Words by William E. Ketchum, III (@WEKetchum)
The success of white artists in black music like Iggy Azalea, Macklemore and Robin Thicke has developed a lot of conversation, within entertainment and outside of it, about cultural appropriation. These white musicians have been able to enjoy the fruits of black art, while detaching themselves from the strains of black life. Unnecessary text screenshots aside, Macklemore has at least put his reputation where his mouth is: he uses his music to rally against oppression, he participated in Ferguson protests, and he brought Talib Kweli, one of hip-hop’s most reliable conscious voices, on a nationwide tour. Azalea and Thicke have been chastised for imitating accents and melodies from black soul icons for a paycheck, while staying mum as police brutality threatens the lives of black people around the country.
But as BLAT! Pack artist @JahshuaSmith pointed out last week on Twitter, this idea of appropriation isn’t solely a racial one—and the latest example of this truth is the rise and fall of Bobby Shmurda. [Editor’s note: The author knows Jahshua personally]
Cultural appropriation is not always a racial concept. Bobby Shmurda got cats doing his dance and laughing at him getting arrested.
— Jahsh Al’Ghul (@JahshuaSmith) December 18, 2014
When “Hot Nigga” caught e-fire this summer, everyone fell in love with it. We danced, meme’d and YouTubed our asses off, safely enjoying the art inspired by Shmurda’s 20-year-old reality: living with a single mother after his father was incarcerated in Florida, and allegedly getting mixed up with a gang. The raw honesty of his persona—and, of course, the dance—are what made him so appealing to people in the first place. But as we’ve seen with the likes of Beanie Sigel, Boosie, Gucci Mane and others, a record deal can only do so much to chip away from one’s connection to the streets.
Despite what many rappers would have you believe, street life usually leaves you dead or in prison—and the latter is a stark possibility for Shmurda, who was just arrested and charged as the leader of a Crips gang called GS9, the same name as his label. Many had already jumped ship after seeing video footage of Shmurda performing in front of the Epic Records staff, comparing the set to old minstrel shows. But the arrest has been the biggest opportunity for people to justify separating themselves from the dance, Vines and memes they were so attached to merely months before. The same would happen if, for example, O.T. Genasis were to get in trouble for selling drugs: that lifestyle is great for outsiders like us when we’re enjoying songs like “Coco,” (which glorifies the sale of cocaine) but if he were to actually get caught doing the things in this song, people would quickly judge him for that.
To be clear, this isn’t an attempt to defend Bobby Shmurda’s alleged actions: breaking the law and hurting people have their consequences, and crimes should be condemned. It’s not an indictment on people enjoying his work, either: after all, art (at least most of it) is made to be enjoyed. But what does it say about us when we’re willing to participate in the art that stems from such dismal circumstances, but wash our hands of it once it’s in the courtroom instead of in the club? How does that make us any different from the white musicians we rail against for staying silent when we tell them to say “black lives matter,” even if those blacks had their troubles with the law?
It seems that Meek Mill, who just earned his freedom after a five-month prison bid for violating his probation, is a start of an example to follow. “I spent the whole night b4 talking 2 bobby about surroundings and choices,” he tweeted. “I’ll do it for any kid tryna make it out no matter the race!” Meek has the right idea. Don’t defend a crime, but have some empathy, and do your best to find ways to quell the circumstances that these communities deal with in the first place.