Shades of Gray

In the 30 years since its inception, hip-hop has grown from a means of expression for oppressed black youth to a major force in American popular culture. As such, hip-hop has been appropriated by all segments of our society — most controversially, by young white suburbanites. Fortune Small Business editor and lifelong rap fan Jason Tanz explores the appropriation (and misappropriation) of the once esoterically black music form in his book Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America (Bloomsbury USA).

Tanz's book begins with the tale of his own white middle-class disillusionment as a high-school sophomore in suburban Tacoma, Washington. Tanz's personal journey from young "wigger" seeking to escape his cloistered surroundings to hip-hop historian parallels the different responses to hip-hop throughout America. Tanz traces the movement to the Bronx of the late 1970s, when MCs and DJs rocked the beats, breakdancing skills determined street supremacy, and graffiti adorned every inner-city wall. From here, Tanz examines how hip-hop changed from the music of urban blight to the music of suburban bling.

Tanz's research is extensive, incorporating interviews with MC Chuck D and graffiti artist-turned-TV host Fab Five Freddy, conversations with nerdcore rappers at Star Wars conventions, and visits with station programmers for Green Bay's now defunct "churban" station Wild 99.7. Tanz's central theme seems to be that hip-hop requires authenticity while thriving on escapism. "Posers" seeking to co-opt rap's superficial attributes — the clothes, the style, the bling — are missing the true spirit in which the art form was created, as an instrument against oppression and strife. Tanz's conclusion is that the popularity of rap is indeed a mixed bag — creating greater social consciousness and moving thought processes beyond race, but failing to produce the substantive social change for which its originators had hoped.


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