Toure’s Northern State of Mind*
A few weeks ago, writer slash (cultural) critic slash Twitter all-star, Toure published a piece in the The New York Times about the allegedly recent flurry of white women rappers. From rehashing black respectability in an article about Michael Vick, to considering the black middle class in a discussion of the Obamas’ vacationing tendencies, Toure is no stranger to writing incendiary and ill-conceived articles. And this latest work is no different. Like the ones before them, this story generated a considerable amount of discussion on Twitter and other social media outlets where anyone with an internet connection can articulate her beef.
In the piece, Toure argues that even within a genre considered so hypermasculine and black, the combination of the largely white male demographic that listens to rap music and Americans’ overall obsession with blondes indicates that eventually–perhaps even soon and very soon–a white woman rapper or several will garner mainstream attention. Toure then goes on to list a small group of white women emcees who have gained some notoriety on the web.
Of course many took
the bait issue with Toure’s article and his list. Some showed concern over the fact that he ignored a slew of white women rappers, such as Detroit’s Invincible, who have been around since before a Twitterfeed and a YouTube channel was all one needed to become famous. Others scoffed at his vehement reluctance to acknowledge black women rhymers in any sustained manner. I have no similar beef. The problem with Toure’s work here, as I see it, is the position he has to adopt in order to make this subject matter even remotely interesting–or infuriating–to readers. In the preamble to the list, Toure writes:
There is nothing about the skills required to be an M.C. that makes it impossible for white women to rhyme. It’s not that their mouths can’t do it. The true barrier to entry is that there is an essence at the center of hip-hop that white women have an extraordinarily hard time exuding or even copying. For many Americans, black male rappers are entrancing because they give off a sense of black masculine power — that sense of strength, ego and menace that derives from being part of the street — or because of the seductive display of black male cool.
Black women and white men who have been successful in hip-hop have found ways to embody those senses and make them their own. But hip-hop coming from a white woman is almost always an immediate joke. Take Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, showing how much she loves hip-hop by earnestly rhyming the lyrics to N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” on a British television show or Natalie Portman furiously spitting rhymes ingangsta-rap style on “Saturday Night Live.”
As soon as white women start rhyming, no matter what they say, it’s seen as cute and comical, like a cat walking on its hind legs. Seeing them try to embody the attributes of hip-hop’s vision of black masculinity is a hysterical gender disjunction: they wear it as convincingly as a woman wearing her husband’s clothes.
A (re)phrasing of the assumptions made in this argument are in order. And I understand it as this: The premise of the entire article is the reification of racialized gender stereotypes in order to delineate the kind of aural and visual dissonance that seeing a white female rapper compels in the viewer. In other words, white women have to be understood as the apotheosis of American cultural femininity in order for this article to be at all “interesting.” White men can quasi-access this (black) male masculinity because they are men. Black women can almost gain entrance because they’ve been emasculating black men for centuries, as the story goes, so their appearance in the hip-hop cosmos, if I may borrow Toure’s language, isn’t at all worth note. So although I appreciate those who want to teach Toure his white female emcee history or call him out for his ignoring and utter disrespect for black women–again–in this case, I think those critiques miss a central and problematic point.
This article is remarkable precisely because it relies on and echos a problematic understanding of black maleness and gender roles that black women have never really had access to–and frankly, why would they want to?–in order to be noteworthy. So Toure’s dismissal of black women, it seems, is less about his dislike, but more about his implicit rehashing of damaging stereotypes in order to justify a thousand words on white female rappers. Gwyneth Paltrow’s recitation of NWA is funny and “cute” only if we interpret her as an ideal example of femininity and female beauty articulating a language that is thoroughly antithetical to her physicality and our understanding of her social position. Our laughter ceases, however, when we realize what such chuckles would require us to think of white women, black men, and everyone in between. It’s all very Soul on Ice if you ask me (see: “The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs”). This is why Invincible, those unnamed black women rappers, et. al. don’t make the cut: they’re not feminine in the way Toure needs them to be.
I bring all of this up not simply to knock Toure’s hustle–and a hustle it is–or take it as another opportunity to call him out for the way his antagonism toward black women is always present just underneath the surface (as exemplified here). Nor is my desire to note how un-post-black (whatever that means) Toure’s work often seems despite his recent book. Rather, I wanted mark this latest moment because Toure seems to be mainstream media’s latest black “it” guy. He’s evolved from that crazy Afro dude who wrote that one article about Lauryn Hill and appeared on all those Vh1 shows, to a suit rocking commentator with expertise enough to explain racism in sports and moderate some topic of discussion involving black people in a city near you. Folks, this is the latest guy charged with explaining black people, black culture to the masses. Yet as fresh as his face might be to many, it seems that this jack of all trades has simply repackaged an ever-problematic understanding of the way race and gender work.
So retweet and quote him if you want to, consider him your Twitter guide to all things black and relevant, but remember that it’s all the same song. A misogynistic and un-nuanced notion of blackness refrain that should grate upon your ears more than his voice does. #justsayin
*FYI: Northern State