White Rap Fans and "This is America"

Since the age of thirteen I have been an avid and passionate rap fan. I’m always up for hours of discussion over the best lyricists. I used to have a rap playlist that lasted twenty-eight hours, taking up nearly all of my iPhone storage. I know the words to most of the songs, and when I am alone, I rap along to all of them.

Yes, I am talking about one specific word, too. In my head it was justified; no one hears me, therefore I’m not doing any harm. I know that the word causes pain, but I’m not causing anyone pain alone in my car, right? I’m embarrassed to say it took me until now to realize that I was wrong.

The first time I watched Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover) new music video for “This Is America,” I felt an excitement difficult to verbalize. I felt uplifted by his conceptual talent and boldness, and his unsettling, yet captivating choreography—an aspect that, in my opinion, surpasses his lyrical performance. I watched and re-watched the video. But, the more I watched the video and read about its context, the more shame I felt.

Childish Gambino juxtaposes Jim Crow-era minstrel-show dance and music with contemporary trap and images of gun violence, creating a revelatory statement on pop rap’s relationship to historical black representation in American media. The first time I saw the video, I did not understand the references. The lyrics speak about blackness only once: “Get your money, Black Man,” instead mixing ad libs of popular trap artists with what could be a computer program of strung together Migos lyrics (“I got the plug in Oaxaca/They gonna find you like blacka!”). Unlike most rap musicians, he doesn't rely on lyrics to convey his message, and instead utilizes contrasts in beat and the form of dance to create an elegant and powerful message. Through these creative mediums, his indictment ends up implicating both the black performers and the white audiences.

When I listen to rap, it has an escapist effect on me: the power to magnetize sex, the carelessness to throw thousands of dollars at someone on a whim, to pose in front of a mound of cocaine, and slick talk like a Mafioso. These are images that have become synonymous with the American dream, the fantasy of overcoming circumstances to achieve wealth and freedom. Listening to this music makes me feel that I, too, revel in the glory of the rappers’ underdog success, even when it is not my story. Reconciling this joy of triumph with the misogyny, the gun violence, and the dark side of materialism becomes impossible. I’ve realized that I must become more conscious of what I’m listening to. I can no longer fantasize a reality that not only contradicts my lived experiences, but that also contradicts my belief systems.

Childish Gambino samples ad libs of rappers that I listen to, thus calling me into question: How dare I call myself a feminist and keep a picture of Juicy J in my wallet? How dare I call myself a pacifist and listen to Lil Wayne’s entire discography? How dare I judge American consumerism while endlessly listening to songs about designer clothes and cars? And, how dare I say I believe in racial equality while speaking a word that doesn't belong to me? By using this word, even in private, we deny our partaking in racism and act as though we belong to a group that we continue to oppress. I’m ashamed of how long it took me to realize this. The white rap fan is financing the contemporary media image that helps to excuse police brutality, the war on drugs, and the systematic destruction of black Americans.

“This Is America” is beautiful and enlightening. After watching it, I’m inspired to work on separating myself from artists like Migos, 21 Savage, and Juicy J, and instead dig into the realm of rap that seeks to question and re-shape stereotypes and narratives that harm. - Kian Shah