea, whose first two singles hit No. 1 and has a co-sign from T.I., but is way too similar to the unquestionably unique Minaj to be seen as leading anything. Just consider the facts Forbes would consider a rapper worthy of its time and have the audacity to think it’s in position to make any bold declarations about rap music. Black faces weren’t just losing traction. Black opinion, too, was becoming irrelevant.
The mainstream forces that so often dismissed rap are less likely to do so now. It’s been in commercials since the ‘80s, but even the President will tell you he listens to rap from time to time. LL Cool J has become so mainstream that an entire generation has no idea he’s one of the greatest rappers of all-time. Hell, Ludacris was never a superstar but sits as a judge on Rising Star. Unless something changes on The Tonight Show, The Doc Severensen of the next generation will be ?uestlove.
But when Katy Perry can get spins on urban radio for her single with Juicy J—but no rapper can get a spot performing at the Grammys without backing a white artist—it’s impossible to deny what’s happening. The pop landscape still likes rap, but it no longer needs black artists to make it. Their services are appreciated, but they aren’t demanded. Their influence is obvious, but their input is unwelcome. They have “those people” who used to live in a neighborhood before the gentrifiers showed up and changed the name: welcome to stop by, but only when someone needs them for something.
One could argue this was tragically predictable in a country where integration has always occurred on an “as needed” basis. There are few dignified things that America has demonstrated it would rather see a white person do than a black one, if any white person anywhere would be up to the task.
The tragedy stands out, though. Rap, so often decried by so many critics, now only seems as legitimate in the mainstream with white faces in front. For all our talk of how hip hop bridged cultural gaps and helped foster racial reconciliation, it has now begun to look like art from eras we swore we’d moved beyond. What was so new and fresh and had so much potential now looks like everything else, and in the worst ways.
As music critic Stereo Williams has noted, rock never had black, worldwide stars before it became a sensation. There were great artists, but the world wasn’t on a first-name basis with any of them. There was no Run DMC or Public Enemy who introduced the world to the form. Their work was so easily co-opted—and, in some cases, stolen—because they were largely anonymous. Muddy Waters was no legend to most until Mick Jagger said so.
But we’ve had lots of black superstars in rap. We’ve lived long enough to see Jay-Z on the cover of Time, and colleges near and far where professors have found the work of Tupac Shakur to be worthy of academic inquiry. They did not have to wait for the reverence white artists who were influenced by them to give them historical relevance.
Now, contemporary relevance seems to come in service of someone else. Much of mainstream America now sees T.I. as the guy on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the sort of soul-influenced track that black artists can’t seem to get on the radio anymore. That’s the same song Thicke performed at the 2013 VMA’s with Miley Cyrus, who has shamelessly borrowed from hip hop culture without making any reciprocal contribution.
Perhaps the clearest and saddest metaphor for what’s happening is the latest installment of the “Swagger Wagon” ads for the Toyota Sienna. It has Busta Rhymes pouring his heart into a feature appearance on a track about a fucking minivan, where it’s hard to tell if the other “emcees” on the track are taking rap seriously or making fun of it in Busta’s face.
When Busta Rhymes can’t get top billing over a bunch of actors and a minivan, there’s nothing left to say.