Book Looks at White Youth and Hip-Hop Culture

Journalist Jason Tanz talks about his new book, Other Peoples Property, which looks at the ways hip-hop has been adopted by white America.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of song, "Follow the Leader")

CHIDEYA: Now that's a clip from one of my favorite hip-hip artists, Rakim, of the dynamic duo, Eric B. & Rakim. I love old school hip-hop, but some black folks of my age can't stand it. What about white folks in their thirties? Well, before what became known as the wigger syndrome, writers like Norman Mailer explored white America's infatuation with Afro cool.

Today, 34-year-old journalist Jason Tanz is taking a close look at white youth and hip-hop culture. Before he came to love hip-hop, he feared it, something he writes about in his new book "Other People's Property."

RAKIM (Rapper): (Singing) Follow the leader.

Mr. JASON TANZ (Author, "Other People's Property"): I think it was just fear, you know. For the most part, most of the images of blackness that I had been subject to were, you know, about crime. You know that's what I associated blackness with. Maybe not consciously, I didn't think that all black people were criminals.

But the only time I would see images of African-Americans on the news was there was some crime going on, for the most part. And this music sounded vaguely criminal. You know, those are the kind of associations that it carried at first.

CHIDEYA: So what began to turn the tide, because obviously you moved from someone who was afraid of hip-hop to someone who began to enjoy it and even study it?

Mr. TANZ: Yeah. Well, it was a long process. I think after a while it clearly became pop music. I wasn't, you know, the earliest adaptor among my friends, like after Run-DMC came out and the Beastie Boys came out and these various pop rap acts came out, LL Cool J and whomever. You know, obviously, it became clear to me that this was pop music.

Even then, I didn't really get into it until Public Enemy "Nation of Millions" when I was about 15. And that album really changed, well, I guess it's cliché to say, but it really changed my life. A lot of these issues of race that I had been really uncomfortable about and kind of challenged by.

Public Enemy seemed to push a lot of that stuff right up onto the surface, and at the same time it helped me think that okay, maybe I can get beyond my limitations. Maybe Public Enemy can help me make sense of all of these. Maybe Public Enemy can actually help me be down a little bit.

CHIDEYA: Now let's flip over to some of the ways that white teens have interacted and even young musicians have interacted with the concept of whiteness and hip-hop. I'm going to throw out two terms. I want you to tell me the difference between them and how they came about - wiggers and wegroes.

Mr. TANZ: Sure. Well, wiggers, the term has changed a little bit. It came about in the late 1980s and it began as a term for white kids to refer to other white kids whom they deemed were interacting too closely with their black peers. So if you have a lot of black friends, and you talked black and you listen to black music, wigger was an insult from other white kids who didn't want you to be that quote/unquote, "black."

And there were all these kind of school explosions that were happening around the word wigger in the late 1980s with fights between different groups of kids and kids calling each other wigger, and so on and so forth. But that's changed over time, I think. Now when we think of a wigger, we think of somebody who - the kid who wears the baggy pants and the hat on sideways and who, you know, maybe even uses the n-word but who doesn't really know any black people at all.

CHIDEYA: What about a wegro?

Mr. TANZ: A wegro is a term that I actually came up with to distinguish a kind of a countervailing impulse among white fans. So if a wigger is somebody who maintains this distance from black people, a wegro is somebody who actually has a sincere interest in the trying to transcend these artificial racial boundaries that have stood between us for so long.

Again, I think that wegroes kind of come with their own set of issues, among them the desire to be the, you know, the one, you know, down white boy who can find his way to escape the responsibilities of the past, goes to rap concerts and is like thrilled that there is this multiracial experience that we're taking a part of, which I'm not sure. I mean, backpackers, a lot of the backpacker concerts I've been to, it's not so much a multiracial experience, actually. So there's that, too.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, backpacker termed to - refers to fans of conscious hip-hop. And in a lot of cases, you've got black artist on stage and then audiences that are almost completely white. What's up with that?

Mr. TANZ: Yeah, I know. It's interesting. And not only that, you find more and more a lot of these backpackers are actually drawn to white emcees. You know, I've been to rap concerts where there were white rappers and completely white audiences, and they're not rapping about, you know, the kind of traditional hip-hop concerns about what life is like in the African-American community. They're rapping about, you know, my girlfriend left me or whatever.

And I think it's very possible right now for white kids to experience hip-hop without experiencing any ideas of blackness or any ideas of connecting with the African-American community.

CHIDEYA: So let's end it on this note. In the way that rock and roll started out as a black art form and now it's overwhelmingly white, will one day white rappers be the majority?

Mr. TANZ: You know, a few years ago, I would say no way, like, I don't see how that could happen just because it is so associated with blackness. And if you look at it, it's kind of amazing that there haven't been more big white crossover emcees. But I'm starting to think that it is going to happen. Because if you sort of look at the way that people now listen to hip-hop, I think that it used to require a sort of cultural investment.

There used to be this understanding that to really listen to hip-hop you had to really get into the community and sort of remove yourself from yourself. But I don't think that's true anymore. I think if you're younger than 20 or 25, it's just been a part of your musical landscape ever since you were born. It was like pop music was for me.

People don't necessarily feel that same sense of responsibility to exploring all that hip-hop means and all the cultural means. I think that it's for a lot of people another form of pop music, and when that happens I think they feel more and more entitled to it. And so I would not be that surprise if in 10, 20 years you see a lot more white rappers.

CHIDEYA: Thanks for the crystal ball. Jason Tanz, thank you so much.

Mr. TANZ: Thanks a lot.

CHIDEYA: Journalist Jason Tanz has a new book called "Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America.

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