Rap Music and Cultural Appropriation in Hari Kunzru's "White Tears"

Academic Paper, 2018

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Cultural Appropriation
2.1 Cultural Appropriation in the US
2.2 Cultural Appropriation in Rap Music

3. White Tears
3.1 The Producers' Social Blackness
3.2 Different Standards of Authenticity
3.3 The White Rapper
3.4 A Trip Down Memory Lane
3.5 For the Love of the Game

4. Conclusion
4.1 A Battle of White Privileges


Primary Literature

Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

Especially in a society like the United States with its long history of racial and cultural contacts and clashes, the appropriation of items from different cultural backgrounds is a strongly contested issue. The intensity of recent mainstream debates concerning the professional sport franchises of the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins and their respective marketing of Native American culture is proof of that. When cultural appropriation is used as a vehicle of capitalism, it becomes debatable. Hari Kunzru's novel White Tears, published in 2017, deals with exactly these topics when portraying the business ventures of two young white music producers and their shared search for vintage sound in modern day New York City.

In an early scene of the book, Seth and Carter, the producer duo, meet with representatives of a major label and their artist, a famous white rapper. Having heard of their vast archives of rare vintage sounds and their classic methods of production, the mainstream artists offers them the opportunity to work on his newest project, a tribute to all African-American music that was recorded prior to his birth in the Nineties. When Carter dismisses the project on the grounds of false cultural appropriation, he leaves his business partner as confused as the reader of the novel, since there is no further explanation offered and the plot continues.

This term paper takes a look at how cultural appropriation works in the context of African-American music in general and rap music in particular. Relevant parts of White Tears will be analyzed in order to understand the motivations and intentions that the two white twenty somethings have in their respective approaches to music that was made before they were born and to a subculture they never participated in due to their social backgrounds.

The conclusion of this term paper then answers the following question: Was Carter right to reject the white rapper's business proposal?

2. Cultural Appropriation

This chapter defines the term 'cultural appropriation' by looking at the fundamental mechanics of this process in the context of the United States culture in general and of rap music in particular.

2.1 Cultural Appropriation in the US

In the introduction to her book White Hip Hoppers, Language and Identity in Post- Modern America, Cecilia Cutler gives a definition of cultural appropriation:

Cultural appropriation can be defined as taking from a culture that is not one's own. Although cultural appropriation can be a multidirectional phenomenon, it is viewed primarily as transference from a subordinate culture into a dominant culture.1

One important prerequisite to the process of cultural appropriation is that the cultural value to be appropriated is not present in the subject's set of cultural values. This can be well observed especially in the United States with its background of white Anglo-Saxon protestants and the many waves of immigrants from different cultural origins.

The second point of interest is that cultural appropriation is primarily a one- direction transfer, conducted by the dominant culture that got in contact with the subordinate culture. This notion can also be applied to the United States pretty easily.

White appropriation of African-American culture can be traced back at least two centuries, when minstrel shows and black-faced actors emerged, picking up stereotypical representations of African-Americans and propagating them for commercial purposes among predominantly white audiences.

The appropriation of black music has a long history as well. Nearly all major genres, from blues to jazz to rock 'n roll to soul to RNB, underwent a cultural appropriation into the white mainstream. To go into detail here and list all the deprivations that African-American artists had to endure as a result of wrong cultural appropriation during the decades of segregation would go well beyond the scope of this term paper.

2.2 Cultural Appropriation in Rap Music

When rap music had outgrown its South Bronx boundaries of the late 70s and started spreading first in New York City, then in the whole United States, it got in contact with many different cultures and races. And while some only participated in this subculture, others appropriated it. Having originated out of a socioeconomic rather than a racial conscience, skin color had never been a defining element of rap music. Respected as well as successful white artists appeared as early as in the mid-Eighties with MC Serch (and his group 3rd Bass) or the Beastie Boys.

Yet when rap music also became of sincere economic interest to predominantly white major labels, the marketing to the mainstream often went along with business decisions that stand in stark contrast to the core values of rap music – one of them being authenticity. The first major controversy in this regard happened as early as in 1990 with Robert Van Winkle, better known by his stage name Vanilla Ice, who had considerable success as a rap star due to the marketing strategy of his record label:

While Ice was not the first white artist to achieve crossover success with hip-hop, his performance marked the first time a rap artist had so deliberately articulated his own whiteness in marketing [...]. Vanilla Ice turned his minority position as a white rapper into a point of pop marketability.2

His whole image came crumbling down, severely damaging his future career, when it was uncovered by press that Vanilla Ice did not have a background of ghetto poverty and gang violence, as was promoted even in the press-reader of his label, but had lived a pretty comfortable live in the suburbs of Dallas. The singer failed because of two reasons:

Vanilla Ice asked listeners to look past his whiteness to see a kind of social blackness that would authenticate him in the context of a rise to stardom that fit with black rappers’ success stories. He failed, however, because his lies and his translation of hiphop to the pop charts made his performance look like he was merely imitating black artists to make himself rich.3

Both reasons listed here – the failed authenticity on a personal and on an artistic scale – can be attributed to wrong cultural appropriation of African-American culture. Furthermore, the concept of social blackness is brought up. It will be further analyzed in the following chapter.

3. White Tears

This chapter offers an in-depth analysis of Hari Kunzru's novel White Tears. Relevant sections of the book will be quoted and interpreted in order to find out the following: the producer's duo socialization with black music and their acquisition of social blackness in college; their definition of authenticity in music, according to the two projects they did before; the character of the white rapper, based on information about his background and his past career; the idea of the white rapper's proposal, his definition of rap music as well as his intentions as an artist.

3.1 The Producers' Social Blackness

Early on in the novel it is revealed that Seth, the middle-class half-orphaned protagonist, met Carter, his upper-class would-be-partner, at a “liberal arts college upstate”4, a “not- quite-Ivy school”5. At this place they not only met and became acquainted, they were also culturally immersed by black music there – something they soon discovered as their common passion.

In an early production phase they try to copy Lee Perry's Jamaican production techniques from the 70s on analog equipment that Carter bought. Right then they have their first experience of cultural appropriation:

We worshipped music like Perry's but we knew we didn't own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge: who played congas on the B-side, the precise definition of collie.6

The first interesting notion in this quote is the desire of the two white producers to own a certain style of musical production and the cultural values it entails. This becomes clear since they realize that they do not own this music but decide to ignore it by focusing on the acquisition of extensive knowledge about band-members and slang terms for Marijuana.

How stereotypical their perception of black culture is becomes even more clear when the reader learns about how Seth and Carter perceive blackness in their surroundings:

The actual black kids at our school, of whom there were very few, seemed to us unsatisfactorily preppy or Christian or were basketball jocks doing business degrees, devirginating sorority girls and talking loudly in the commons about their personal brand.7


1 Cutler, Cecelia. White Hip Hoppers, Language and Identity in Post-Modern A merica. London: Routledge, 2014.

2 Hess, Mickey. “Hip-hop Realness and the White Performer.” Critical Studies in Media C ommunication Vol. 22, No. 5, December 2005: 373.

3 Ibd. 374.

4 Kunzru, Hari. White Tears. New York: Penguin, 2018. 7.

5 Ibd. 12.

6 Ibd. 20.

7 Kunzru, Hari. White Tears. New York: Penguin, 2018. 20.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Rap Music and Cultural Appropriation in Hari Kunzru's "White Tears"
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
PS II Race and Racism in Contemporary American Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Cultural appropriation, White rapper, Hari Kunzru, Music culture, Hip Hop
Quote paper
Florian Arleth (Author), 2018, Rap Music and Cultural Appropriation in Hari Kunzru's "White Tears", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/490582


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