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On RiFF RAFF, Resisting Capitalism, and Black Stereotypes

Is RiFF RaFF is making fun of black culture? Does RiFF RaFF know what he’s doing? Is he doing it on purpose?

RiFF RaFF’s JODYHiGHROLLER.COM started 6 November, and with a new album, Trench Coat Towers, and a poetry book dropping soon, it seems like an appropriate time to rehash some of the controversy the Houston-raised rapper has faced over the last few years. Among other things, RiFF RaFF has been charged, most notably perhaps by radio programming director Ebro Darden, of (re)inscribing racial stereotypes of African Americans. But this issue is in ways inextricably bound to white Americans’ long history — from blackface to rockabilly to contemporary hip-hop — of co-opting black cultural forms.

Communications scholar Bill Yousman claims in a 2003 essay that white adoption of rap music follows the same pattern as other forms of white appropriation of black culture. While “early adopters of rap music amongst White youth,” he writes, “may… have been motivated by rebellious impulses,” it soon “becomes a cultural imperative for many White youth to embrace rap music in order to fit in with their peer group.” Ultimately, despite a seeming embrace of black culture, Yousman equates the popularity of rap music amongst whites with minstrel performers, who “were attempting to contain and soothe their unrelenting fears of Black males through ridicule, and yet… were also simultaneously acting out their fascination with Blackness.” In other words, white Americans consciously or unconsciously control (both psychically and materially) images of blackness by co-opting black music.

Others have written about the ways in which many poor and working class whites might identify with the class struggle that takes place in communities of color and which is reflected in its music. This seems to be the worldview Ebro Darden subscribes to. When he asks RiFF RaFF about his upbringing, what he really seems to be asking is whether RiFF RaFF’s so-called identification with black culture is justified by circumstances like poverty or participation in alternative economies, like the drug trade. This line of questioning reinscribes black culture as a culture of poverty, a critique that has been articulated well by many rap artists. While hip-hop, like many black American cultural forms, does emerge as a form of resistance to (ideological and material) oppression and exploitation, to say that black music must come from the so-called ghetto in order to be “authentic” is to suggest that “authentic” black culture is, essentially, ghetto culture.

What’s wrong with the ghetto? Nothing. But a discourse like this totalizes, or tries to totalize, the so-called “black experience”, reinscribing an ideology that says there is a (single, “authentic”) black culture. This of course excludes from that culture millions of African Americans who are then thought of as, at best, not-black-enough, and perhaps worse, race traitors. So while Ebro Darden’s most explicit argument is that RiFF RaFF portrays “negative stereotypes” of blacks, and while what he seems to prefer instead are images of respectable, perhaps middle-class blacks, he suggests that it is precisely these stereotypes which one must fit into in order to be “authentically” black and in order to produce “authentic” rap music.

While Ebro demonizes stereotypical images of ghetto culture while leaning on them in support of his critique of RiFF RaFF, he fails, where RiFF RaFF succeeds, to see how contemporary rap, often focused on criminality and bling, precisely resists the stereotypes that preceded them. White American ideology says that black folks — lazy, poor, criminal black folks — don’t deserve nice things. Ebro Darden says much the same thing during his interview with RiFF RaFF. Black Americans, he contends, have no way to feel good about themselves except to build up elaborate images vis-à-vis material things — sneakers, jewelry, whatever; they don’t have real wealth (either morally or materially), but they can pretend, and in so doing, prop up their fragile egos. Ebro doesn’t give the individual black subject very much credit, and he doesn’t give rap music or culture (or bling culture, or criminal culture) much credit, either.

When Ebro asks RiFF RaFF why he wears all that jewelry, RiFF RaFF says, basically, because he can. It’s a perfect answer, because the question implies that there’s something wrong with (him or others like him) wearing (this kind of) jewelry. In America, material wealth is supposed to be a sign of moral wealth: the worthy hard workers and bootstrappers are allowed to have fine homes, fine cars, and fine jewelry. Others are not. Why shouldn’t Ebro be the one to explain why he thinks some people don’t deserve to wear the things they do? Because for most people, including him, capitalist values are self-evident.

James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1987) theorizes about “ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.” For Scott, these forms of everyday resistance are concerned with immediate gains rather than systemic changes, but this is perhaps precisely why it’s so effective: the direct subversion of capitalist values, including the performance of hyper-consumerism by those who are excluded from the “traditional” economy, has always garnered more attention (and outrage) and been the catalyst for more change, than the respectability politics to which so many (neo) liberals subscribe.

Yes, these new performances then become fresh material for new stereotypes. But isn’t this the point? No matter what black folks do, they will be pathologized, criminalized, vilified, and turned into stereotypes.

Does RiFF RaFF co-opt black culture? Sure. Absolutely. At least in some ways. He wears bling. He raps.

But in some ways, not so much. When was the last time, after all, we saw black folks walking around in Ebro’s ghetto sporting neon tank tops, Icee chains, and MTV neck tattoos? Ebro wants to know if RiFF RaFF is making fun of black culture. This seems to be what most people want to know: does RiFF RaFF know what he’s doing, and is he doing it on purpose?

Drew Miller, who interviewed RiFF RaFF for Vice, writes that “everything he does is so crazy that it must either be part of a metacontextual Dadaist joke and he is a genius, or he is just profoundly dumb and has been blessed by the Rap Gods with infinite luck. There is no other way of looking at it.” It seems to me that if RiFF RaFF is making fun of anything at all (and I’m not entirely certain he is), it is himself, the Vanilla Ice-ification of black culture, and the very processes (of co-option and the reinscription of stereotypes) that he is most often accused of.

But there is another way of looking at it. RiFF RaFF doesn’t say any of this, and in the end, it doesn’t matter what he says because someone doesn’t have to intend to do something in order to do it. So-called authentic black rappers don’t have to know that their style and their lyrics, largely read as emblematic of a troubled relationship to consumer culture, are subverting an ideology which denies their value as consumers and their worthiness to consume. And RiFF RaFF doesn’t have to know that he is subverting the co-option of black culture even as he participates in it. Our inability to conceive of RiFF RaFF as anything other than a joke or a jokester, even if we can’t quite figure out what the joke is, speaks to what is most powerful about who he is and what he does.

In his song “Freeze Dried,” RiFF RaFF raps, “While you’re searching for acceptance, I’m trying to spin the world in the opposite direction / Subtle misconceptions, diamonds give reflections”. By refusing the constant demand to answer for himself, by refusing to let us know if he’s in on the joke, or if there is a joke at all, by consistently arousing (mis-) interpretation, he forces the metaphor of reflection, forces us to confront our own desires and prejudices, and reveals the inconsistencies and illogic in our own thinking about race.

Deena Varner is a cultural theorist and street ethnographer who studies criminality, incarceration, and representations of race, gender, and sexuality in popular culture. She currently teaches at Purdue University.