Monday, January 13, 2014

The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege (Official Video) and some extended thoughts

Guante & Big Cats featuring Chantz Erolin and Rapper Hooks:
“The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege”
from the album “You Better Weaponize”
directed by PCP

Generally, artists make videos for the songs that they think people will fall in love with. With this one, however, we decided to make a video for what is definitely the most divisive song on the album. “The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege” features me, Chantz Erolin and Rapper Hooks talking about how whiteness functions in indie hip hop and beyond, exploring concepts of appropriation, privilege and responsibility. Good times.

The title of the song is a reference to Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of Privilege.” The term “backpacker” is casual slang for underground hip hop fan.

Depending on the listener, I’d imagine, it’s either extremely straightforward or quite frustrating and confusing, so I wanted to take this opportunity to dig a little more deeply into what the song is trying to say. Because we live in the future, I’ll use bullet points:

What Privilege Means
The concept of privilege isn’t nearly as complicated or controversial as its critics would have us believe. Basically, our identities impact how we move through the world and how people treat us; some identities (white, male, straight, rich, etc.) confer certain advantages, and/or are seen as either normal or desirable.

In the context of the song, it means that even though hip hop was born out of and is still driven by black musical tradition, whiteness (especially here in Minnesota) carries certain “perks” with it. This may include ease of networking (with white music writers, venue owners, DJs, bloggers, etc.), lack of negative stereotypes, more access to certain spaces (clubs, colleges, etc.), the capacity to potentially sell more CDs to fans who identify with you, the ability to make “edgy” music with a “safe” face on it-- the list goes on.

Clearly, this is bigger than hip hop. This song is about using hip hop as a lens through which we can see how privilege functions everywhere. If white privilege exists in a rap scene, what about in a school, or a corporation, or a bank, or the criminal justice system, or in government, or in a thousand other places?

What Privilege Does Not Mean
Privilege does NOT mean that “all white people have an easy life” or that “no rich person has ever worked hard” or that “no woman can ever be as successful as a man.” Literally no one is arguing that. So save your “but I’m white and I had to struggle too” comments. Being oppressed in one identity (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.) doesn’t mean that you can’t be privileged in another. They don’t cancel each other out; they exist simultaneously.

This song is not saying that white rappers will always succeed and rappers of color will always fail; that’s obviously not the case.

But privilege isn’t just about those “perks” that play out on an individual level. It’s also about power. It's about general trends and patterns. It’s about what gets propped up as normal or desirable and what gets stereotyped as dangerous or bad. Even if there are many successful artists of color, we still have to look at who owns the labels, who profits from radio play/CD sales, who gets to create art on their own terms and who has to follow a format in order to pay their advance back. Even if hipster rap bloggers trip over one another trying to hype up the most "authentic" MCs, we still have to interrogate why they do that-- is it a genuine love and appreciation for the culture, or is something else going on? It’s not just about the two dozen artists who make it to the top; hip hop is an ecosystem comprised of millions of people—artists, engineers, promoters, fans, etc.—and this song is about recognizing how privilege plays out at every level.

Especially here in MN (admittedly, this song won’t have the same relevance in every scene, though it will always have some), we need to open our eyes. It’s easy to have a “we’re all just humans, dude” attitude when you refuse to see the persistent trends of who makes it vs. who doesn’t, who gets media attention vs. who gets media support (not the same thing), and how that aforementioned hip hop ecosystem functions. Again, I’m not saying that race is the deciding factor in all of those questions— but it does play a role. To ignore that is dangerous.

“Acknowledging Privilege” is the First Step, Not the Last One
One reason that I'm proud of this song is that I think the three of us did a good job tackling the issue in context; we know that a big part of our audience is actively resistant to this stuff, another big part has never thought about it before, and another big part has thought about it so much that they're ready to move beyond the privilege framework into more radical places.

Because it’s not like no one’s ever written songs about this before (Macklemore, Murs). But this song is about digging deeper, about “next steps.” So much social justice education focuses on intro’ing concepts of privilege and oppression, and that’s not enough. The question I ask in my verse is “what now?” We could have an academic argument about whether white people should be rapping, but the fact is that white people ARE rapping, so let’s talk about what that means, and what responsibilities come with that.

“Know the history, build community, and put people on” are starting points, at least for me. That’s the baseline. I hope we can continue to build from there. See you in the YouTube comments.

[Verse 1: Guante]
I don’t identify as white
But I identify as white enough, to get that indie rap writer buzz
And benefit from, a system set up
For rappers who already have advantages to get love
Think about it, how many music writers are white?
How many bloggers, how many booking agents?
How many college radio DJs?
How many publicists, concert-goers and critics got white faces?
Cause you can watch 8 mile and assume
White rappers got it hard, but it isn’t really true
This is America, even if you’re not racist
Racism’s in the foundation, face it
I’m not saying white people can’t participate
Obviously, I’m just saying please eliminate
The myth that it’s just about hard work and lyrical ability
’cause it’s about responsibility
Know the history, put people on, build community
‘cause not everyone who works hard earns it
And if they ever make you a monument
Scratch your name out, break it, spit on it, burn it
Yo, it’s so messed up how
You talk about whiteness and half your fanbase shuts down
So nod your head, you ain’t got to understand us
Just put your hands up, put your fucking hands up

[Verse 2: Chantz Erolin]
Ayo white kid, yeah, yeah, I hate to say it like this
But I'm trying to help you get enlightened to having light skin
Don't trip, I don't hate kids, and someone's gonna called me racist
But I'm running out of patience so I gotta say this
I know it's hard for you to see it conceive what it means to be me
Well, not me, but be defined by what society sees
They say I'm to believe
We’re post racial but still, I feel confined by police
This dude called the cops on the crib the other night
Saying that I robbed his wife or well some dude that wasn't white
Maybe Native, maybe Asian
Either way, three squad cars hit my crib at 3 AM
And no white boy, in no way is that your fault
You may hate pigs and think that profiling is awful
But understand that you would not be in that position
Just for smoking on your porch with your particular pigment
You got the privilege to not having to deal with your race
While my relatives are off putting bleach on their face
I used to wish I was white, but I'm disgusted by skin cream
I was bullied and cried without knowing what chink means
Have severe doubts you’ll be bumping this song or humming along
You've been taught that skin color means nothing at all
And whiteness is considered normal and neutral
You may not notice race when them white rappers do shows
It's crazy in a rap show devoid of brown and black folk
Hearing white kids saying words they should get smacked for
This shit was built on the backs of our oppression
Now you think it's just your raps that'll leave impressions? Hands up.

[Verse 3: Rapper Hooks]
Foolish in my glory tap dancing, drinking 40's
Don't judge me if you do not know my story
And I'll do the same, it's more than just a name, nigga
Mainframe spinning like I’m twister knowing
Most of these listeners won't understand
Race and change, I guess it's time to grow up
If you can't acknowledge how you get here then don't even show up
The token black leaving heart attacks more righteous than my phonies
speaking stories of my homies
On some things they never knew, they only heard about
Darker than the couch up in my mama's house
My roots are deeper than these double standards so I'm speaking out
Love it when we're all connected in the ‘sota
But I can't respect my brother if he can't respect my culture
Moving fast like Testarossa growing up
Dream in color, kid
I'm in living color, on my Wayans brothers spit
Hoping that my whiter color brother can relate to this
If you can't we can see how bad our separation gets
Preaching on the Newest Testament like we're in Nazareth
Press they love me cause I'm cosigned by my lighter publicist
Knowing that we're all connected, to police I'll plead the fifth
No equality in this, if you racist or you hate this
You can give my ass a kiss, please no lipstick on your lips
Cause I don't wanna change my color, not even a little bit
In the end all I ask is you acknowledge privilege
Cause I promise you, you wouldn't be poppin’ in '96


Sam s. said...

Admitted bias in this response: I haven't read all of your complete thoughts on this issue so I can't entirely be sure where our views intersect/diverge. Hopefully I don't get too meta either.

I completely agree with your premise that there is white privilege in many places, including music -- privilege of all kinds everywhere in fact, not just of the white variety. However, I think this argument, when it comes to music, is a red herring in terms of your question "what now?" Trying to answer that question in music is 1) not possible 2) if it is possible, just a band-aid on a bigger societal problem.

The reason that answering this question in terms of music isn't possible is because music is art. Art comes in many forms, but there is no determinism in art -- there's no one ultimate guider. The fact that white people are rapping doesn't matter, the fact that hip hop music was derived from black culture doesn't matter. There is no ownership on foundational art (if there is such a thing). Since this has been dominating the news today, let's use Macklemore as an example. Macklemore is white and has re-apportioned certain aspects of a music that was "discovered" by black artists. I use the term discovered because, in sticking with the premise that art is not determined by some ultimate guider, any human being could have come across the hip hop sound with equal probability. In fact, many have as hip hop itself is re-apportionment of other art. In art, people either re-apportion from one art or many and synthesize it into their own and that has been the course of art forever.

As a thought experiment, let's say you have two musicians who are completely equal musically, they make the exact same songs, they come from the exact same backgrounds, the same influences, everything except they have different skin colors. One gets famous (makes more money, has more listeners we'll say as being famous) and the other doesn't. Like you acknowledge, the one who's color is more "accepted" by society has a lot more opportunity to advance. But how can you place the blame of privilege on the musician himself/herself when the problem isn't generated by the art they create but because of societal problems. I think this is why a lot of people might find your stance inherently divisive or rather, unnecessarily targeted at the wrong people (in this case, musicians of a privileged color.)

I think, as I take a step back, this is why trying to solve this in music is not possible. When I say if it were possible, it is just a band-aid, I mean it seems to me that you are trying to solve a much bigger problem, that of privilege in economics as a whole.

If this all didn't make any sense, I'll try to summarize concisely: bringing an argument of privilege into a realm (here, art) that is inherently subjective and forever malleable, only serves as a distraction for MUCH bigger and more complicated problem.

What I will say though is that no discussion of privilege is bad as long as it brings up the dialogue. I just think we have to be careful about placing blame, or rather discussing privilege in the right realms, so as not to disguise the larger issue that needs to be solved.

Alex said...

I lost you at "There is no ownership of foundational art..." Since when? I wish somebody would tell white people that, because a POC can't make a rock song, classical song, impressionist, abstract, realist or surrealist painting without being called the "insert heritage" KISS, Bach, Monet, Picasso or Dali. It's only when that 'foundational art' is based in POC heritage that it all of a sudden is up for grabs and anybody can copy it.

Sam s. said...

Just because some white people use what you call "insert heritage and band name" as differentiation, doesn't make that right. I would agree with you that that is not right.

The fact that white people might claim rock music as their own doesn't change my argument at all because I would say the exact same thing to those white people: no one owns the rock sound.

You're absolutely right that the dialogue is DIFFERENT simply because of institutional privilege built into our society. White people have the "socially-accepted" opportunity to say things like "the Black KISS" because of economic privilege, the real problem we should be addressing, not because of some isolated privilege in music.

Avalon Advisor said...

This is so good! We would like you to perform at Avalon School During Black History Month. Please call us.

Guante said...

Thanks-- as for performing, my policy for Black History Month show requests is to refer other (African-American) artists who can speak more directly to the spirit of the occasion. And I know a bunch of good artists.

Feel free to shoot me an email at and we can talk.