Beyond Noname: Why Performing Black Art For White Audiences Is So Challenging

I go to a lot of rap shows. Throughout 2019, I’ve also begun to notice a creeping sense of displacement about being in those spaces. It isn’t just about age — there are plenty of attendees at most shows in their mid-30s, as I am — to say nothing of the artists whose names grace many of those marquees. No, it’s the fact that as I look around, I quickly realize I’m one of only a few Black people attending the show, in a genre that is, to quote a recent tweet by Offset of Migos, “still Black culture.”

I’m not the only one. Over the weekend, Chicago poet and rapper Noname expressed her frustration with the composition of her crowds in a series of tweets that promised she was done performing for majority white audiences. The backlash that followed illustrated just how fraught the discussion of culture can be, especially when so many are so quick to jump to defending their hurt feelings rather than pausing to fully take in how complex the issue really is.

Nowhere in her diatribe did Noname say that white people aren’t allowed to listen to, enjoy, or patronize her music and shows. She’s not telling white people not to come to the gigs. Her statements speak to a larger frustration that any artist would feel, knowing that their work isn’t being received by its target audience or that it isn’t being appreciated in its entirety by outsiders.

In fact, Noname isn’t even the first Black artist to express this frustration. Black Star, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Common, and Lauryn Hill have all spoken on the issue in interviews or in their music in the past (a clip from Badu’s 2002 “Love Of My Life” video is currently circulating on Twitter with the caption: “Noname’s concerts”). More recently, Vince Staples took the convention to task with a line from his Summertime 06 single “Lift Me Up”: “All these white folks chanting when I ask ’em where my niggas at,” he laments. “Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get wit’ that / Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where we kick it at.”

There’s always been a disconnect between the artist and the consumer in hip-hop. Noname didn’t invent the issue, she just dared to put a fine point on it.

We know that America is a racially-divided country with an unequal society. We know that income disparity between Black people and white people is almost as great as it’s ever been these days. There are charts and graphs and think pieces and profiles and reams and reams of print, both physical and digital, that read to this effect. Of-freaking-course it’s frustrating looking out at an all-white audience when Black people still face the inequalities and injustices that rappers so often rhyme about.

The schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods are often, to put it plainly, trash. Our cities can be riddled with violence and overpoliced. Rappers often voice our anxieties about the government’s attitude toward us and the conditions and obstacles we have to overcome and though marginalization isn’t endemic to Black culture, it has been a part of the Black experience in America since day one. Hip-hop is a fight against the forces that push against our progress. It’s also the most popular musical genre in America. When white folks come to rap shows to hear about our troubles, use rap slang on TV, put hip-hop songs in ads to create a cultural cosign effect, and don’t also fight/march/vote with Black folks, it’s easy to feel used.

Rappers’ frustrations also often rear from legitimate concerns about the circumstances that force their target audience to prioritize which shows they patronize, often leaving lesser-known, independent artists out in the cold. Income inequality is rampant, meaning that target demographics for Black art often don’t have the means to buy tickets to shows and give support to their favorite artists. Someone like Noname has a target demographic in their late-teens and early-20s — a recipe for financial instability by itself (check the stats on wage growth versus inflation once you remove CEO compensation). She’s rocking for people who can’t count on familial support with necessities, so they certainly won’t have extra money left over for shows.

It they do have the available funds, they’ll often choose to patronize major label artists over struggling independents like Noname — a testament to the power of marketing dollars. Rap’s consumer base often tends to assume that all well-known artists are rich, despite the reality often being the opposite. Touring costs money, so an artist isn’t necessarily taking home as much as many might assume; however, where major label artists might have multiple revenue streams to bolster their income from live shows, for many artists, it’s surely infuriating to log onto Twitter every day to read swaths of posts about “supporting Black creators” only to look out into their crowds and see very few of the faces from those accounts’ profile pictures.

There’s another serious issue with rap music bringing in a different crowd than intended: The dreaded “N-word” debate, which Noname also referenced in her rant, saying, “When I go to work, thousands of white people scream the word ‘n****’ at me.” It’s been established — and reinforced, over and over and over again at hip-hop shows over the last several years — that the majority of Black artists feel uncomfortable when white attendees recite back the word during their performances. It makes perfect sense for them to feel that way; the word and its history and abuse have been so well-documented that feigning ignorance doesn’t hold up as an excuse.

Imagine having a “no shoes on the couch” policy in your home, but having one set of visitors who refuses to observe it, no matter how much you beg, plead, cajole, or threaten them. Anytime they come to your house, it’s assured they will lift their muddy Doc Martens to rest them on your decorative upholstery, freshly cleaned from the last time they did the same. You would stop inviting them to your house. You wouldn’t want them anywhere near your couch. And if they had the unmitigated gall to suggest you amend your rule, you’d be well within your rights to cut them off entirely.

Rap artists face a similar dilemma: Their music, addressed to a specific audience, isn’t being received or patronized by that audience. The audience that does show up refuses to observe the house rules, no matter how many times they’re reminded. It’s got to be a wearying experience to continually shut down white fans from saying one word — just one! — over and over again, only to have that entitlement thrown back in their faces. White fans say, “If you don’t want us to say it, don’t write it into your rhymes,” but again, rappers are not writing those rhymes for the white audience. They are speaking to their respective communities first and foremost.

That those fans show up and pay for tickets doesn’t automatically mean they are entitled to control over an artists’ creative output. You wouldn’t go to Taco Bell and demand a cheeseburger — that’s not what that restaurant makes, so no matter how much money you’ve spent at Taco Bell, they can’t suddenly change the menu to suit your specific taste. Yet, that’s the reality rappers have been increasingly facing, all with the added, nagging sense that the audience doesn’t really care about their problems or respect their art. As El-P and Jasmin Leigh pointed out on People’s Party With Talib Kweli, it’s amazing how people can be fans of rap music, but not of Black people or Black culture.

That artists have begun calling out the discrepancy — actually, that they’ve been doing so — doesn’t mean that white folks aren’t “allowed” in hip-hop, or that they shouldn’t patronize artists who don’t look like them. It just means recognizing that everything doesn’t have to be for you or about you. It’s okay to make space for the original audience because you won’t lose out on the experience by doing so. There are already so few spaces that belong to Black folks, that feel “safe” from the pressure of performing for y’all — something it feels like we already have to do all the time. And if you want to come, it’s okay, but just do us one favor: Observe the rules of the house — and don’t be surprised if you aren’t welcome when you don’t.