The death of an era gave birth to a phase / Frantic crowds callin' "nigga" 'til we surrendered the trade / Now "Who stole the soul?" became the phrase / When there's only eight niggas at the show and six of 'em is on stage.
— from "Skeletons" by Lifesavas
Why don't more black people listen to independent hip-hop? It's a question that has been asked since at least 1999, when the Roots opened their landmark Things Fall Apart album with a clip from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues in which Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes argue about why more black people don't come to their jazz band's shows.
It's also a topic that probably makes some hip-hop fans — white and black alike — a little uncomfortable. (Try getting a comment on the topic from a white hip-hop promoter!) But L.A. indie rapper Open Mike Eagle doesn't shy away from the obvious trend toward paler audiences at his shows. With his multisyllabic rhymes, subdued beats, and an album titled Unapologetic Art Rap, Eagle is quintessential indie hip-hop: the style of understated, self-aware rap that traces its origins to early-'90s acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Though there are plenty of black performers in the world of indie hip-hop, its audience largely comprises 20- and 30-something suburban white dudes partial to zip-up hoodies and backpacks. The dichotomy isn't lost on Eagle.
"It's white kind of by default," Eagle says. "If you follow the legacy of independent rap music after the mid-'90s, the audience became very white. The music started to kind of separate itself from the everyday black experience, and the people who were looking for this kind of adventurous rap music were white people. Being that that's the lane that I got in, I kind of inherited that audience, but I make a lot of overtures to black people in my music. I do see maybe more colored folks than a lot of my peers, but that's 'cause I'm out there campaigning for it, I think."
For Eagle, the challenge lies in connecting with a black audience while remaining true to his past.
"This is always a difficult part — and this is the part that's making itself more apparent to me in recent times — is that it's a little bit of a class thing that's in there, too, that's really difficult to talk about," Eagle says. "I feel like part of my aesthetic was created by being a black, middle-class person. I grew up in the quote-unquote ghetto and all of that, but my family could afford cable, so I sat and watched MTV all day as a kid, and that definitely affected my aesthetic. I think that's the difficult part of the conversation to have, 'cause it's not like black people just automatically get me, but there's a certain segment that does, and I think that class is another one of those bisecting issues, and I have to figure out how to address all this in a way that's realistic."
Eagle appreciates his white fans but admits that reaching a black audience is a "driving force" in his writing.
"I feel like — and I know it to be true as well — there's a lot of black people who used to listen to rap, but now they kind of like passively listen to rap," Eagle says. "They've got really rich lives and non-stereotypical lives, and they have all these varied interests, but nobody's really speaking to their/our experience. That's part of my thing, to definitely do that, but I don't want it to seem exclusive, either. I don't want it to seem like it's the kind of party that only black people are invited to, but I definitely want to let black people that aren't satisfied by what's handed to them usually know that there's something going on that they might be interested in over here, something that's really relevant to them."