Hip-hop is ubiquitous in 2018, but it’s still centered in Blackness. No amount of corporatization or cultural assimilation changes the reality of the genre’s creation by Black and Brown South Bronx residents, the prevalence of Black acts in the rap pantheon, or the fact today’s non-Black acts frequently collaborate with Black acts for perceived credibility. If those simple, innocuous observations make people chafe, that’s their own ignorance speaking.
Last Friday, many people were riled during a contentious conversation spurred by Twitter user DJ Chubb E Swagg incredulously asking, “THERE IS A WHITE WOMAN CURATING THE HIP HOP PART OF THE NMAAHC SMITHSONIAN?!?!?!?!?!?!? WHO LET THIS SH*T HAPPEN!?!?!” His animated tweet about National Museum Of African American Art and Culture curator, Timothy Anne Burnside, who has been in her position for over two years, was met somewhat defensively — not by Burnside, but by others. Political activist and former press secretary for Bernie Sanders, Symone Sanders, conflated his and other people’s inquisitiveness about Burnside’s credibility with claims of “bullying.”
April Reign, the founder of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, asked on Twitter, “who has the same skill set that would be better in this position” because “the job was open to everyone.” Just like the Oscar nominations are also marketed as “open to everyone” before she highlighted the flawed racial dynamics that permeated the selection process. She told Huffington Post that her advocacy wasn’t “about saying who is snubbed and who should have been nominated, it’s about opening the discussion more on how the decisions were made, who was cast and who tells the story behind the camera.” That’s why her parroting the same rhetoric that white people have historically used to halt discussions on diversity was disheartening. She must have realized that, because she reflected yesterday that she “f*cked up” and apologized to Chubb “for escalating a question he had every right to ask.”
The artifacts in the hip-hop exhibit literally reside in the same building as artifacts from slavery, a treachery whitewashed and chronicled in piecemeal fashion in textbooks and documentaries made by white-helmed entities accused of telling as little of the story as deemed necessary. The very term “African-American” is a product of colonialism and erasure, with generations of Africans stolen from their home continent and shipped across the Atlantic to build countries for free. That’s why so many people feel like the least an African-American museum can do is let us tell our own story by hiring a person of color whose ancestry was affected by slavery, its oppressive aftershocks, and more directly understands the triumph of hip-hop amid those conditions.
Producer 9th Wonder, a thoughtful voice in the hip-hop community, felt otherwise, taking exception to Burnside‘s position being questioned. He championed the contributions of Def Jam co-founder and pioneering producer Rick Rubin, former Columbia Records A&R Faith Newman, who signed Nas to Sony in 1994, and rapper MC Serch of late-80s hip-hop trio 3rd Bass, who co-executive produced Nas’ Illmatic with Newman. All three are white, largely respected figures in hip-hop. He then stated, “Ya’ll are really… in 2018… challenging white involvement in our culture when a majority of you need that very white validation from White-owned radio stations and White-owned networks to say you even like a black artist.”
Yes, we are, because challenging is healthy.
Hip-hop is worldwide — but that doesn’t mean it’s for the whole world. In 2018, when one of the founders of Genius, a huge hip-hop outlet, was recently on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America throwing blood signs and making gun gestures when asked to “do something like a Black guy,” and a profile in The New York Times of Kanye West, conducted by a white journalist, failed to properly challenge his “slavery was a choice” comment and support for President Trump, challenging the purview of non-Black hip-hop figures is still imperative.
Based on the weighted co-signs of 9th Wonder, Chuck D, and popular members of Black Twitter, Burnside works hard and is cognizant of her space as a veritable “guest” at the NMAAHC. Chuck D tweeted that she “has put maximum effort and time into preserving Black culture in the NMAAHC.” Entertainment veteran and artist manager Naima Cochrane, who worked with Beyonce, Maxwell, and John Legend during her time as a music executive, contends that “I know stories of pieces she fought to get into the museum, how she’s worked with artists on exhibits,” and “how much weight she gives the work.” Jamilah Lemieux, a former editor at Ebony, and columnist on issues of race and gender published in The Nation, The New York Times, and other outlets, noted that “I admire her work and I’ve seen her make space for Black folk” and “de-center herself.” But Lemieux also stated that there “ain’t no way in hell I can sit here and say I wouldn’t have had an identical reaction to Chubb’s if I didn’t know Tim.”