On a recent episode of FX’s much-acclaimed series Atlanta, one of the main characters, an up-and-coming rapper and drug dealer named Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, finds himself baffled by a YouTube video of a white girl covering one of his songs (also named “Paper Boi”) about selling cocaine.
One of the show’s writers, Jamal Olori, spoke to Vulture about this variant of the debate over cultural appropriation: “We’ve had a running joke for years about popular songs that were initially trap and extremely gutta, and they get really mainstream. Then you get people who have no reference for those songs doing covers.”
As genres and communities, rap and hip-hop have long been concerned with the sometimes elusive concept of authenticity. “Keeping it real” has long been a significant theme in both genres, even though the idea resists any exact definition.
Indeed, Chris Rock even mined the subject for comedy in 1993’s mockumentary CB4, in which he played a character named “MC Gusto,” who pretended to be a criminal to garner street credibility for his rapping. Jay-Z would later reference CB4 as shorthand for inauthenticity on “La-La-La (Excuse Me Miss Again).”
The Authenticity Debate Has Hit Most Of The Genres
Eventually, life would imitate art. Rick Ross, who often rapped from the perspective of a drug dealer, would be revealed as a former corrections officer. He was also unsuccessfully sued by the infamous cocaine dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross for appropriating his image. (Ironically, Jay-Z was also named in that lawsuit for boosting the alleged imposter’s career.)
Yet rap and hip-hop aren’t the only musical communities that value and debate the idea of authenticity. Blues and country purists have long done the same. Even now, much of today’s country music is derided by some as pop music with a fiddle. Bob Dylan was branded a Judas for playing electric folk.
Moreover, the issue here is not really that a young white girl (fictional, but representative) would be interested in adapting a rap song about cocaine dealing. America is a country founded by revolutionaries. We may love our heroes, but we also have always been willing to romanticize our outlaws and anti-heroes. Indeed, modernity has increasingly commodified rebellion.
The 19th century folk song “Jesse James” is one of a relative few that still gets covered by modern artists, from Woody Guthrie to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Bruce Springsteen, long after the death of the Old West. Bobby Fuller never broke rocks in the hard sun; neither did the writer of the oft-covered “I Fought the Law,” Sonny Curtis (who went on to write the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show). R. Dean Taylor was never wanted for murder in Indiana.
Well-known songs about cocaine include, but are by no means limited to the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones” and The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” let alone Eric Clapton’s hit cover of the J.J. Cale number sharing a title with the drug. Dealing drugs may be a less familiar topic in rock than in rap, but it is chronicled in (among others) The Beatles’ “Doctor Robert,” the Monkees’ “Salesman,” Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher,” the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For the Man,” and Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues.” Many of these artists had some experience with drugs, but not in the drug trade — and no one particularly cared, including anyone covering them on YouTube.
When A Sub-Culture Starts To Become The Culture
So what makes acoustic rap covers the kerfuffle du jour? The debate over authenticity within rap and hip-hop has intensified at the moment in which these genres have surpassed rock music as the most popular in America. That is probably not a coincidence. As Olari told Vulture: “[B]ecause the song is so popular, [Amber] gravitates to it. It also shows that the song has gotten so big in our world, that it even caught onto hers.”
The underlying issue is the unease and tension that arises when something which has been a sub-culture starts becoming the culture. Any sub-culture of significance — musical or otherwise — becomes one because it highlights elements that render it distinct from the mass culture.
If that sub-culture starts gaining purchase within the larger culture, complaints almost inevitably follow. It need not be a black thing. The same basic dynamic is at work anytime some pasty hipster doofus fears his or her favorite indie bands will “sell out” after signing to a major label (though this particular anxiety has been muted as the internet has taken its toll on the music industry generally).
Whether it is the jealous love prior generations have for certain cult movies or the more recent phenomenon of fan communities that form around streaming television shows, evangelizing the object of their affection and fighting “the haters,” the tension is the same. Communities want their opinions and tastes validated … but not too much, as they fear mass acceptance may consume and destroy what makes their sub-culture distinct and special in the first instance.
This type of angst may be felt more acutely within rap and hip-hop, in part because they are birthed by a minority community and in part because these genres celebrate becoming rich and famous as much as they celebrate “keeping it real.” But these conflicting human impulses transcend race. In today’s attention economy, they are almost everywhere you look.