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.”
It’s great that Burnside is doing a good job in her capacity, but that doesn’t matter to some people. Many of the people who so vigorously defended her achieved their cultural visibility as proponents of Black representation, which made their combativeness toward Chubbs puzzling. Reggie Noble, one of those who extolled Burnside, is a DC-based activist, photographer, and creator of the “Pure Black” fashion line who’s had his work covered in Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and The Washington Post among other outlets, called the DJ a “coward” because he didn’t want to directly debate Burnside on her merits. On Sunday, Noble conceded that “my comments were reactionary and not responsive, and thusly irresponsible.” He likely realized that Chubb’s tweet was merely a corollary of his own previous musing on Twitter of whether “our history [is] just… a zoo to [white museum-goers] to be observed from afar?”
Hip-hop is reckoning with the late stage consequences of a transition from a grassroots culture into a commodity of corporate America. The bigger the genre gets, the wider the scope becomes. Nowadays, people who exclusively read In Touch Weekly and watch E! may consider themselves serious hip-hop fans based on their coverage of artists like Kanye West, Drake, Cardi B, and Nicki Minaj. There are more opportunities, but there’s also more opportunism. The people 9th Wonder referenced, like Rick Rubin and MC Serch, were living the culture every day during its formative years. But that’s no longer a requisite for hip-hop artists or benefactors. Once prestigious institutions like the Smithsonian are involved, the standards for prominent positions begin to work against so many of the genre’s core demographic.
A 2015 Andrew Mellon study of art museum staff demographics reported that “positions tasked with the intellectual and educational mission of museums, including those of curators, conservators, educators, and leadership” are 84% white. Mikki Kendal, a writer and diversity consultant published in Time, The Washington Post and Bustle, tweeted that her “original desire to go into curation work was trumped by financial necessity” and that “a lot of qualified people of color are locked out of credentials by cost.” Like journalism, gaining a footing in the art world requires taking on internships which are often unpaid and simply untenable for aspirants from lower class communities.
The circumstance leaves Black hip-hop heads with an encyclopedic knowledge — as well as possible firsthand experience — of hip-hop shut out of opportunities like the NMAAHC, highlighting the innate classism of the term “qualification” when it comes to curating art. Just this April, The Guardian published an article questioning why African art museum exhibits in the Brooklyn Museum were curated by white people. The skewed dynamics make it natural for any person of color to wonder whether a white person tasked to curate for their culture will do the position justice, or is simply the best choice from a limited field — that is arguably purposely limited.
The Black people who voiced concerns about Burnside are wary of hip-hop falling prey to the same re-telling of history as other segments of Black history, specifically rock music. It took years for rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard to get their just due as musical pioneers. As a piece in the Boston Globe proclaimed, “Berry was an originator, but in 1950s America, no black man could ever be anointed the king of anything.” He was overshadowed by acts like Elvis, who became known as the King of Rock and Roll after being signed because Sun Records owner Sam Phillips desired “a white man who could sing like a black man” according to The Globe. With new rap artists and media personalities alike gaining fame daily by insulting hip-hop’s sacred cows and flaunting their lack of knowledge of hip-hop’s timeline, revisionist history often feels inevitable without proper curation.
That’s why so many voiced the opinion that no matter how hard Burnside works, and how much she de-centers her identity at the NMAAHC, she shouldn’t be in her leadership position. In that regard, she’s in the same culturally ambiguous space as an artist like Eminem. The Detroit artist has been open about how his whiteness benefits him, and clearly loves the craft of hip-hop, yet his Shady Records signees and D12 partners compulsively come to his beck-and-call to defend him. Rapper and media personality Joe Budden — who was once signed to Eminem’s Shady Records as a member of rap super crew Slaughterhouse — criticized Eminem’s Revival album last year, which got him dissed by D12 member Bizarre and threatened with a beatdown by 50 Cent.
This past August, Eminem went at a slew of MCs on Kamikaze, yet his friend Royce Da 5’9 took it upon himself to tweet, “I dare one of you n—s to write sum’n… Ima light yo ass up like a jack o lantern. Mind ya bizness.” He should’ve taken his own advice. Why would Eminem, who prides himself on being the best rapper, and called out so many people, need others to fight his battles? In the eagerness to protect Eminem or Burnside or any other white figure in hip-hop, their Black “allies” reflect one of the main reasons that Black people so vociferously question their standing in the first place: Their privilege.
Royce Da 5’9 and Crooked I’s relentless support for Eminem isn’t just because of friendship or because his music is so incredible that it’s beyond criticism, but because of his novel status as the biggest white rapper in a Black genre and his proximity to a wider demographic that they can exploit for their endeavors — with his trust and loyalty. Those who vehemently defended Burnside may have felt like their advocacy was by proxy a plea to racial solidarity which would preclude them from having to work, as so many children of color were taught, “twice as hard” for acceptance in predominantly white spaces, but history shows that such inclusion rarely goes both ways.
While extolling Burnside, 9th Wonder warned that people critiquing her should “watch the toes you step on, because you never know the legs they are attached to,” which feels like an implication of weighty connections that could negatively impact her critics. While Burnside hasn’t yet said much publicly on the topic, 9th’s weaponized nod to her access is a dangerous response to people simply advocating for the preservation of hip-hop. As a professor at an HBCU, and a member of Little Brother, who was once called “too smart” for BET, he should know the perils of the wrong people being in positions of power and be able to appreciate the valid anxiety about a white curator in a Black institution. Burnside’s friends may have known all about her hip-hop credentials, but the rest of us simply may not — or still don’t care.
Hip-hop belongs to the world now, but it belongs to us first — and we deserve to state concerns about its proper curation without being chastised by our own people. Black people aren’t the power structure of any American industry, but we’re the drivers of popular culture. Black artistry has always been in the nucleus of American history, but we’ve so rarely gotten to tell our own stories.
9th further said on Twitter that he understands “if you have a problem with certain white individuals infringing on parts of our culture,” but a position telling hip-hop’s story in the Smithsonian isn’t just a part, it’s one of the most important. In this era of increased attention to representation and identity lending authenticity to storytelling, it’s natural for there to be concerns about why a person who mirrors the culture’s founders, greatest contributors, and core fanbase isn’t overseeing the curatorial efforts. While that may be a tough pill to swallow for some, anyone with a respectable knowledge of Black art history should understand that.