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A Brief Cultural History of the White Rapper

Why do they exist? Where did they come from? Can they be defended? The most pressing questions, answered.

All of this is more serious than it seems, and it’s bigger than one white guy making a fool of himself. The Vanilla Ice debacle has to be understood in the context of American racism and white supremacy and the nasty history of white people co-opting Black artistic forms for their own gain. The most well-known example of this came with rock ‘n’ roll, where white artists—most notably Elvis—became rich and famous using songs and styles originally created by Black artists, who remained on the outside looking in. By the 1980s, white rock bands were the rule, and Black ones the rare exception. Jazz managed to avoid being whitewashed in the same way, but there’s still something a little suspect about Kenny G being its all-time best-selling artist. In his biography of Eminem, Rolling Stone journalist Anthony Bozza writes that the concern among Black fans and critics that “a white, ‘safer’ version of hip-hop [would be] more attractive to white corporate advertisers, and may dictate future artist signings” was not unfounded. Vanilla Ice, with his raft of corporate sponsorships and licensing deals, only seemed to embody these fears. Hence the backlash.

This leads to another interesting question, though: if Vanilla Ice is corny, with a distinct note of cultural appropriation to him, what makes Eminem different? Born Marshall Mathers III, Eminem was the next notable white rapper to emerge, and for most people, he remains the face of white hip-hop. Unlike Vanilla Ice, he has actually gained the respect of both hip-hop fans and his fellow rappers. He has collaborated with the likes of Jay-Z, DMX, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, and Nas and is ranked No. 5 on Billboard’s recent list of the 50 Greatest Rappers of All Time—the only white artist to even sniff the “GOAT” discussion. Clearly, something went right, but what?

Here, each artist’s approach to his economic class played a role. Growing up, Vanilla Ice wasn’t exactly privileged; as Weiss recounts, he dropped out of high school and scraped together a living as a busker and an entertainer in majority-Black nightclubs like Dallas’s City Lights. But to hear his lyrics, you’d never know it. By contrast, Eminem’s experience of poverty in Detroit is woven throughout his catalog, from 1997’s “If I Had” (where he’s “tired of havin’ to work as a gas station clerk”) to 2017’s “Believe” (where he “remember[s] the days of / minimum wage for general labor”). Bozza’s biography—which is worth a read, if a little hagiographic—is full of stories about a young Mathers working dead-end jobs, struggling to pay rent, and getting evicted over and over again, all while surrounded by drugs and violent crime.