Constructing Race & Masculinity in Hip-Hop Culture: 'From Jim Crow to Jay-Z'

Cultural theorist Miles White examines the realm of hip-hop as a site for the construction of race and masculinity in contemporary American culture.

From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Length: 163 pages
Author: Miles White
Price: $22.00
Format: Paperback
Publication Ddate: 2011-11

When Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States, this historic event signaled for some the dawning of a post-racial era in American society. The centuries old legacy of slavery, segregation and institutional racism had been demonstrably overcome and a new day of colorblind hope and unity had risen in its stead.

Of course, this narrative ignores the fact that Obama isn’t actually a descendant of American slaves, but rather the son of a Kenyan immigrant father and a white mother from Kansas. And while this alone should indicate that the social construction of race is still very much alive, reducing the complexities of Obama’s multiracial identity into the reductive logic of a black/white binary, there are other more ominous indicators of the continuing prevalence of racial discrimination and inequity in American society.

At this moment, there are more African Americans in the 'correctional system' than were enslaved in the years leading up to the Civil War, and there are more African American men disenfranchised from the voting process today than were at the ratification of the 15th Amendment which guaranteed their right to vote. In Obama’s home town of Chicago, nearly 80 percent of the male African American population has been labeled “felons for life”, and is subject to legal discrimination in employment, housing, education and public assistance, a situation that legal scholar Michelle Alexander describes as “The New Jim Crow" (Michelle Alexander,, 8 March 2010).

These disturbing statistics are a direct result of the US government’s decades long “War on Drugs” that has been waged largely as a war on poor, inner city black men. And they are evidence of the danger of post-racial narratives of American society as they ignore the realities of deeply entrenched, institutional racism that define and limit the possibilities of opportunity for many in communities of color.

In From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity, professor Miles White challenges the notion of a post-racial society by examining the realm of popular music as one of the most prevalent and potent sites for the construction of racial identity in contemporary American culture. Hip-hop music is based largely upon the visual and narrative representation of young, black inner city men, and it would be difficult to overstate the genre’s influence within American popular culture over the past few decades.

White’s study of hip-hop culture examines the complex intersections between race and masculinity in “the performance of the black male body, representations of black masculinity, the construction of emotional affect or feeling around these, and the uses and misuses of black male subjectivity that have helped to shape perceptions and attitudes regarding black males in the American racial imagination”. He approaches his subject from a primarily academic perspective, drawing on the work of many prominent thinkers within the realm of critical race and gender studies such as bell hooks, Judith Butler, Eric Lott and Tricia Rose.

White’s study of the cultural representation of black male identity begins with the black face performances of American minstrelsy, and continues through the early 20th century jazz movement, Elvis Presley’s appropriation of blackness in the early rock 'n' roll era and the historical origins of hip-hop in the black power movement of the ‘60s and ’70s. White describes the revolutionary aesthetic form of hip-hop with its beats that “painted new landscapes of sound and meaning using the dissonances and abrasions of urban modernity,” and its rhymes that “in many cases accomplished poetry dedicated to the power and possibility of language that rivals European poetic traditions”. He considers the rise of gangsta rap as it relates to the inner city crack epidemics of ‘80s and the dawn of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and the role of MTV in the visual representation of hardcore styles of hip-hop. And he engages in a lengthy consideration of white rappers’ performance of black identity as it relates to themes of masculinity and authenticity, comparing and contrasting the figures of Vanilla Ice, Eminem and Brother Ali in these regards.

The power of White’s critique lies in the connections that he draws between cultural representations of blackness and masculinity and the social construction of race, gender and class according to the ordering logic of the socioeconomic hierarchy in the United States. He argues that “over the history of America culture, representation has been used to construct a language of discourse where the black male subject(ivity) and the black male body have become primary vehicles and sites of fear as well as fantasies of the racial Other”. And while hip-hop shapes white perceptions of young, black men as objects of fear and fantasy, it also limits and determines the possibilities of racial and masculine identity for those individuals themselves, reinforcing the cultural narratives of deviance, misogyny and excess that perpetuate the abject position of inner city African Americans within American society.

White acknowledges that there are also subversive and emancipatory possibilities within the aesthetic form of hip-hop as well, and it's clear through his thoughtful analysis of lyrics, imagery and music that he is himself an active and impassioned consumer of the genre. The most powerful sections of the book are those in which he foregoes the dense and highly specialized language of the academy for more accessible readings that both critique and celebrate the possibilities of hip-hop. In this passage, he describes the artist Jay-Z as a complex figure who embodies both the perfection of the hip-hop aesthetic and the dramatic interplay between hip-hop narratives and lived street culture: “Jay-Z has crafted a vision that is coherent, almost philosophical, deeply personal, and universal in its scope. He rhymes about the narrative arc of his own life, the experiences that have made him who he is, the situations and daily drama of the hustler’s life that he has used as the raw materials of aesthetic performance. His rhythmic flow is unorthodox, athletic, and dexterous, often using multiple meters or mixing them all up, jumping over bar lines as if they were prison bars trying to pen him in.”

White’s careful analysis of race and masculinity within hip-hop culture works as a trenchant critique of any notion of a post-racial American society, pointing to the conditions of inequity and disenfranchisement that are experienced by many individuals as a direct condition of their racial identity. By interrogating the cultural logic through which blackness and masculinity are constructed in our society, he opens up possibilities for more empowering forms of representation and identification both within popular culture and in the lived experiences of race, class and gender. My one critique of his work is that this is ultimately an academic text, written in the often rarified language of cultural theory, and although it is certainly an important piece of scholarship and a key contribution to the realm of academic discourse, its impact would only be heightened if it were directed toward a more general readership.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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