Originally published on gentnormal.com
Novemeber 21, 2015
America is quite skilled at imposing and exporting its culture, including music culture, everywhere in the world. Hence, hip-hop has made its way into popular culture here in Catalunya and Spain. But due to what appears to be quite a few ‘lost in translations’, the rap scene here has left me, as a North American, confused and a little skeptical. More precisely, this confusion revolves around the almost total domination of white men in hip-hop in Spain and Catalunya (there are exceptions, of course. Hey, Ariana Puello, Mala Rodriguez, Frank T, etc.).
I propose the problem is that the USA has a very different history, and this history is the very essence of hip-hop.
I was educated by my elders, peers, in my school, by media, etc that hip-hop comes from something specific; the struggle black people faced during, and currently after, slavery. Rooted in rap first and foremostly is the war white North America has waged upon people of color for the last 400 years.
In rap culture in Spain and Catalunya, race has been transliterated, falsely, for class. This is because of Europe’s obsession with classism as the most important and fundamental -ism. And also maybe because only recently has Spain and Catalunya had a high population of immigrants, who are mostly people of color. With a far less horrific history of intercontinental slavery, and therefore no significant ‘black’ population in Catalunya and Spain, being poor is thought to equal being black. But I’m not sure this is an adequate or direct translation. And I don’t feel comfortable putting hip hop in the hands of white men, based on this mistranslation and misappropriation of culture.
An important concept of appropriation is that there are certain words and cultures that belong to certain groups of people. As a general rule, the people whose lives are most affected by said words and cultures should be given the ownership. Perhaps a useful comparison of hip-hop and people of color in America would be the ownership of Flamenco to the Romani people of Spain. Similarly, hip-hop belongs to people of color; they are the creators and the soul of this genre. For example, the ‘n word’ most definitely belongs to people of color and should remain far from the mouth of any white person. Or the too common use of the word ‘puta’ by white men in rap, a term whose meaning and usage should only be for women to decide and use or not use. (Curiously, the rap scene in Catalunya and Spain has done a very good job at directly translating the sexism that is so prevalent in American hip hop too.)
And so, although I may truly love hip-hop and it does form a solid part of my personal rhythm and music library, it is music I understand in a very separate way from a person of color. The messages of racism underneath each song simply do not apply directly to me. And in fact, quite the opposite, as a person most often assumed to be ‘white’ I benefit from the very things hip-hop is combatting. These benefits are termed ‘white privilege’, they are universal, and if it’s the first time you’re hearing this phrase, I suggest you make use of Google and read an article or two.
Fast forward to my life here in Barcelona. After having attended a few hip-hop and reggae concerts, I was totally flabbergasted by the fact that basically the entire audience was white, predominantly male, and the performers were as well. Mostly the people of color were those selling beers. And while my fellow white attendees were happy to ‘get low’ to the beats of their white compatriots, they couldn’t even look the people selling beer in the eye to say, ‘No, thank you’. When, in fact, and ironically, the population of people selling beer, mostly made up of people of color, are probably the people more close to the message of struggle and hustle. And what about the hypocrisy of the artists simultaneously preaching justice while using sexist lyrics?
I would never (emphasis on never) claim to be any type of expert on hip-hop. Which is why, although I have presented my opinions, I decided to seek the guidance of someone much wiser and much closer to the source; a New York emcee by the name of Shanthony Exum (aka Miss Eaves). I have had the pleasure of knowing and occasionally playing drums beside Shanthony for quite a few years. What began as a casual conversation between the two of us wound up feeling so meaningful and relevant that not only did I decide to record it, but also to share it with readers below.
Here we go.
Shaina: Hey Shanthony could you please introduce your badass self to Catalunya? Who are you? What do you do? Where are you from and where do you live?
Miss Eaves: I am a rapper/feminist/graphic designer from North Carolina but living in Brooklyn. I run a small design firm as my full time gig and since I am the boss I can sneak away and write raps whenever I want.
Shaina: Tell us all what you go by as your rapper self, please.
Miss Eaves: My rap name is Miss Eaves. It is quite a nerdy designer joke since my favorite font is Mrs. Eaves.
Shaina: Fantastic. Nerdy is sexy. And how long have you been rapping?
Miss Eaves: I have been rapping for 8 years! I just used my fingers to count that lol. Time really does fly!
Shaina: Ok so now that we have a small idea of who you are, I’ll get right to the point. I’ve been living here in Barcelona for almost 2 years now, coming from the USA. There’s this thing happening in Barcelona that’s kind of blowing my mind… Almost all the hip-hop artists and people who attend the concerts I’ve been to are white males. And this is drastically different from the hip hop scene in America. Maybe you could give people an idea of what the hip hop scene in the USA looks like to you? And where you fit into it?
Miss Eaves: Well I am part of an informal crew of girl rappers in NYC. Unfortunately, our group does not reflect the larger rap scene in NY which is still mostly male dominated. I recently went to a rap show and 100 percent of the performers and maybe 70 percent of the audience were males. Even though things are changing as women make space for themselves in rap a lot of the scenes are dominated by males who are rapping about chauvinistic things.
Shaina: Ok, so it seems like no matter where you are, the rap scene has little opportunity for women. But what about the people of color (POC) part? I kept feeling totally confused to be at hip hop shows with no people of color. The words ‘cultural misappropriation’ are always kind of flashing like a neon sign in my head… which is why I felt like I had to talk to you to get some wisdom. Any thoughts on white rapping and the idea of cultural misappropriation?
Miss Eaves: I am friends with a lot of white rappers, who are dope. But the ones I affiliate with understand history and acknowledge that the art of rap was created by POC. I do not support people appropriating the culture of POC because it is trendy and disregard the history and struggle. I feel the fact that someone like Iggy was thrust towards fame while talented POC artist struggle is a great example of white privilege.
Shaina: Here in Catalunya it’s tricky because immigration is fairly new, so there’s not as large a population of POC. Which is why almost all rappers here are white and so are the people at the shows. But for sure a lot of the people here relate to struggles like classism and sexism, for example.
Miss Eaves: I believe in intersectionality. You can’t be a racist feminist or a person who is fighting for race equality and you support classism. There is no equality for some there is just equality for all.
Shaina: Well said, well said. Ok, so help me wrap my head around this. How can you best be a white male rapper from Spain, Catalunya or Basque Country that supports the history of hip hop? And helps to promote equality for the minority POC around them? Because the reality is, people in Spain, Catalunya, and Basque Country took everything they know about rapping from the USA, correct? The history of being a rapper in the USA is a history, like you said, of the struggle of POC.
Miss Eaves: Wow huge question. If you are an artist and you decide to work in a genre that comes from a culture where you do not originate, it is best to educate yourself on the history. Hip hop started from POC telling their stories about life on the streets. Most of their struggles are are a result of the deep rooted racism that exists in the USA. I think in order to be a true part of rap/hip hop culture you have to be anti-racist. That being said you can rap… which is simply spoken word poetry set to music… and decide to remain uneducated but you can not claim to be part of the larger hip hop culture. More white male rappers need to acknowledged the existence of white male privilege and actively worked to dismantle it.
Shaina: And can you tell us what some of those action could look like? White privilege is not such a common notion here.
Miss Eaves: Really a lot of the actions are about giving back to POC communities… money and time… Many lower income inner city communities are disproportionately composed of POC and that is because of the rich history of racism that is designed to rob POC of their power.
Shaina: Here there are definitely low income parts of the city that are all ‘white’ but recent immigrants and POC make up serious parts of the lowest income.
Miss Eaves: People need to decolonize their minds.There is still an idea that the colonizer is the superior culture which just isn’t true. Everyone comes to the table with different ideas and ways of doing things and it does not make one culture better or worse than the other.
Shaina: I also wanted to get your experience on being a female rapper. Rap has a complicated history with respecting women.
Miss Eaves: I feel rap music is a reflection of the larger culture that tells women that they are mostly valued for their appearance and sex appeal. I have male rap friends who are very smart and kind people but have said things that are quite misogynistic when rapping. When I called them out on it they felt embarrassed and explained that they go in autopilot and it usually results in anti-feminist rhetoric. This is how strong the anti-feminist message is in the mass media and it seeps into all parts of our culture and infects us. When I tell people I rap usually their response is shock. And then even more shock when they discover I am good. Almost like they expect because I am woman that I am going to suck. That is sexist.
Shaina: I recently went to see a hip hop show here in Barcelona, by a rapper called Erik Urano, he’s a white man and is known for his politically conscious, intentional lyrics. But every time he had a moment of pause he said the word ‘puta’ which is slang for a lot of things, but mostly for a derogatory mix of ‘bitch/slut’. I found it pretty tiresome and just bad lyricism. Maybe there’s some priorital hierarchy with having conscious lyrics? How can someone talk so deeply about injustices when they’re perpetrating them themselves? Maybe people prioritize things like politics before race and gender? But any ideas why?
Miss Eaves: A lot of conscious rappers I know have pretty sexist ideas. They pick and choose what they want to be “conscious” about.
Shaina: I have a HUGE final question I’d like your thoughts on. Does hip hop belong to white men? At least in Spain and Catalunya, if the people making hip hop are white, is it theirs? Is this just the new phase of rapping?
Miss Eaves: Fuck that. I am so over white male privilege and I will scream it from the rooftops. White men have been given so much for so long, that now they assume things are theirs, things that were never given to them. I think it is important that women and POC band together to form their own movements and continue to share their voices. White dudes have the right to rap, but be respectful of the history and foster an inclusive community for all.
Shaina: That seems like a totally universal call to action and a perfect way to end. Thanks for educating me and everyone else, lady!
Allow me to conclude with the enlightenment gained from my conversation with Eaves. It is undeniable that hip-hop is an incredibly powerful means of expression. I think it’s popularity and usage is, in fact, an acknowledgment and homage to this power and importance. And I don’t believe anyone should be banned from expressing themselves using rap or rap culture, white men included. But if you are going to create music that does not traditionally belong to you, it makes absolutely no sense to first culturally misappropriate and then exclude others. When this music is not something that belongs to white people in the first place. In this sense, creating a rap scene that is all inclusive should be priority one for those involved.
Reclaiming hip-hop past cultural misappropriation for me looks similar to being a white, anti-racism, anti-sexism ally. Being self-aware and reflective of your own privilege in a community. If you are the person with the loudest voice (and white men, on our planet, are) use this voice to shout, demand ‘equality’. Actively pursuing the history and present context of hip-hop, talking about your findings with your peers but also striving to have a dialogue with people of all ethnicities, genders, social classes. What needs to be done to make the rap scene here more diverse? Changing venues? Organizing and attending specific events (I adore this example). Asking for the help, opinions of different populations? Making sure all our conversations around and in hip-hop involve in some way people of color and women? Or perhaps not saying anything at all and leaving space for those less heard to express themselves. And always, always listening.
Check out Miss Eaves music and more here.
Check out Shanthony’s, ‘The Every Body Project’, an inclusive style blog whose main goal is to combat the negative body image issues that arise from the media’s narrow portrayal of beauty.