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.
While one would be hard-pressed to imagine fraternities as places of civility, the connection to the university allows for a reimagination of both hip-hop and parties. Rap concerts, hip-hop clubs, or house parties located in America’s inner cities are sites of policing and fear, but those same practices are “just good fun” when frat rap and the university is at the center.
Whereas the other rap—the one that purportedly celebrates violence, sexism, and materialism, the one that pollutes hearts and minds—is dangerous and requires parental guidance, frat rap is just amusement, its pleasures seemingly more harmless. It is no wonder that student programmers are choosing the fun over the controversial, the banal over the political, the white artist over the black artist. In one song, Mac Miller raps about “waffles” and “eggs,” sleeping, watching TV and girls: “aye cream cheese and a bagel/ have a glass of milk and a Eggo/ I’m rockin’ pjs and no shirt/ I smoke weed eat yogurt. Haha enjoy the best things in your life.”
The theme of college, white masculinity, and the joys and pleasure of being a slacker is central to frat rap. Sam Adams, who raps about prep school and college, is the embodiment of the genre. In “I Hate College,” he celebrates the yearlong spring break that has become college:
I hate college but love all the parties,
Finishing kegs and crushing bottles of Bacardi,
King of the class I’d rather lay up with a hottie,
Single doesn’t mean I’m lookin’ for somebody.
Some say they drink, blaze up, but hardly,
Poppin PK, skeet, a little bit of molly,
Am I out my mind most people say prolly.
While similarly embracing hedonistic pleasures, the idea of frat rap positions these artists apart from those other artists, those of color, who may offer a similar style and performance. Akin to going uptown during the jazz era without having to leave the confines of white spaces, frat rap is nothing new. Whereas the other rap purportedly celebrates violence, sexism, and materialism, and pollutes hearts, frat rap is fun. What happens in college stays in college.
Historically white colleges remain immensely segregated. The growing popularity of frat rap, which has seized upon the power of online technologies and the stigmas associated with (black) hip-hop, continues not just a history of appropriation and the idea that blackness is merely a culture or an aesthetic that can be borrowed or purchased at the local dollar store; it also continues the American tradition of segregation that is a cornerstone of American colleges and Universities.
Rather than entering into spaces where whiteness is made visible through contact with African-Americans, white youths are simply appropriating it in places that continue to be hostile to black students and artists. What the essayist and journalist Greg Tate has called whites adopting “everything but the burden” continues—without the “burden” of black bodies. And that is a shame.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.