Faces in the Crowd

Last night was my 23rd birthday and my girlfriend took me to see my favorite hip-hop group, the self-proclaimed "hardcore communist" hip-hop group The Coup. They were great and they sang all of my favorite songs. The show was at The Filmore and they weren't the headliners (which was good for me since I have work at 11 p.m.), Lyrics Born was, but in my mind they were the best group in the lineup.

Some of the songs they played were "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish," and "We Are the Ones."

They were great, they played with a live band that was dope and Pam the Funkstress was rocking it on the turntables (she has a great stage presence). Boots Riley amped up the crowd with his on stage antics and he seemed much more youthful than I thought he would be (he's 35). Yet I'm not really here to talk about The Coup but instead to talk about their audience. Walking into The Filmore all one could see was a sea of white faces (which I'm guilty of myself) and barely any people of color, which is the demographic that The Coup would want to target, especially since their music talks about liberation, the overthrow of capitalism, and white supremacy, and racism.

I remember reading an article on Pop + Politics (a website run by students from San Francisco State University) in which the interviewer asked Riley about rapping in front of a live audience that was mostly white (the article isn't up on the website anymore for some reason). If I remember correctly Riley talked about how society tries to keep people of color (especially Black people) away from large mainstream venues. He talked about the raising of ticked prices (tickets for the show were $25) and also talked about some other examples such as having malls that only have up-scale stores and metered parking lots so as to keep lower income folks (mainly people of color in urban settings) out and keep white people in. I remember him talking about how the white owners of these venues don't want a lot of Black people in them. During a hip-hop round table discussion at Stanford Riley said:
[W]e’re always being criminalized, the image of black folks is always being criminalized. The culture that around is being criminalized and there has to be a reason for more police in the streets, there has to be a reason why we’re all broke. There has to be reason why we’re under the impression that we’re under and the reason is never that there’s a system that works against us...
Don't get me wrong here though, I'm not blaming white people for coming to an event with The Coup in it (that would be hypocritical of me obviously), they have a right to see whomever they like and if they're down with The Coup's message than more power to them. But, in that same discussion, Riley said:
How do you get to the point that most of the white kids and people in the United States, in general white people, are listening to hip hop - how do you get them to listen to hip hop but not relate to black folks at the same time? The way you do that, because if you relate to the problems that black folks are in you might start thinking about the system itself and how it’d work. The way that you do it is to characterize this music as being less than up to par.
Now when many of these white people were quoting verbatim the lyrics of Boots Riley did they really know what they were saying or were they just being "cool?"

In an article in the Village Voice Riley was quoted:
"My audience has gone from being over 95 percent Black 10 years ago to over 95 percent white today," laments Boots Riley of the Coup, whose 1994 Genocide and Juice responded to Snoop Dogg's 1993 gangsta party anthem "Gin and Juice." "We jokingly refer to our tour as the Cotton Club," he says—a reference to the 1920s and '30s Harlem jazz spot where Black musicians played to whites-only audiences.

Boots says he first noticed the shift one night in 1995, in a concert on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Opening for Coolio, he stepped center stage and grabbed the mic as usual, but then saw something unusual about the audience: a standing-room-only sea of whiteness. Some were almost dressed like farmers, he recalls. Others had their heads shaved. "Damn, skinheads are out there," he thought. "They can't be here to see us." But the frantic crowd began chanting along rhyme for rhyme.
The writer Bakari Kitwana goes on:
Recognizing the success of such underground white MCs as Aesop Rock, El-P, and Sage Francis—all moving around 100,000 units per release—Brother Ali says, "Our genre is looked at as white rap. It's almost like a white chitlin circuit of underground rap music." The more popular underground white hip-hop artists are helping to nurture the audience at venues that now regularly feature conscious Black hip-hop artists. At the same time as political hip-hop's audience has gotten whiter...
"One of the hardest things we're dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs," says Brother Ali, who recently toured with several old-school legends together with Atmosphere—a biracial independent rap group who, like Brother Ali, hails from Minneapolis. "They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are Black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from Black people, but [their fans] don't want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it's the white MCs who created the styles they like. This isn't an underground-versus-mainstream thing—it's a racist thing."
Image From:
The Coup


Cynical said...

I can definitely relate. As a college student of Western Massachusetts, shows by politically-conscious artists are always filled with white audience members (especially people who cannot distinguish 50 cent with Mos Def). I remember a time when I was in high school going to a Talib Kweli show in Northampton (a town in Western Mass), and he called all the b-boys and b-girls to come on stage. Instead the people who went on stage were white women who attempted to grind on Talib... I guess they missed out the basic hip hop lesson of breaking... It was quite a nighmare.