Frat Rap and the New White Negro
August 29, 2013, 2:23 pm
By David J. Leonard
Adele, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Teena Marie. White musicians and fans are embracing the cultural performance—jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, hip-hop—that African-Americans have given life to over the last century.
In 1957, Norman Mailer spoke to the existence of the “White Negro,” an urban hipster whose fascination and fetishizing of blackness resulted in a set of practices that reflected a white imagination: part cultural appropriation, a subtle reinforcement of segregation, and a desire to try on perceived accents of blackness. “So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts,” he wrote. “The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”
As the Princeton University professor Imani Perry has noted, “there is a sonic preference for blackness, the sounds of blackness, but there is a visual preference for whiteness in our culture.” It should come as no surprise, then, that white rappers are slowly beginning to dominate the college music scene with the ascendance of a genre that can loosely be called “frat rap.”
Be it the thumping bass of artists like Mac Miller and Mike Posner, or the blaring noise of Asher Roth, Sam Adams, or Hoodie Allen, the white rappers who are gaining a foothold in the college scene need to be seen as part of a longstanding tradition of white theft of black artistry. The popularity of those artists, alongside that of Ryan Lewis and Macklemore—who can be heard interrogating white privilege, marriage, and materialism in their music—cannot be understood outside their whiteness.
The frat-rap craze saw its origins in 2009, with the release of Asher Roth’s “I Love College.” This subgenre not only markets itself to white college students but also marries the aesthetics and sensibilities of hip-hop with the experiences and narratives of white, male college students. Rather than building on oppositional traditions of hip-hop, which the former frontman for Public Enemy, Chuck D, once identified as “CNN for black people,” frat rap rhymes about all things white and middle class: desires that begin and end with parties, drinking, girls, and fun.
The moniker of frat rap is powerful because it reflects a desired level of ownership. White-fraternity claims to the music and culture displace a long association of rap with blackness, urbanity, and the inner city. Instead, the music exists within the context of the university.