A writ­ing pool in need of diver­sity

Hip-hop grew out of the black ex­pe­ri­ence, but many who cover the genre and reach wide au­di­ences don’t share that back­ground

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY JU­LIAN KIMBLE style@wash­post.com

Even as hip­hop has be­come the dom­i­nant style of pop­u­lar mu­sic in Amer­ica, it is still un­mis­tak­ably an art form deeply rooted in African Amer­i­can cul­ture. And that has cre­ated some­thing of an is­sue in how the mu­sic is cov­ered, es­pe­cially now that it is writ­ten about in ev­ery pub­li­ca­tion that deems it­self at all cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant. Be­cause while ev­ery­thing about hip­hop stems from the black ex­pe­ri­ence, those who most of­ten write about it for the largest au­di­ences don’t share that same com­mon back­ground. For many black writ­ers, writ­ing about their own cul­ture has come to feel like a one­sided game of cap­ture the flag.

The 1990s is when hip-hop started to truly take charge on the Bill­board charts, ra­dio and MTV, and that’s when mag­a­zines such as Vibe and the Source emerged as giants in terms of cul­tural and mu­si­cal in­sight. Vet­eran writer An­drew Nos­nit­sky grew up read­ing those mag­a­zines, which, while not black­owned, were pri­mar­ily staffed by black writ­ers and ed­i­tors. A few seats at their ta­bles were oc­cu­pied by knowl­edge­able white writ­ers — a seat he as­pired to one day hold.

But by the time Nos­nit­sky, the founder of the in­flu­en­tial hip-hop blog Co­caine Blunts, got that op­por­tu­nity, he says, the ta­bles were filled with peo­ple like him.

“You have to keep in mind that there’s no money in writ­ing right now, so you have to have a cer­tain level of priv­i­lege to even pur­sue it,” says Nos­nit­sky, who pro­filed Gucci Mane for the Fader fol­low­ing the rap­per’s re­lease from jail last year.

“Back in the ’90s, you could ac­tu­ally make a de­cent liv­ing off writ­ing. To be per­fectly hon­est, the only rea­son I was able to write pro­fes­sion­ally for as long as I did was be­cause I lived in my mom’s base­ment off and on . . . . And that’s a priv­i­lege; not ev­ery­body has that, so I think you’re au­to­mat­i­cally nar­row­ing the play­ing field when you [con­sider] that only peo­ple with a cer­tain level of it can en­ter.”

Vibe and the Source thrived in the ’90s, but print would soon give way to on­line me­dia in terms of mar­ket share, and that greatly changed the way mu­sic was cov­ered.

“I also think a lot of it has to do with the In­ter­net, where ev­ery­one has to cover the big­gest thing and the same things,” Nos­nit­sky adds. “You might have read a pro­file of Snoop Dogg in Rolling Stone in 1995, but it wasn’t cen­tral to their busi­ness model. They were a rock magazine, and some­times they would cover other stuff. Now you look at Pitch­fork and all of the big­gest re­views are rap mu­sic or Bey­oncé . . . . So I think you have a lot of mag­a­zines who are cov­er­ing this stuff full-time, and they don’t re­ally have a lot of per­spec­tive on it.”

This hazy frame of ref­er­ence can lead pub­li­ca­tions into un­com­fort­able ter­ri­tory.

In 2012, Pitch­fork took Chicago rap­per Chief Keef to a New York gun range as part of a video se­ries in which artists per­formed freestyles at off-the-beaten-path lo­ca­tions. The video caught the at­ten­tion of Chicago author­i­ties, and Keef, then 17, was jailed in early 2013 for vi­o­lat­ing his pro­ba­tion be­cause the video fea­tured him hold­ing a firearm.

Pitch­fork ul­ti­mately re­tracted the video be­cause of con­cerns about its lack of sen­si­tiv­ity to gun vi­o­lence in Chicago. There was no mal­ice be­hind the over­sight, but the fact that the video made it through the editorial process in that form was telling.

“The chal­lenge, as a white per­son writ­ing about black cul­ture, is to never shy away from that fact,” says Ross Scarano, a deputy edi­tor for Com­plex. “You al­ways have to lean in to the fact that you are an out­sider, and the se­cond you stop think­ing about that, or as­sume, or get too com­fort­able, I think that’s when you make mis­takes.”

One artist who has made this a cen­tral is­sue for her­self is Solange. In 2013, the singer tweeted: “Some of these mu­sic blogs could ac­tu­ally ben­e­fit from hir­ing peo­ple who RE­ALLY un­der­stand the cul­ture of R&B to write about R&B . . . Some of these mu­sic blogs could ac­tu­ally ben­e­fit from hir­ing peo­ple who RE­ALLY un­der­stand the cul­ture of hip hop to write about hip hop.” Jon Cara­man­ica of the New York Times later ad­dressed those tweets on a pod­cast, say­ing, “I’d be care­ful of mak­ing these state­ments be­cause I’d be care­ful not to bite the hand that feeds me.” Solange re­pur­posed that line on “Don’t You Wait,” from her 2016 al­bum “A Seat at the Ta­ble”: “Now, I don’t want to bite the hand that’ll show me the other side, no / But I didn’t want to build the land that has fed you your whole life, no.”

Per­haps this mo­ti­vated her to make cer­tain that black women were in­cluded in dis­cus­sions about the al­bum — a project thor­oughly en­trenched in their tri­als, tribu­la­tions, joy and re­silience. A piece from last Septem­ber fea­tured Solange in con­ver­sa­tion with her mother and the writer Jud­nick Ma­yard. This Jan­uary, In­ter­view magazine pub­lished a Q&A be­tween Solange and some­one who knows her bet­ter than most: older sis­ter Bey­oncé. Solange went to a jus­ti­fi­able ex­treme in re­cruit­ing her fam­ily mem­bers and a hand-picked jour­nal­ist, but she was de­ter­mined to see her art an­a­lyzed by those with shared cul­tural touch­stones.

“It’s a trans­la­tion is­sue,” says Ja­son Parham of Wired, who pre­vi­ously worked at the Fader, Gawker and Com­plex. “It’s not even what’s be­ing cov­ered, it’s how it’s be­ing cov­ered and how it’s trans­lated. Some­times there’s a lack of sub­stance and depth, so I think that’s what my battle is half the time when fight­ing for a cer­tain writer or story.”

This elim­i­nates the chance for cul­tural dis­con­nect. Nicki Mi­naj abruptly ended an in­ter­view for her Oc­to­ber 2015 New York Times Magazine pro­file when the writer failed to avoid the black wom­anas-drama queen trope while dis­cussing the feud be­tween Mi­naj’s then-boyfriend, rap­per Meek Mill, and her la­bel­mate Drake. Last sum­mer, W magazine said that Rihanna “doesn’t make sense as much as she makes noise,” in ad­dress­ing the megas­tar’s vo­cals on “Work,” due only to the dashes of Caribbean di­alect in her voice.

“The only so­lu­tion is to am­plify voices that are more nu­anced,” Ma­yard says.

Shani Hil­ton, the head of U.S. news for Buz­zFeed News, says a deeper, more di­verse pool of staffers will beget more dy­namic dis­course.

“You don’t want to wedge black writ­ers into a box, but more cul­tural com­pe­tency is needed,” she says. “It’s cru­cial that more places un­der­stand that when they don’t have di­verse staffs, they’re lim­ited in their abil­ity to eval­u­ate an ex­ceed­ingly frag­mented and di­verse cul­ture.”

Be­yond makeup of the staff, a pub­li­ca­tion’s sense of mis­sion is also of the utmost im­por­tance. “If a pub­li­ca­tion has no in­ter­est in the black voice or ex­pe­ri­ence in its heart, then it doesn’t mat­ter who they hire,” writer David Turner says. “They can hire all of the peo­ple, but if they don’t have an in­ter­est in sup­port­ing or fa­cil­i­tat­ing those hires, then it’s es­sen­tially very elab­o­rate to­kenism.”

“For me and Ben [Smith], Buz­zFeed’s edi­tor in chief, early on, we knew we had to make sure the peo­ple of color, the gay per­son, or the woman in the room are not ex­pected to speak for any­one but them­selves,” Hil­ton says. “That’s how you avoid [to­kenism]: You have to make sure you’re look­ing at that per­son as an in­di­vid­ual and make sure they feel em­pow­ered to tell the story as it re­lates to them more so than look­ing at them like, ‘There’s my black. Got to as­sign them this story.’ ”

“I’m al­ways look­ing for new voices and tal­ent cov­er­ing not only our cul­ture, but oth­ers in in­ter­est­ing ways,” Wired’s Parham says. “But it’s tough, be­cause ev­ery­one’s in a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion. The ar­gu­ment [pub­li­ca­tions use] half of time is that ‘we’re hir­ing the most tal­ented peo­ple,’ but there are tal­ented black folks, there are tal­ented Latino folks, there are tal­ented queer folks.”

MICHAEL LOCCISANO/GETTY IM­AGES FOR TNT

ABOVE: Nicki Mi­naj per­forms at the NBA Awards in June in New York. The rap­per abruptly ended an in­ter­view in 2015 when the writer failed to avoid the black woman-as­drama queen trope.

JACOPO RAULE/GETTY IM­AGES FOR FENTY X PUMA

BOT­TOM: Rihanna, on the fash­ion run­way in Paris last year, has had her mu­sic crit­i­cized as “noise” be­cause of the use of Caribbean di­alect in her lat­est al­bum.

AMY HAR­RIS/IN­VI­SION/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

BE­LOW: Solange, at the Essence Festival in New Or­leans on July 3, has tweeted and sung about her frus­tra­tion with cov­er­age of R&B and hip-hop. Solange per­forms at the 2017 Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Su­per­dome on Sun­day, July 2, 2017, in New Or­leans. (Photo by Amy Har­ris/In­vi­sion/AP)

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