There is so much attention paid in hip-hop to authenticity from all sides that it can be hard to sort out what is even being talked about. Especially with the emergence of “emo rap,” a term that doesn’t really capture much of importance, beliefs about race and authenticity in hip-hop have become even more complexly intertwined, to the point where no kind of consensus can be achieved about who’s “real” and who’s “fake” (a pretty shaky enterprise anyway) . I have no idea how to solve this, or even if this is a problem that needs solving, but I have a few thoughts on the matter that I keep coming back to.

– “Authenticity” itself is a tricky concept that needs to be defined by hip-hop heads before they can start passing out realness certificates. Being “true to yourself” is a simple enough definition, but it leads to thorny racial issues when taken to its extreme. For example, is the corny-ass New England white boy “authentic” if he raps about prep school and life in the burbs? Is he as authentic in the hip-hop sense as 50 Cent, who was shot nine times and lived to rap about it, ad nauseam, in all his wannabe mafioso glory? I’m not hating on either one – I own albums by everyone from G-Unit and Dipset to Atmosphere and Sage Francis, and I like them all. I’m just trying to point out that people seem to be drawing on different ideas about authenticity when they have these arguments.

– Can the rich white boy ever claim to be truly authentic? It sounds absurd, but I’ve heard people make the claim that hip-hop authenticity fundamentally lies outside the grasp of some people, no matter their commitment to the culture. This is an easy position to take, but a tough one to defend, as with most identity politics, because life is too complicated for such blanket statements. But the history of race in America – specifically white America’s record of emulating/stealing black music then diluting it and making money off it – makes a certain aspect of this argument more understandable. It can be hard to stomach something that looks like yet another cultural rip-off, even when it’s coming from someone whose heart is in the right place.

– If it’s not enough to simply be true to yourself OR be a member of a particular race/ethnicity/gender/economic class… then what else are MCs supposed to be true to? Some hip-hop cultural ideal? What exactly does that entail? This is the most tenable position in my opinion, but it’s also the most difficult one because it involves so many shades of gray. I’ve known kids from pretty much every race, color, and creed who were as hip-hop as they come, and I never doubted a single one of them for motives or commitment. For the most part, they were far from upper class and moved in diverse circles of like-minded artists who put dedication to the culture above anything else. “Putting in work” was a key concept for these up-and-comers, and anyone who had proven themselves by laboring in the underground for nothing but the limited props and satisfaction of doing what they loved could be considered down. This is the closest to an answer I can come up with, but I also wouldn’t want to say that you just have to love hip-hop for everything to be hunky dory. I’m sure Kenny G loves jazz (if you can call it that) and has labored for it long and hard, but his very existence as such a famous “jazz” musician smacks of the racial politics of yesteryear. I guess it’s just a floating concept whose utility is limited but still remains potent because of this country’s shady history of race relations, particularly in the cultural arena.

I’m not sure what all this leads to, but it’s been floating around my head for so long now that I had to get it out. When reading the rhetoric of those more fiercely committed to some concrete test of authenticity, it can seem like a real waste of time, but the subject shouldn’t be ditched altogether. So much criticism of hip-hop flies in from the outside, and I’ve never believed that any of the finger-pointing will be the cause of any real change in the culture or the music. The real critique has to come from within – sorry, Ms. Tucker – or it will never be relevant. Because of this hostility, heads would do well to think about the ways their actions lead to the perpetuation of ideas that they might not agree with – whether it be a totalitarian concept of authenticity that leaves out the subtlety of real life, or an apolitical stance that forgets the injustices of a past that was not so long ago. Hip-Hop at least deserves our enlightened debate.