‘A Yellow-Ass Nigga’?: Hip Hop and the ‘Mixed-Race’ Experience K Searle
Hip Hop has always engaged with the politics of ‘race’ and racism.1 From the Black Panther Party-inspired Marxism of acts such as The Coup and Immortal Technique, to the Nation of Islam-influenced stance of Public Enemy and Ice Cube, to the black feminism of Ursula Rucker and MeShell Ndgeocello, socially conscious emcees have approached the issues from a number of angles. In the context of this engagement with the politics of ‘race’ and racism, the topics of ‘mixed race’ and interracial relationships have often featured.2
This article explores some of the lyrics about the ‘mixed-race’ experience in Hip Hop. It does not aim to provide an exhaustive list of songs which have engaged with issues of ‘mixed-race,’ but to serve as an introduction. The article is borne out of my longstanding interest in Hip Hop, and much of the research involved me consulting my ever-growing record collection, and songs which have come to my attention over the years.
Hip Hop provides the soundtrack to the lives of many ‘mixed-race’ youth and adults. The genre is perhaps more relevant to the ‘mixed-race’ experience than any other form of music. Charlie Owen (2001: 138) has noted how ‘mixed-race’ people constitute a relatively young population. This population has been at its largest, at a time when Hip Hop has taken its greatest share of record sales. However, as many emcees have pointed out, in rhymes which engage with such themes as the division of labour on slave-plantations in the American South, this does not in anyway mean that ‘mixed race’ people somehow constitute a ‘new racial group.’
The present article is structured into four main sections. The first engages with songs about the ‘mixed-race’ experience, the second looks at lyrics about interracial relationships, the third about colour/shade and the final part focuses on tracks about women and colour. It is perhaps worth noting that a number of artists, from different musical genres, have commented on all of these themes, prior to the dawn of Hip Hop in the 1970s.3 In his book On Racial Frontiers…, Gregory Stephens (1999: 170) argues that Bob Marley was, ‘a master of employing double-voiced lyrics,’ and Marley’s line: ‘I’m a rainbow too,’ on the track Sun is Shining constitutes a comment on the artists’ ‘biraciality.’ Nina Simone described a woman who was the product of interracial rape in her song Four Women. The blues artist, Big Bill Broonzy drew upon the African-American expression: If you’re white, you’re all right, If you’re brown stick around, if you’re black, get back’, in the song Black, Brown and White. And, socially conscious soul singer, Curtis Mayfield, admonished ‘high yellow girls’ in We the People who are Darker than Blue, additionally, as Mike Rugel (2007) shows, the theme of women and colour
has also been present in a number of blues songs.4
Being ‘Mixed Race’
Two key tracks by ‘mixed race’ artists released during the 1990s, include the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy’s (1992) Socio-Genetic Experiment and Chino XL’s (1996) What Am I. In both tracks, the artists took an autobiographical approach, as they recounted their experiences of growing up ‘mixed,’ and their experiences of rejection from one or all of the ‘racial’ groups to which their parents belong. As the title, ‘Socio-Genetic Experiment,’ and the lyric which asks ‘Did I piss in their gene-pool?’ imply, the Disposable Heroes’ front-man, Michael Franti, highlights an important and often forgotten point about how the legacies of the eugenics movement remain pertinent in attitudes towards ‘mixed-race’ people today. This is summed up in Franti’s refrain which emphasizes how ‘mixed-race’ people are often seen as ‘dirty’ or ‘polluted,’ with the line: ‘Sometimes I feel like a socio-genetic experiment, a petri-dish community’s token of infection.’
In What Am I? the artist Chino XL, seems to come to terms with his mixed ‘racial’ background through the realization that many African-American leaders such as Adam Clayton Powell, Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Mohammed have been light-skinned. The emcee uses this and other examples, such as being made to play a slave in a school play, to highlight how many of the historic and contemporary struggles of ‘mixed-race’ people are inseparable from those of black people in America. In view of this, yet by no means ignoring his negative experiences with black people, Chino ends his song with the proclamation that he is indeed a light-skinned black man or, in his own words, ‘a yellow-ass nigga.’
Mike Ladd’s (1997) record, The Tragic Mulatto is Neither, has less of an autobiographical structure, and, as the title suggests, is directed more towards challenging the tragic mulatto stereotype. Ladd begins with a focus on his patrilineage, and with repeated calls for his granddaddy ‘to stretch that line.’ The emcee proceeds to connect the past with the present in the line: ‘Colour vision stays practical, politically, we practically black, same shade as the first baby slave born off the boat...’ With the initial line, ‘colour vision stays practical,’ Ladd levels a critique at the pseudo-scientific basis of ‘race.’ The implication of slave rape in the line, ‘same shade as the first baby slave born off the boat…’ with the later, more subjective refrain of, ‘nothing tragic in the mix,’ where Ladd speaks of his own ancestry, would, as we shall see, contrast with the position of a number of other light-skinned emcees, who certainly saw a lot tragic in the mix which led to their light complexions.
Shock G (2004) recorded the ‘mixed-race’ themed album (Fear of a Mixed Planet). The title was a play on that of an earlier Public Enemy album which will be mentioned later. The theme of the title track seems to be peoples’ attitudes towards the appearance of ‘mixed-race’ families. The song creates a scene of people guessing whether ‘mixed-race’ families are indeed relatives of one-another. This is borne out in the line, ‘Mister, mister, is that your girl or your sister, sister, is that your boyfriend or your brother, brother, cos you look more like your mother than your father…’ The end of the verse which sees Shock G interject with the statement, ‘I hope the baby got ten toes,’ works to emphasize the triviality of the issue of appearance, in light of questions of health. The artists’ criticism of America’s absorption in the issue of ‘race’ and racial terminology is further emphasized on the following track Who’s Clean, which pokes fun at taken-for-granted-ideas about ‘race’ and racial nationalism in the United States, with lyrics such as, ‘what ‘race’ you talking about, my car ain’t got no number on it.’
The tracks by these four artists all demonstrate the fluid nature of their ‘mixed-race’ identities. In the songs, the artists speak about how the view of their ‘racial,’ or racialised identities shifts between black, and ‘mixed-race,’ in different contexts. They show that identity is often based more upon perception, than it is parentage. Franti’s song contains descriptions of him being in receipt of anti-black racist abuse at the hands of, ‘kids who called me nigger on the walk home from school.’ He is also keen to point out the multi-faceted nature of identity, and ends his song by listing a number of characteristics, from a person’s racialised background to their political standpoint, which all help to constitute identity. Chino XL describes how in predominantly white social contexts the essentialism of the one-drop rule is especially prevalent. This is particularly well put in the line, ‘where I was before I was the darkest thing they never saw,’ and his ending, where Chino describes himself as a ‘yellow ass nigga.’ Similarly, Mike Ladd succinctly captures America’s one-drop rule with the line: ‘politically, we practically black.’ The titles of the tracks, which highlight the themes of being ‘mixed-race,’ and many of the lyrics which demonstrate the artists experiences of anti-black racism, show that in the face of white racism and the one-drop rule, there is clearly much overlap between the experiences of ‘mixed-race’ and black people in America.
The shared structural experience of racism and class has clearly solidified a deep feeling of empathy with black people. In response, to the homogenization of all people of African descent as essentially black, the artists all express a strong political blackness or black perspectivism. The demonstration of black identification is perhaps most forcefully put in a later song by Michael Franti for the group Spearhead (1994), entitled Dream Team. There, Franti describes the contradictions of witnessing the first time the American basketball team performed in the Olympics and seeing, ‘the brothers in the street who everyone is scared of,’ before asking, ‘how could ten Africans represent America’ in the year of the Rodney King beating. In the track Franti then proceeds to make up a Dream Team of historic black leaders to face America.
The subject of ‘mixed-race’ continues to be an important theme in the work of ‘mixed-race’ rappers. The next album by the UK emcee, Yungun, will be entitled the Middle Man, and aims to engage with issues of ‘race’ and ‘mixed-race.’ In America, the underground emcee, Hasan Salaam, is also scheduled to release an album entitled, (My Life in Black and White), soon.5
A large number of other emcees have mentioned the subject of ‘mixed-race’ as part of their lyrics. A number of these statements have been of a stereotypical nature. The Talib Kweli (2000) remix of Nina Simone’s Four Women, includes, similarly to Simone’s original version, a description of a ‘mixed-race’ woman as being trapped ‘between two worlds.’ In contrast, Wild Child (2003), from the Lootpack, bent the stereotypical stick way too far the other way with his overly optimistic lyrics: ‘I wish I knew … a way to end world suffering, why interracial relationships are the key and most are hesitant to show love to them,’ on the cut, Wonder Years.
Interracial relationships have provided a subject of discussion for a number
of Emcees. From brief mentions such as KRS ONE’s (1993) statement, ‘the woman in my bed has got to be strictly black,’ in the chorus of his track Mortal Thoughts, to entire songs such as Public Enemy’s (1990) (who included the ‘mixed-race’ DJ, Terminator X (Jenkins, 1999)), more supportive tracks Pollywannacracka and Fear of a Black Planet. The latter song provided criticism of the one-drop rule with the refrain:
'Black man, black woman, black baby,
White man, white woman, white baby,
White man, black woman, black baby,
Black man, white woman, black baby,'
The Nation of Islam has been very influential in Hip Hop. Indeed, the Public Enemy frontman, Chuck D (1988) had earlier rhymed, “The follower of Farrakhan, don’t tell me that you understand, until you heard the man.” One artist who was linked to, and supported a view more consistent with the Nation’s separatist stance, was Ice Cube. Ice Cube (1991) recorded the tracks Horny L’il Devil and True to the Game, on his album (Death Certificate), later following them up with Cave Bitch on the album (Lethal Injection). In Horny L’il Devil, Cube vents his anger at the legacies of white male rape during slavery, and seems to believe that white male interest in Black women could only ever be exploitative. Indeed, a number of Cube’s lyrics, such as, “She aint with the pale face, cos y’all fuck at a snail’s pace” appear angrily reverse-racist. In True to the Game, Cube directs some of his attention to upwardly mobile black men with white partners. In a later track, Cave Bitch, Ice Cube (1993) attempts to distance himself from any suggestion that he may desire the blue-eyed, blond-haired WASP ideal, or in the words of Dr. Khalid Muhammad, a former Nation of Islam spokesman, who opens the track:
'Give me a black goddess sister, I can't resist her. No stringy haired, blonde hair, blue eyed, pale skinned buttermilk complexion. Grafted, recessive, depressive, ironing board backside straight up and straight down. No frills, no thrills, Miss six o'clock, subject to have the itch, mutanoid,
caucazoid, white cave bitch.'
In Cave Bitch, Ice Cube provides a full-length tirade, influenced by the Nation of Islam’s theory of the origins of the white ‘race,’ about white women. Where Ice Cube, speaking of relationships with white women, rhymed “it ain’t gonna happen,” the West Coast emcee, Ras Kass (1998), takes a different attitude. He rhymes “cause a lot of white people is racist that’s why I'm bustin’ nuts in their teenage daughters faces.”6 A remark echoed by other rappers such as Soulja Slim, featured on the Dead Prez (2002) track, Soulja Life Mentality. Here Ras Kass and Soulja Slim are attacking the racism of white men through the performance of a patriarchal, and unreciprocated oral sex act on white women. These lyrics echo Bell Hooks’ (1982: 98) observation where: ‘Militant black men were publicly attacking the white male patriarchs for their racism but they were also establishing a bond of solidarity with them based upon their shared acceptance of and commitment to patriarchy.’ The patriarchal idea of women as the reproducers of ‘race’ is also pertinent here. This sex act, although presented as fleeting and certainly not leading to a long-term relationship, would be viewed as the defacement of the white man’s property, masculinity (often hinged on the capacity to subordinate women) and ‘race.’ This is particularly pertinent in light of Errol Lawrence’s (1982: 71-72) observation that white women are regarded as ‘polluted,’ to ‘never be the same again,’ as ‘worse than a whore,’ and to be ‘not of the right ‘stock’ any longer, for breeding fine upstanding members of the ‘race.’’ through sexual contact with non-whites.
More recently the Chicago native, Common (2005) expressed opposition to interracial relationships on his track Real People, where he rhymed, ‘Black men walking with white girls on their arm, I be mad at them...’ and argued that through this they ‘lessen our women’. This track triggered an angry response from three ‘mixed-race’ UK emcees: Rising Son, Yungun and Doc Brown (2005) who branded Common, ‘a racist’ amongst other things.
The theme of interracial relationships and their connection to an idealization of a European standard of beauty, has, perhaps most articulately been explored by the Black feminist emcee Meshell Ndgeocello (1993) in the track, Soul on Ice. This song was named after Eldridge Cleaver (1969), the Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party’s book of the same name, which spoke about, amongst other things, Cleaver’s own fascination with white women. In her song Ndgeocello described, “Visions of her virginal white beauty, Dancin'in your head, your soul's on ice, your soul's on ice.” With the lines: ‘My brothers attempt to defy the white man’s law and his system of values, defile his white woman, but my, my, master’s in the slave house again…’ Ndgeocello seems to respond to the kind of rationale forwarded by artists like Ras Kass and Soulja Slim, that relationships with white women are solely an expression of revenge. The ‘system of values’ and ‘self-love’ is also a key concern for Jerold Marcellus Bryant who takes a much more supportive position towards interracial relationships on the Bigg Jus (2004) track Say Goodbye. Bryant rhymes: “Goodbye to the weird looks as a brother holds hands with a white girl, and a sister chooses a white man, no longer taboo, just make sure the love is true, just make sure you love you…”
In contrast to this, the ‘mixed race’ emcee, Mighty Casey (2003), using
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s beat for White Lines, wrote a tongue-in-cheek song which played on his fascination with white women, and what scholars such as Fernando Henriques (1953) might call the ‘white bias,’ named, White girls. In it Casey remarked: “Whether short or tall, whether blonde or brunette, I ain't met a white girl that I wouldn’t do yet’ and makes the revelation, ‘I really don’t think there’s a girl that I missed, I used to like ‘Mariah’ [Carey], till I learned she was mixed.”
There has perhaps been more discussion of issues of colour or shade than the ‘mixed-race’ experience and interracial relationships in Hip Hop music.
The notion that ‘white is right’ has, unfortunately, made an appearance in a number of songs. Braggadocio is, of course, very common in rap lyrics, especially in battle-rhyming, and, far from being an expression of arrogance, is often an artistic attempt to magnify, or ‘big-up’ the performer and others, in the face of social structures which persistently ostracize black, and poor people, more generally. A number of emcees, however, have incorporated bragging about their light complexions into their rhymes. One such example is given by Drake (n.d.), who rhymes: “Ice in the necklace, light skinned and hectic and all these simple things got a man braggin…’” in the track Rewind. Such a context makes Kanye West’s (2004) earlier rhyme “I`ma make sure these light skinned niggas never, ever, never come back in style,” in the track School Spirit, much more easy to understand. Further examples of artists bragging about their light complexions can be found in Ced Gee’s (1991) verse in the Ultramagnetic MCs’ track Make in Happen, and, perhaps, in the introduction to LL Cool J’s (1987) I’m Bad, where a speaker notes his complexion along with his tallness, dimples, black Kangol sweatsuit, gold chain and sneakers.
In contrast, in a deeply sad and self-depreciating lyric that demonstrates his own internalization of racism, The Notorious BIG (1994) famously rhymed: “Heart throb never, black and ugly as ever,” in the track One More Chance. As Sharpley-Whiting (2007: 33) points out in her book, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women, Smalls’ attitude towards colour was borne out in his relationships, where he seemed to have a preference for lighter-skinned partners.7
Light-skin is seen as much less of a ‘prize’ when more political emcees speak about colour. Ice Cube (1991) and Styles P (2006) link their light complexions to the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery in the tracks Horny Li’l Devil and I’m Black, respectively. The Peruvian-born emcee Immortal Technique (2003, 2008) similarly connects the light complexion of many Latinos to the rape of black and indigenous American women in the tracks The Point of No Return and The 3rd World. In the latter, Technique speaks of the inherent attraction-repulsion and racial fetishism-disavowel contradictions in slave-rape, albeit in somewhat patriarchal terms: “Destroyed our culture and said that you civilised us, Raped our women and when we were born, you despised us.”
The subject of slavery is salient again in Professor Griff’s (1998) Field Nigguhz in a Huddle, on the album (Blood of the Profit). Here, guest emcee, Lord Mecca mentions colour and the division of labour on plantations. The album begins with an introduction which suggests that interracial relationships may be a communist plot to pacify Black Nationalist struggle towards the broader goal “which will deliver America to our [the communists’] cause.” In the track Field Nigguhz…, Lord Mecca clearly makes a link between house slaves, often seen as part of the establishment in black radical discourse,8 and light skinned people with the rhyme: “Point me out, these light skin, with copper-coloured hair, the master, it’s iller than a Boston massacre…”
Much of the commentary about intra-racial colour or shade difference has focused on the notion of pigmentocracy, or the correlation between colour and class, where lightskinned people have historically occupied an intermediate strata, uneasily sandwiched between a black slave, and then under, or working class, and a white elite. One example is forcibly put by Cee-Lo of the Goodie Mob (1998), who also provides criticism of the one drop rule. In the track The Experience, Cee-Lo rhymes: “Dividing and conquering when they say the lighter shade’s blacks OK, after the middle class they passin’ by the projects laughing at where we stay.” The stereotype of mixed-race’ people being in denial of their black ancestry also seems to be present in Nas’ (2002) lyric which mentions the familiar, ‘sell-out’ figure of Tiger Woods, who publicly declared his Caublinasian-ness. In What Goes Around, Nas rhymes: ‘Lightskin women, bi-racial hateful toward themselves, denying even they blood, I don't judge Tiger Woods but I overstand the mental poison…’
The concept of ‘white guilt’ or a ‘white guilt complex’ has become a common term used by writers such as Richard Dyer (cf. 1997: 10), and often more pejoratively by right-wing commentators, to describe the guilt felt by white people for the historic treatment of people of colour. In the context of debates about lightskinned privilege, a number of light-skinned emcees have expressed what could be described as a ‘brown guilt complex’ in their music.9 This has, perhaps, been articulated by Boots Riley of the Oakland based group, The Coup (2004), who when describing himself in the track Get Up rapped: “This fella’s piss yella, never been a snitch teller,” in what sounds like a clear attempt to distance himself from the stereotype of light-skinned blacks as ‘pretty boys,’ as well as ‘sell-outs,’ or informants, guilty of betraying countless slave rebellions. Immortal Technique (2008) has also weighed in with a typically erudite verse on the track Harlem Renaissance. Technique rhymes about brown-paper bag tests at Harlem Nightclubs, and the conflict between Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois, describing: ‘a legacy of false superiority’ amongst lightskinned black people. In this context of the problematic position of lightskinned people in black struggle, some artists such as Def Jef (1989), have been keen to stress their identification with black people. In lyrics that speak of the assumptions made about the artist’s racial and national background, Jef rhymes: “Skin is light, but I’m not white or Puerto Rican, I’m an African descendent, very independent…”
In contrast to Cee-Lo’s view of the one drop rule as an attempt to divide and conquer, a number of emcees have made calls for the unity of all people of African descent in their music. Jeru tha Damaja (1996) speaks of “Black cats, Brown cats, all types of cats,” and calls for “mental fusion,” in the track The Frustrated Nigga. The Five Percenter group Brand Nubian (1998), describe black faces “from midnight black to light tans” in Shinin’ Star, and Def Jef (1989) rhymes: “Dark or light black, Don't let ‘em tell you it's wrong to fight back…” in his track Black to the Future.10 One of the most forceful calls for oneness was perhaps made by Africa Baby Bam of the Jungle Brothers (1988) in the track Black is Black. Bam’s rhyme “My light complexion has no meaning, if you think so then you’re dreaming,” falls within a verse flanked by the refrain “Black is Black is Black is Black!”
Women and Shade
‘Mixed-race’ and lightskinned women, and women more generally, often have a very different relationship with Hip Hop than ‘mixed-race’ men, and men more generally.
The lyrics of rap tunes are clearly not the only way of examining Hip Hop’s relationship with ‘mixed-race.’ Sharpley-Whiting (2008), Kathy Russell et al (1992), and many other writers, have observed that light skinned women appear in disproportionate numbers in Hip Hop videos. This fact has even led the multi-platinum selling artist Kanye West to make the following derogatory comments in an interview with Essence Magazine: ‘If it wasn’t for race mixing there’d be no video girls . . . Me and most of our friends like mutts a lot. Yeah, in the hood they call ’em mutts.’
Light-skinned black women are often represented as the ‘black man’s blonde’ or ‘trophy girlfriends’ in Hip Hop. The artists who make such assertions are less usually identified as socially conscious rappers. The ‘trophy girlfriend’ view of light-skinned women has appeared in the lyrics of Big Daddy Kane (1988), who rhymed: “Sexy young ladies of a light-skinned breed, You got, you got, you got what I need!” Will Smith (1991) provided another example with the line: “Honking at the honey in front of you with the light eyes.” A more recent example of light-skinned women as ‘prize,’ has presented itself in Snoop Dogg and Pharrel’s (2002) ode to the Brazilian ‘mulatta,’ and radio and MTV mainstay for much of the period in which it was released, Beautiful.
The notion of light-skinned women conveying social status whilst at the same time being described as lecherous, is put by Jay Z (2003) who rhymes about his social mobility and the interest which light skinned women consequentially show him on ‘December 4th’: “I'm a hustler now, my gear is in, and I'm in the in-crowd, and all the wavy light-skinned girls is lovin’ me now.”
Artists who are often described as being ‘socially conscious’ or being ‘back-pack emcees,’ have also made, perhaps surprisingly, similar statements. The Five Percent Nation emcee King Sun (1990) on his Black Nationalist anthem Be Black, bizarrely describes his preference for ‘redbone’ or light-skinned women with the often heard rationale that black women are ‘headstrong,’ or ‘have attitude.’ To echo Marita Golden’s (2004: 58) assertion in her semi-autobiographical book about what Kathy Russell et al describe as the ‘color complex:’ ‘Dark-skinned black girls had better have attitude. That’s the only thing that saves them in a world that pretends they’re not there or tries to erase them.’ Indeed, this is made all the more true in the context of lyrics such as: “Your clothes are tight, I can see every inch, and then you wonder how I get this urge to pinch.” More recently another emcee widely regarded as socially conscious, Kanye West, who recorded the popular song Jesus Walks, sparked a furore on many internet discussion boards with his aforementioned comment. There has been some discussion about whether rappers, particularly the more socially conscious ones, represent the ‘new black leaders,’ (cf. the Talib Kweli (2004) track I Try). In light of this debate, it should, perhaps, be little surprise that some socially conscious emcees should express a preference for lighter-skinned women, because, as Kathy Russell et al. (1992: 117) show, a number of older black leaders have also shown a similar predilection.
In contrast to this, however, there have been a large number of songs which celebrate black beauty, such as Black Star (1998) and KRS-One’s (1993) Brown Skin Lady and Brown Skin Woman, respectively, The Coup’s (1993) Fuck a Perm, Dead Prez’s (2000) Mind Sex, The Goodie Mob’s (1998) Beautiful Skin and many, many more, such as Sir Mix-A-Lot’s (1992) cheekier celebration of black women’s behinds, Baby Got Back. Tunes which have been pitched against cosmetic surgery, and other forms of body modification include Shock G, of the Digital Underground’s (1991) self-explanatory No Nose Job, KRS-One, as part of Boogie Down Productions’ (1990) Ya Strugglin’ and Nas’ (2002) aforementioned, and more recent, What Goes Around, where he rhymes: “Up late night on they mothers cordless, thinking a perm or bleaching cream will make better when they gorgeous.” Against the backdrop of the edification of light-skinned women, Del the Funky Homosapien (1995) dropped the track, Dark Skin Girls, a diss of light-skinned women, which included the refrain: “Dark Skin Girls are better than light-skinned”. In the song, Del avoids directing any of his attention towards the racist and sexist male-dominated structures which often pedestalise light-skin women, and, in line with traditional patriarchy, he focuses all of his anger on the women themselves. In stark contrast to this, the emcee, Murs (2006), provides an unusually sympathetic verse about the struggles of ‘mixed-race’ women, as well as verses about those of white and black women who may face accusations of ‘acting black’ or ‘acting white,’ respectively, on the more recent track, Brown Skinned White Girls.
Two relatively prominent socially conscious female emcees have been ‘mixed-race.’ The first is Mystic, whose debut album was compared to Lauryn Hill’s, and the second Ursula Rucker, who released the Feminist anthem, What a Woman Must Do, on her, (Silver or Lead) album. In spite of their willingness to grapple with many difficult issues of ‘race,’ class and gender in their music, these artists have said little about ‘mixed-race.’ Ursula Rucker, however, included an image of her parents in the sleeve of her third studio album, (Ma’at Mama), and, again, in a remix of Nina Simone’s Four Women, includes a verse about a ‘mixed-race’ woman. The female emcee Jean Grae (2004), who has a background in Cape Town, South Africa, mentions the plight of black and coloured women in the country, on a track with Talib Kweli. Her verse speaks of the pain of disunity, and ends with a call for solidarity amongst all people of African descent:
'Girls with the skyest blue of eyes and the darkest skin,
For Cape Colored allied for realizing we're African,
For all my cousins back home, the strength of mommy's backbone,
The length of which she went for raising, sacrificing her own,
The pain of not reflecting the range of our complexions,
For rubber pellet scars on Auntie Elna's back I march,
Fist raised caramel shinin’ in all our glory,
For Mauritius, St, Helena; my blood is a million stories,
Winnie for Joan and for Edie, for Norma, Leslie, Ndidi,
For Auntie Betty, for Melanie; all the same family,
Fiona, Jo Burg, complex of mixed girls,
For surviving thru every lie they put into us now,
The world is yours and I swear I will stand focused,
Black girls, raise up your hands; the world should clap for us,'
In this article I have drawn attention to a number of Hip Hop tracks which engage in some way with the ‘mixed-race’ experience.
The article has been written, in part, because of the demonisation of rap music in the media. In such discourse, Hip Hop is often portrayed as a further example of the pathological culture of black people, a culture often presented as being steeped in lawlessness, and glorification of criminality.11 Indeed, such language feeds the culturally-centred explanations of black disadvantage, which negate structural factors (such as racism, class, etc), frequently espoused by right-wing writers, such as Charles Murray (1990). Conversely, this article hopes to have shown that Hip Hop, particularly the sub-genre widely known as ‘conscious Hip Hop,’ provides an important vehicle for young black, ‘mixed-race’ and white youth to explore, and come to terms with issues of racialised, as well as class, and other forms of social identity.12 The piece demonstrates the diversity of positions of various Hip Hop artists on ‘mixed-race,’ interracial relationships, colour/shade difference in the black community, and their relationship to issues of gender. It shows that conscious Hip Hop can increase awareness about the different political standpoints that relate to ‘race’ and other social forces, and how, in this context, these diverse positions influence observations about ‘mixed-race.’
Socially conscious Hip Hop can also be very important in providing young people with role-models. Indeed ‘mixed-race’ people can often have a different relationship with their parents or guardians, and siblings, than people in ‘same-race’ families. In a ‘mixed-race’ family, it can often be more difficult for a young person to see themselves in their parents, or elder siblings, who may look quite different to them, and consequentially, in a deeply racialised social context, where ‘race’ often comes to form a central aspect of peoples’ identities, to adopt such a figure as a role model. Therefore, young ‘mixed-race’ people may find that traditional non-familial, role-model figures, such as sports personalities and musicians, may be more influential in their lives. In addition, the disproportionately high number of ‘mixed-race’ people living in single parent homes, sometimes with distant relationships with their fathers, plus the disproportionately high number of ‘mixed-race’ people in care (cf. Ali, 2003: 7-8; Alibhai-Brown, 2001: 161-192), emphasizes the importance of the study of potential role model figures, in Hip Hop, and elsewhere in the public domain. Indeed, as the late rapper, Tupac Shakur makes clear in an often quoted interview about black boys who grow up with a distant relationship with their fathers:
'For the black community, especially we have like broken families with no father, no big brothers, and so the music becomes the big brother, or the music becomes the father because you listening to all these niggas, so it be like, I grew up, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, all them niggas was my daddy, you know, ‘cause I ain’t have none and that’s who I listened to (Interview appeared in Beef (2003)'.
The important place that writers, whether rappers or not, hold as role models for black and ‘mixed-race’ people is also implied by Nicole Moore. She writes in her book Brown Eyes: Creative Expressions of Black and ‘Mixed-Race’ Women (2005: XV), that creative writing forms a particularly prominent past-time amongst black and ‘mixed-race’ people.
As a final note, I also write this for quite personal reasons. I attended primary and secondary school in an all-white suburb in the North of England. I left school at 16 with four GCSE grade Cs, to work in Tesco. There, I had internalized the low expectations that many of my white teachers and peers held about me, suffered from an extremely low self-esteem, had few, if any role models, and had very little ambition. This article has come about as an expression of gratitude to the artists, who through their determination to confront issues of racism and class, in the face of the constant pressures inherent in the record industry to de-radicalise their lyrics, have consistently written progressive songs which have positively engaged with the struggles of disaffected young people. Such artists have inspired me, and countless other young black and ‘mixed-race’ people, to return to education and to begin to realize their full potential in society.
This article shows that Hip Hop music has engaged with a number of issues
that are particularly pertinent to the ‘mixed-race’ experience, and that rap can often be very important in helping ‘mixed-race’ people, as well as other racialised groups, to explore and come to terms with issues of ‘race’ and identity. It can often provide role models, aiding the development of the self-esteem of young black and ‘mixed-race’ people, although in light of the male-centred nature of the music, and the frequent expressions of sexism, it’s potentially beneficial aspects apply mainly to men.
1 Hip Hop is often described as a sub-culture comprising five pillars: emceeing, DJing, graffiti, breakdancing and beatboxing. Each of these elements has often had some engagement with the politics of ‘race’ and racism. This article however, is primarily concerned with emceeing or rapping, which is often described as the verbal expression of Hip Hop, and its engagement with the ‘mixed race’ experience. In his article about Hip Hop in South Africa, Lee Watkins (2001: 29) writes: ‘Most of the Hip Hoppers are ‘coloured’, in apartheid terms that is…’ It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the present article is based on US Hip Hop and will not feature a discussion of the salience of colour in the South African music. 2 The term ‘mixed race’ is bracketed throughout this article in order to show the problematic status of the word. In brief, the term implies a fragmented identity, it homogenises different groups, and lacks any historical currency, which can be crucial in helping people to feel more ‘rooted,’ and in the development of self-esteem. In light of the problems inherent in the term ‘mixed race,’ it is perhaps worth pointing out that the ‘mixed race’ experience spoken about here, is largely the experience of ‘mixed race’ people of Black Diasporic and white descent. 3 Of course, these issues have also been commented on by Black Poets such as Langston Hughes who wrote ‘Mulatto,’ 4 The Spike Lee musical, Skool Daze, which looks at colour difference on an African-American university campus, also presents a number of songs about colour/shade. 5 For more information see the artists’ websites: Yungun (2010) Yungun Music [Online] Available: http://www.myspace.com/yungunmusic [accessed: 05/01/10]; Salaam, Hasan (2010) Hasan Salaam [Online] Available: http://www.myspace.com/hasansalaam [accessed: 05/01/10] 6 To ‘bust-a-nut’ is slang, usually used to describe the act of male ejaculation. 7 Sharpley-Whiting (2007: 33) notes the Notorious BIG’s abusive relationship with Lil’ Kim, and the latter’s own admission: ‘Halle Berry, Sally Richardson, Stacy Dash, Jada Pinkett? I used to wish I looked like them motherfuckers!’ She writes how in spite of his relationship with Lil’ Kim, The Notorious BIG married the ‘mixed race’ R’n’B singer Faith Williams, only nine days after meeting her. He also had a relationship with the ‘mixed race’ rapper Charli Baltimore following the breakdown of this marriage. 8 See for instance the Malcolm X speech, ‘I’m a Field Negro’ (X, 1992: 205-07). 9 Again, expressions of what could be described as a ‘brown guilt complex,’ predate Hip Hop. The proto-rapper Gil Scott Heron speaks of his regret at the formerly reveling in his light complexion in the poem ‘Enough’: “I see you every time I look in the mirror, and think of the times I used to pat myself on the back for not being too black after all...” 10 The Five Percent Nation, also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths was founded in Harlem in 1964 by Clarence 13X. For a more detailed analysis of the group see for instance Miyakawa (2005). 11 A particularly offensive example was given in the Spectator magazine under the editorship of now London Mayor, Boris Johnson. In the article, Greek colomnist Taki Theodoracopoulos wrote: ‘Only a moron would not surmise that what politically-correct newspapers refer to as 'disaffected young people' are black thugs, sons of black thugs and grandsons of black thugs…’ 12 In this regard, Hip Hop has much in common with reggae and other, earlier, black expressive cultures, which as Paul Gilroy (1987: 155) argues ‘affirm while they protest.’
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