Even as hip-hop 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 hip-hop 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 one-sided 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 black-owned, 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 woman-as-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.”