Ode to a White Rapper

Asher Roth’s recent success has had many hip-hop devotees terrified that the worst is happening: the death of black music. But is Roth really so dangerous? Touré investigates.

05.19.09 5:44 AM ET

Before rapper Asher Roth’s album, Asleep in the Bread Aisle, came out three weeks ago, some black hip-hop fans were afraid of him. They weren’t scared of him; they did not fear him robbing them (as 50 Cent's early image suggested) or shooting up their schools (as Eminem's did). No, they were afraid of what he represented: the end of hip-hop as we know it. See, the scariest thing about Asher Roth is that he's a white rapper who doesn’t seem to want to be black. He doesn’t even seem to idolize or greatly respect blackness. And that’s a little frightening. Or at least it was before his album dropped.

Excerpt of Asher Roth, "I Love College"; click here for full video.

Hip-hop is still a baby. It’s only been 30 years since the first hip-hop recordings came out, so there’s many fans who remember the genre’s early years well. There are many people who continue to think of hip-hop as a black underground subculture. They bemoan the commercialization of it and let their heads sag as talentless clowns like Souljaboy (of the infamous “superman that ho” song and dance) shuck and jive their way into the spotlight. They yearn for the artistic purity of the early days, when anybody who wasn’t completely original was a biter. They watched as hip-hop took its artistic integrity and its place as the authentic voice of the streets and built itself from a regional subculture into a national obsession and an international behemoth studied in the Ivy League.

It’s not that us die hard hip-hop fans want hip-hop to be solely black. Hip-hop culture was always multi-racial—even in the ‘70s, when hip-hop was being constructed in the parks of New York, there were Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and whites in the mix. But hip-hop was the one arena in life where the black man was central. Whites entering the field had to respect the pecking order and bop our way, just as blacks entering Wall Street had to smooth through the office the way the white men did. And they did: The Beastie Boys were very much Jew-y Lower East Siders, but they clearly had love and respect for black men and made their act into parody because they could never be as cool as Run-DMC or LL Cool J. Vanilla Ice was as corny as Mazola but he unquestionably wanted to be black, just as MC Serch from 3rd Bass was very enamored of blackness. I’ve talked to Eminem about his teenage identity struggles, when he wore an Africa medallion to the mall and questioned if he belonged in hip-hop after listening to X-Clan, the Franz Fanon of hip-hop, who called white people polar bears and rhymed, “How could polar bears swing on the vines of gorillas?” Eminem, more than any white rapper before him clearly had deep respect for black culture and its importance. But Roth is smiley and collegiate and suburban and he doesn't see hiphop as a black thing. His song "Fallin" details his falling in love with hip-hop in high school, but when his friends point out that he's white he says "I am?" as if he hadn't noticed. Hip-hop, like America, is anything but race blind, but Asher doesn't consider hip-hop a black thing—likely because he's from a generation of white kids that thinks black culture belongs to them, too.

Hip-hop was the one arena in life where the black man was central. Any whites entering the field had to respect the pecking order and bop our way, just as blacks entering Wall Street had to smooth through the office the way the white men did.

When my parents were in their twenties, before Motown was a household name, they could rightly feel as though black culture was like a private space, something blacks knew a lot more than whites about. It was as if black culture was a juke joint in the woods that whites had to travel to in order to experience it. Motown sparked a change by aggressively pushing black culture as mainstream pop culture. In the 1980s, when The Cosby Show was America’s favorite show, the cat was out of the bag—black culture was already well on its way to being mainstream culture. But my generation was being spoiled, because hip-hop was then emerging from the working class of the Bronx, fooling the older generation into thinking it was a fad. And for much of the ‘80s my generation was honestly able to think of this avenue of black culture as a private space to which few whites were admitted. But by the late '80s no one could even pretend anymore: Black culture, even hip-hop, was pop culture, was mainstream. It was no longer a juke joint in the woods, it was Starbucks: ubiquitous and open to everyone.

This can lead to strange pairings and awkward moments. There are white kids who use the word “nigga” as if it’s their right to use it. From a similar mindset, there was an infamous Twitter update from Roth in April: He was at Rutgers for a show and wrote, “Been a day of rest and relaxation, sorry twitter – hanging out with nappy headed hoes.” This, naturally, set off a firestorm on Twitter and in the hip-hop blogosphere, with many people asserting that this proved Asher racist. I argued against them then, and continue to now: It was a dumb and/or failed joke that was clearly referencing Don Imus’s infamous comment (Asher apologized immediately and said he was referencing Imus). No one can put those three words together now without the mind immediately jumping to Imus. These works have been sucked of their power, especially when referring to no one in specific.

If I—or any man—called a specific black woman a nappy headed ho, I’d be in hot water—and maybe on the ground wiping blood from my nose. And justly so. But to me, Asher was clearly attempting and failing to make a joke out of referencing a racist trope. Which is akin to white kids using “nigga” in reference to themselves or their friends—i.e., in non-racist ways. They feel so inoculated from racism—and feel so little of the white guilt that would shame them away from even toying with such tropes—that they feel comfortable using this word. On "Lark On My Go Cart," Asher toys with fire again saying, "My go cart skills are outrageous/ Play me any day and I'll be the best racist/ Wait no, erase that, I meant to say racer." Why would he even think it'd be funny or clever to purposely misspeak and call himself the best racist?

It reminds me of the first sketch of the first episode of Chappelle’s Show when Dave Chappelle, playing a blind black man who thinks he’s white and is a Klansman, is riding in a car that stops beside a convertible filled with white boys blasting hip-hop. Chappelle’s character angrily calls them niggers. They celebrate. This is the world into which Asher Roth strides.

Ok, but what’s wrong with Asher not wanting to be black? Shouldn’t he be happy being who he is? Sure he should. Everyone should be happy to be themselves. But in hip-hop nowadays being white is a perverse advantage and being happy about being white looks like being a little too happy about having a winning Lotto ticket in a roomful of losers. Because being white in hip-hop shoves white privilege in our faces. It makes the advantages of being white in America that much more obvious.

If there was an ad for the whiteness card, it’d be like the Visa ads. Tie: $180. Brioni shoes: $800. Tailored suit: $7,500. White privilege: priceless. The Whiteness Card, it’s everywhere you want to be.

Even though Asher can’t rhyme half as well as most in hip-hop and brings virtually nothing new to the table in terms of ability, sound, or subject matter, and has struggled to make one really good song, he’s gotten an extraordinary amount of media attention solely because he’s a pink elephant. He’s gotten the same media crush you’d expect of someone who roared out the gate with a monster #1 single (like, say 50 Cent with “In Da Club). But there was no monster single preceding Asher’s album. "I Love College",” did fine, but it was far from the song of the month, forget the song of the season.

So then, Asher succeeds in getting massive attention just because he’s a barely clever rapper who's white? This is a painful reminder of what Chris Rock says: “That a black man has gotta fly to what a white man can walk to.” Rock was talking about his tony neighborhood in Alpine, New Jersey, where his neighbors include Mary J. Blige, Gary Sheffield, and Patrick Ewing—each among the best of their generation in their field. But Rock's white neighbor is an average dentist. He didn’t invent anything, he just fixes teeth. So the black people had to be extraordinary to get into Alpine, while the white guy just had to be really good. Kind of like how a black rapper has to be extraordinary to get national attention (and Blu, Drake, Charles Hamilton and the Cool Kids are great and still not getting big attention) while Asher need only grab a mic.

Whites talk about the “race card”—blacks almost never use that terminology because we know race impacts everything, it’s not a card that can be played from time to time. Asher reminds us that there’s a whiteness card that’s far more powerful than the imaginary race card. If there was an ad for the whiteness card it’d be like the Visa ads. Tie: $180. Brioni shoes: $800. Tailored suit: $7,500. White privilege: priceless. The Whiteness Card, it’s everywhere you want to be.

But all this was a worry before Asher’s album came out. Before his album came out many hip-hop fans thought if Asher’s media presence is automatically pumped up because he’s white, then he’ll sell more and if he sells very well you know what’s next: more white rappers. Then a few of them will sell well opening the door for even more white rappers, until one day hip-hop is no longer black at all. It’s happened before: when my Dad was my age, rock was black music.

Some people thought Asher’s whiteness would lead to 300,000 units moved in his first week, a giant number. And if he sold huge crates the industry would swarm the country looking for new white rappers and the caucasification of hip-hop would be well under way. But his label Schoolboy/SRC/Universal Records did not forsee a monster opening week for Asher at all. They only shipped 100,000 units. He sold just 65,000 that first week. Last week he sold about 13,000. Nothing impressive. Nothing that’ll make the whitening of hip-hop come any faster. So we’re not scared of Asher anymore. There’s no reason to be.

Touré is host of BET’s The Black Carpet and Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once. He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land. He was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first pop-culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard