Richard Dyer’s model of white racialization on film contends that the performance of whiteness is at its most visible when it contrasts against non-white performances: “the presence of black people […] allows one to see whiteness as whiteness” (48). Whiteness’ illusions of invisibility and normalcy (46) are based in its ability to defer and re-associate qualities of white performance into specific nationalistic, ethnic, and socioeconomic subcategories, thereby concealing its own presence:
Brief Encounter is not about white people, it is about English middle-class people; The Godfather is not about white people, it is about Italian-American people; The Color Purple is about black people, before it is about poor, southern US people (46).
Dyer does not, however, account for performances of whiteness that self-consciously draw attention to conflicts embedded within their racialization. For example, Annalee Newitz depicts “white trash” as a performance of whiteness that draws attention to the inherent tensions within racialized representation (“Introduction” 6). Representations of white trash’s predispositions towards violence, dimwittedness, alcoholism, and poverty reveals anxieties within whiteness that allow for self-aware racial critiques to escape Dyer’s mold of homogenous normalcy. If all onscreen representations of race are indeed just culturally- and aesthetically-motivated constructions of a type of performance, then parodic caricature presents itself alongside white trash as a potential revealer of whiteness. By presenting an alternate, non-hegemonic version of whiteness, either on its own or alongside traditionally-invisible whiteness, an audiovisual text renders Dyer’s invisibility of white performance visible and, moreover, racialized.
Contemporary parodic white rappers, such as Jon Lajoie and The Lonely Island, self- reflexively critique whiteness by caricaturing established white rappers, thereby revealing “whiteness qua whiteness” (Dyer 44). “Sincere” white rappers such as Vanilla Ice, The Beastie Boys, and Eminem already walk a fine line between racial and performative authentication, appropriation and exploitation, dramatized by Eminem’s performance in 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2002). As such, these artists often provide abundant creative fodder for their parodic cousins as targets of ridicule. The comedy of parodic white rappers playfully subverts the various criteria of authenticity (Olson and Shobe 999) from which white rap derives its social relevance and credibility.
These performances, however, are loaded with an ambiguous racial charge due to their basis in racial appropriation and imitation. The deliberate performance of whiteness becomes a parodic tool which humiliates the authenticity of rap performance’s roots and aspirations as an African- American medium of communal, sociopolitical expression. The tensions over authenticity and appropriation that are embedded in the sincere white rapper’s performance not only transfer to the parodic white rapper but are compounded by the lyrical preoccupation with comedy, which can inadvertently ameliorate, if not validate, the ever-present racial tensions (Park et. al. 160-161). The degree to which parodic white rappers appropriate and thereby disrupt the normativity of white performance requires a careful investigation of white rap’s relationship with rap authenticity and blackness; parodic white rap may smirk at the conventions of black rap culture, but does so by punishing whiteness for attempting to masquerade as anything else but. Ultimately, the music videos of white parodic rappers like John Lajoie and The Lonely Island turn the performance of whiteness into an embodiment of a self-reflexive racial Other, outing the tensions of whiteness by asserting whiteness as bombastic mediocrity, and creating humor by appropriating the appropriators.
All white rappers, serious or parodic, must negotiate a complicated racial terrain of performance appropriation and authentication in order to succeed in the rap market. Popular and critical consensus still contextualizes rap as an African-American cultural artifact (Hess 372), despite its international and multi-racial popularity (Clarke and Hiscock 241). Black rappers are considered by fans and artists alike as “the originators, valuators, authenticators, and figures of acceptance within hip-hop culture” (Dawkins 468). Although African-American culture’s contribution to the development and popularization of rap cannot be understated, some contemporary critics try to re-contextualize rap in non-racially-specific terms whilst accurately upholding rap’s social and political functions.
Paul J. Olson and Bennie Shobe Jr., for example, stress rap’s value as a public voice for disempowered communities:
Rap is a form of resistance against the racial and economic pressures placed on the truly disadvantaged. It is a medium for challenging authority figures, especially the police. Rap music is a form of political expression and a form of ‘‘oppositional culture’’ for a group that the American political system, media, and white majority abandoned long ago. (994-995)
Ronald J. Stevens and Earl Wright similarly position the rapper as a communal historian, voicing a first-hand account of the grim realities of underprivileged urban life (25-31). In the American context, rap’s representation of urban oppression is readily linked to the plight of many African- American communities. The most important authenticators of rap which can be dissociated from racial preoccupation, however, are the valorization of experience over knowledge, and “the ethic of personal accountability” for one’s opinions (Olson and Shobe 997-998). Adherence to these black epistemological principles (996) racially authenticates a rap performance by connecting the performance to the African-American lived experience (Hess 374) whilst recontextualizing rap’s capacity for social critique to the rapper’s own community, whatever community that may be. The rapper must appear to faithfully represent his own lived experience as part of, and on behalf of, his community of origin, and to uphold the personal convictions about which he raps.
In their treatment of Newfoundlander rap group Gazeebow Unit, Sandra Clarke and Philip Hiscock point out that, although rappers from all over the world may incorporate “[African American English] lexical items and phrasing” (245) in their performances, experience – and not mere citation – is the legitimizing criteria for any rapper (245-6).
The consequences for a rapper failing to live up to these expectations can be dire. The falsification of claimed experiences, or the making of disingenuous claims, often comes at the expense of one’s credibility and, eventually, one’s career. For example, in the music video for “Ice Ice Baby”, white rapper Vanilla Ice tries to align himself with elements of African-American ghetto culture, such as graffiti and break-dancing, to compliment his gritty persona. In the early 1990s, Vanilla Ice was publicly outed as not being from the Miami ghetto, thus negating his street-hardened persona. Persecuted as a racially-exploitative liar and borderline neo-minstrel, Vanilla Ice’s career came to an early and rapid end. Mickey Hess explains the notorious plummet from popular approval of this non-parodic white rapper as not only compounding these vital errors in rap performance and persona but also conflating these failures with Vanilla Ice’s whiteness:
Because hip-hop lyrics are rooted in autobiography and often narrate black artists’ struggles against systemic racism, Vanilla Ice’s false claims to a background prominently including ghetto poverty and crime breached the norms of rap rhetoric. Vanilla Ice asked listeners to look past his whiteness to see a kind of social blackness that would authenticate him in the context of a rise to stardom that fit with black rappers’ success stories. He failed, however, because his lies and his translation of hiphop to the pop charts made his performance look like he was merely imitating black artists to make himself rich. (373)
In the wake of Vanilla Ice’s notable contribution to the “crisis of authenticity for the white rapper” (378), subsequent white rappers, such as The Beastie Boys and Eminem, developed tactics to avoid erroneously appropriating ghetto culture (Clarke and Hiscock 245) and establish rap as a multiracial art form, both musically, on studio albums, and visually, through MTV music videos.
By immersing oneself in the rhetoric of the rapper as the spokesperson for the marginalized community, whilst relocating the rapper from the essentialized ghetto to the performer’s own community, the white rapper can demonstrate an acceptably-appropriated authenticity that is deemed credible by fans, critics, and fellow artists. The white rapper is therefore constantly mediating a stylistic homage to rap’s historical roots in the urban African-American experience whilst adapting and incorporating his own community’s vernacular into the performance’s text and appearance. Marcia Alesan Dawkins cleverly likens this liminal experience to “walking close to the edge”, a paraphrase of a lyric from the famous early rap track “The Message” (1982) by Grand Master Flash:
Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge,
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.
It’s like a jungle sometimes that makes me wonder How I keep from goin’ under!
Walking close to the edge becomes a constant motion within ‘‘a space of enunciation’’ and the concept of the ‘‘here and there’’ addressed in hip-hop discourse shows the binary opposition of sameness/otherness at the heart of America’s entertainment and transracial politics. (463)
Successful white rappers are able to manage this “here and there” liminality, thereby “keepin’ it real” (Olson and Shobe 1005) to their own experience and maintaining authenticity and credibility within the rap community. The Beastie Boys, for example, channelled disaffected white youth culture of the 1980s (1007) by hybridizing punk rock with rap, and are considered “authentic innovators and not African-American imitators” (Dawkins 466).
Most significant for onscreen performances of white rap – and their parodic off-shoots – are Eminem’s semi-autobiographical performance in rap-musical 8 Mile and his music videos “Hi, My Name Is” (1999), “Cleaning Out My Closet” (2002), and “Sing For The Moment” (2003). Eminem self-consciously draws attention to his whiteness by making whiteness inseparable from his rap performance. Eminem’s three performance personas1 – Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers, and Eminem – each self-consciously implicate and expose the artist’s whiteness as a liminal experience in the rap community (Dawkins 470). Slim Shady jokes snidely through “Hi, My Name Is”; Marshall Mathers reminisces bitterly in “Cleaning Out My Closet” and 8 Mile; Eminem vents professional frustrations in “Sing For The Moment”. In turn, the Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers personas provide ample comedic fodder for parodic white rappers, reconfiguring the performance of whiteness as authentic but pedantically uncool.
The parodic white rapper outs the performer’s whiteness by making the rapper’s persona ironic, often through celebrating young, white, privileged masculinity’s expected and acceptable entitlement to failure (Speed 830). The comedy of these performances co-opts and combines the ironic collegiate humor of the New Smart Film (Sconse 350), exemplified by the output of filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, with the sexual obsessiveness and crudeness of the Vulgar Teen Comedy (Speed 823), exemplified by films like American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999). Umberto Eco’s model of the Comic Effect to the parodic white rapper encapsulates the comedic and racial charge of these performances by demonstrating both its progressive and regressive aspirations. When the “animal-like” comic character (Eco 2) breaches a rule of etiquette, the spectator feels validated in laughing at and even welcoming the broken rule because the comic character is solely accountable for the transgression: “[the] comic is always racist: the others, the Barbarians, are supposed to pay” (2). The parodic white rapper therefore breaks Dyer’s invisibility and normalcy of whiteness through his exaggerated racial performance, and the spectator allows the transgression because of the absurdity of the performance, even if this whiteness is a crude caricature a sincere white rapper’s appropriation of various elements of blackness.
The hyperbolic whiteness in these performances tends to incorporate the boastful exaggeration found throughout black rap culture (Olson and Shobe 1005), which can register as absurdly funny when expounded by a white rapper. Herein lies the danger, however, of the parodic white rapper’s performance: by ameliorating the performance of overt whiteness with laughter, especially if this whiteness includes a neo-minstrel (Means Coleman 130) accent, the performed racial stereotypes can seem harmless and become normalized into white hegemonic rhetoric (Park et. al. 158). At its best, parodic white rap simultaneously points to white rap’s potential gap in authenticity whilst mocking the banalities which are authentic to the performer. If the parodic white rapper is racist, his violence is self-inflicted.
As Slim Shady, a vapid and successful MC, the artist pokes fun at the inanities of popular culture and the rap industry’s racialized self-contradictions while he simultaneously “addresses the marketability of his whiteness as a privilege he would not enjoy if he were black” (Hess 381). In the music video “Hi, My Name Is,” Slim Shady contextualizes himself as walking on the edge of popular acceptance; he labels himself as both inside the rap community through his skill as a rapper, and also as an outsider to this community, marginalized due to his race and appropriated musical heritage. Whilst rapping about the difficulties of fitting in with rap culture, Slim Shady changes costumes many times throughout this music video with each costume signifying whiteness: Leave It To Beaver, Bill Clinton, Marilyn Manson, and The Brady Bunch are particularly notable targets. Each of these references is intended to distance Slim Shady from being an authentic rap performer.
However, “Hi, My Name Is” also frequently references the artist’s association with established black rapper Dr. Dre, who mentored, produced, and vicariously legitimated much of the artist’s early mainstream career. Slim Shady claims throughout the video that he lashes out at the popular culture establishment only because he is following Dr. Dre’s instructions to do so. Significantly, among his other costumes, Slim Shady appears as a ventriloquist’s dummy three times, thereby self-casting Slim Shady as an outsider who presumably “mouths” that which Dr. Dre has taught him. Slim Shady thus reverses the traditional racial politics of a black spokesperson rapping as a challenge to the white, hegemonic establishment by performing honestly his Other-ness to the black rap community while paradoxically demonstrating his legitimizing associations therein. If Slim Shady can be accused of misrepresenting the artist because of Slim Shady’s caricature-ness, the persona foregrounds the artist’s whiteness as the precondition for his immersion in the rap community, as well as the expanded audience that his whiteness helps him to attract (Hess 381). The reflexivity of Slim Shady’s whiteness as his legitimizer in the rap community also operates as a tongue-in-cheek criticism of “fronting”, which Olson and Shobe define as the rapper’s personal misrepresentation of advocating one set of beliefs on stage whilst living another off- or backstage (1005). Since Slim Shady is intentionally a front, the artist is able to use this persona as a form of inner-industry critique, which manifests as a sarcastic assault upon popular and celebrity culture.
This same sarcasm melts into parody in The Lonely Island’s music videos for “Lazy Sunday” (2005) and “I’m On A Boat” (2008), which cast frontman Andy Samberg as similarly preoccupied with popular culture as Slim Shady, whilst also parodying popular culture’s vapidity. In a striking coincidence, “Lazy Sunday” and “Hi, My Name Is” were both their respective performers’ breakout music videos, firmly establishing their artists’ place in the musical mainstream; “Hi, My Name Is” travelled quickly to the top of the MTV charts, and the immediate popularity of “Lazy Sunday”on the then-nascent YouTube.com lead directly to YouTube’s multi- billion dollar purchase by Google (Burgess and Green 22). Both pop-culture-saturated videos were able to attract large and diverse audiences (Sullivan 608), thereby proving the potential popularity and multi-racial resonance of the white rapper.
Where “Lazy Sunday” and “Hi, My Name Is” differ in terms of racial performance, however, is in how the autobiographical aspects of each performer are embedded in a logic of performative authentication. Whereas Slim Shady is a caricature of the experience of a white rapper in search of legitimization and acceptance, citing the artist’s whiteness as a simultaneous detriment and benefit to his career, “Lazy Sunday”’s Andy Samberg and fellow Saturday Night Live star Chris Parnell reveal their whiteness as a precondition of their enthusiasm for popular culture.
The “Lazy Sunday” performers’ determination to spend their weekend re-watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005), a fantasy film intended for a juvenile audience, implies a nerdy adolescence that is readily associated with whiteness (Kendall 262-3). Since rap and other performance styles commonly associated with African-American culture are not so readily linkable to nerd culture (Eglash 60), Samberg and Parnell’s rap that demonstrates their eagerness to see Narnia again outs their whiteness as an incommensurability of communal identifications. The toughness implied by their delivery seems incongruous with the juvenile subject matter, but this contrast serves to further out the performers as white through the overly-zealous assertion of toughness associated with white masculinity (Fradley 236). The comedic aspects of their nerdy whiteness depend on the normalizing conflation of nerd-dom and whiteness as expounded through the aggressive assertiveness of the rap, which recalls not only Slim Shady’s preoccupation with mass culture but also a confrontational Beastie Boys-like rapping style (“Sabotage”). Whereas the mutability of Slim Shady’s image, evidenced through his many costume changes in “Hi, My Name Is,” reflexively mocks the constructed nature of his image and racialization as a front for the artist (Olson and Shobe 1008), Samberg and Parnell appear to be playing themselves as plausible nerds who rap on behalf of the nerd community.
Samberg and Parnell also locate themselves geographically within New York City, implying an allegiance to an urban community that is noticeably lacking in “Hi, My Name Is”. That said, their expression of geographic community comes primarily through references to various online maps that they will use to find the movie theatre in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This conflation of popular culture, established through the Narnia references and the performer’s diegetic debate over the usefulness of cartographic websites such as Mapquest.com and GoogleMaps.com, with the urban experience of New York City speaks to a postmodern interest in pastiche and surface value (Jameson 115). One could interpret this as proof of Dyer’s notion of whiteness’ articulation through contrast: Samberg and Parnell’s surface whiteness becomes just another cultural citation, rendered visible by its place within the pastiche of references, which includes the commonplace association of rap’s urban localization as a primary black experience. However, to follow Eco’s model, Samberg and Parnell are racialized as “barbarians” (Eco 2) because of their performance of a non-hegemonic whiteness, which turns “Lazy Sunday”’s racial deprecation against whiteness for its inability to account for the entirety of its performance types. The humor in Samberg and Parnell’s authentic performance as movie- going nerds erases the possibility of mis-representational fronting; their appropriation of aggressively-delivered rap transforms the musical performance into an expression of their nerd- dom and, vicariously, of their liminal whiteness.
The music video for “I’m On A Boat” also engages parodically with popular culture and whiteness, but does so through an overt formal citation of big-budget rap music videos, and through the inclusion of black rapper T-Pain. Once again, the Lonely Island performers rap to express their giddy and excessive enthusiasm for an activity not commonly associated with this degree of eagerness: in this case, a complimentary boat tour of the Miami harbor. The celebratory nature of the song seems incongruous with the hostility with which the rappers, particularly Akiva Schaffer, express their enjoyment of the boat ride. Schaffer’s combination of excessive profanity, confrontational delivery, and the non-sensical banality of his lyrics as an expression of joy, such as “Fuck land! I’m on a boat, motherfucker! / Fuck trees! I climb buoys, motherfucker!”, signifies a similar nerd-dom, a non-hegemonic whiteness that is still associated with and recognizable as whiteness, to that found in “Lazy Sunday.”
“I’m On A Boat” quotes the stylistic features of big-budget rap music videos, like Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” (2000) and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” (2003) – produced by Eminem – such as jarring camera movements, low-angle shots of the rapper gesturing aggressively towards the camera, performers in confrontational poses to signify toughness, rapid editing across non- continuous locations, and so on. These formal citations form an immediate association between “I’m On A Boat” and mainstream rap videos, thereby making a case for “I’m On A Boat”’s legitimization within the rap corpus through emulation and appropriation of other texts in popular culture. However, by trying to encode as cool the un-tough whiteness of “I’m On A Boat”’s mise-en-scène and costumes, especially Samberg’s Hawaiian shirts and “flippy-floppy” sandals, the afore-mentioned formal citations register as a parody of rap authenticity: a front deliberately constructed as a front to expose the vapidity of popular culture. If anything, these formal citations demonstrate an overly-zealous performance of white masculinity whose mediocrity self-destructs the toughness of the rapper persona. The inclusion of whiteness within this self-effacing failure of authentic rap performance must, however, be more nuanced if one is to account for “I’m On A Boat”s multi-racial performers.
Although T-Pain’s blackness and Auto-Tuned vocals might prove Dyer’s theory of racial visibility through racial contrast, T-Pain’s tongue-in-cheek performance alongside Samberg and Schaffer casts the black rapper in a symbolic and satirical white-face. T-Pain’s dancing style, echoing lyrics, and costuming are consistent with those of Samberg and Schaffer, thereby collapsing all of their racialized performances into a tongue-in-cheek white-face which reveals whiteness as a constructed facade, revealing the invisibility by normalizing and standardizing all racial performances within this music video. If “I’m On A Boat” is a racist text, the butt of the joke is a performance of whiteness whose bombastic mediocrity seems too small for the video’s grandiose formal construction. One would be hard pressed to argue that T-Pain is vicariously victimized racially for being forced to play against his usually-cool stage presence being associated with Samberg and Schaffer’s nerdy antics. For better or worse, the presence of established and successful black rapper T-Pain prevents the appropriation of rap video aesthetics from seeming racially exploitative; tongue-in-cheek T-Pain is complicit in the joke at the expense of Samberg and Schaffer’s whiteness.
Following the online popularity of “I’m On A Boat”, the Lonely Island has featured established black musicians in several ensuing music videos. Akon’s performance and attire in “I Just Had Sex!” (2010) is stylistically consistent with Samberg and Jorma Taccone’s wide-smiling glee in much the same manner as T-Pain performs with, and not against or in addition to, the Lonely Island artists in “I’m On A Boat”. However, in the “Shy Ronnie” (2009, 2010) music videos, Rihanna reprimands Samberg’s Ronnie character for failing to rap adequately alongside her. Although this could be said to reify Dyer’s theory of whiteness articulated through racial contrast, Rihanna’s musically-diegetic complicity in the joke makes white Ronnie’s failure to rap with sufficient vigor play against expectations that parodic rap should be race-neutral and that a white rapper should be able to perform authentic rap alongside a black performer. This self- reflexive whiteness outs itself even when in contrast with a black artist because “Shy Ronnie” functions as a double parody; Ronnie’s failure to match Rihanna’s satirical white-face further plays into whiteness’ stereotypic un– or forced coolness, thereby outing Ronnie as not only white but incompetently so.
This most superficial tier of sincere and parodic white rap’s obsessive citation of popular culture outs the performer’s whiteness with minimal danger to the performer; Slim Shady and The Lonely Island’s characters are admittedly fronts for their performers, so they cannot be disgraced as such. The Marshall Mathers persona – and its parodic offshoots – offers more direct access to the artist’s inner workings, and therefore a correspondingly increased vulnerability to criticism should the performer break the rap’s rules of authentication. This increased personalization provides not only comedic fodder for parodic white rappers but a more focused lens through which to articulate their self-reflexive whiteness.
Inversely to Slim Shady, the brooding, introspective Marshall Mathers persona achieves rap authenticity by invoking the artist’s troubled childhood and other personal disfunctions cited by the artist as part of his autobiography, such as histories of substance abuse and urban malaise:
[Eminem’s] discourse invites his auditors to view the world as he does, as a solitary environment in which identity, personal meaning, and self-esteem are absent. He engages white ambivalence along with black acceptance by aligning the pains of his experience to the necessary pain of a credible hip-hop persona. (Dawkins 476)
The music video for “Cleaning Out My Closet” grounds the self-loathing of the Marshall Mathers persona in his dysfunctional relationship with his mother, mobilizing rap as a form of aesthetic exorcism of his painful past. Whereas Slim Shady embraces the artist’s whiteness and its roundabout benefits in the rap community, Marshall Mathers indicts his whiteness as a precondition of his troubled upbringing, as if desiring futilely to make his whiteness Other to himself to alleviate his suffering. By doing so, Marshall Mathers inadvertently reifies Newitz’s theory of peripheral racializations as outers of racial tensions; by rebelling against his White Trash upbringing, Marshall Mathers aligns himself with any community except the one in which he grew up. The most vivid and substantial example of the racialization of the Marshall Mathers persona, however, is the artist’s semi-autobiographical performance in 8 Mile, wherein whiteness is racially outed simultaneously through its contrast with blackness and through the film’s construction of an extreme, anxiety-revealing whiteness.
The rap musical 8 Mile casts the Marshall Mathers persona as Jimmy Smith Jr., a perennially downtrodden Detroit factory worker who lives in his alcoholic, white trash mother’s (Kim Bassinger) trailer with his young daughter. Jimmy aspires to be a rapper in the hopes that artistic success could lead to a better life for himself and his daughter. Under the MC pseudonym of Rabbit, Jimmy takes part in weekly MC battles at a dingy inner-city club to win credibility in the local rap community. Although humiliated during his first appearance at the rap battles, Jimmy spends the next week reflecting on his impoverished and often-cruel living conditions. He finds sufficient frustration with his situation to defeat his violent black rivals at the ensuing weekly rap battle, and to win the respect of the black community, narrationally coding Rabbit as a soon-to-be genuinely-successful rapper. 8 Mile’s semi-autobiographical narrative prioritizes aspects of rap performance that legitimize Jimmy’s acceptance as a rapper, such as identification and allegiance with geographically specific locations and communities, and performing raps that are informed by the lived experience of poverty and social marginalization, all of which appear in the climactic rap battle sequence.
Rabbit begins his final battle with arch-rival Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie) by positioning himself as a representative of Detroit’s urbanity. He opens his final rap by aligning himself with his audience’s communal experience of “the 313” — Detroit’s telephone area code – whilst slighting Papa Doc as an outsider. He also delegitimizes Papa Doc as a rapper by casting his rival as a wealthy, educated suburbanite from a good home, proposing that Papa Doc’s lived experience is not one that can represent the socially-marginalized population gathered at the rap battle. Rabbit then masochistically cites the his white victimization as a source of strength and legitimizing factor in his performance, proudly referring to himself as white trash and accepting all previous racial epithets leveled against him. Rabbit — and, vicariously, Marshall Mathers — cite the disfunctions of their racialized autobiographies as legitimizers of their social acceptance as rappers and thereby normalize the performance of whiteness into rap culture.
As a musical, the rap battles’ progression from the real to the idealized realm (Altman 60) signifies the fantasy of racial invisibility through a highly-problematic deprecation of whiteness to fit in with blackness. During the course of the final rap battle, Rabbit’s community-forging tactics change from making white and black synonymous, with the unifying 313 opener, to casting himself as so downtrodden that he is effectively black, thereby walking Dawkins’ proverbial line of acceptance between two conflicting racial identities. The performance of the Marshall Mathers persona in 8 Mile, however, becomes a front for the artist because the celebrity artist is “slumming” in a rags-to-(eventual)-riches performance, thereby conflating hypothetical personal poverty with the communal poverty from which rap derives much of its sociopolitical importance. 8 Mile is as much the story of an aspiring rapper’s ascent to success as an established artist’s masquerade as being impoverished.
Canadian white rapper Jon Lajoie parodies the legitimizing capacities of masochistic autobiography and of successful artists slumming in poverty for publicity in his viral sensation YouTube music video, “Everyday Normal Guy” (2009). The profanity-punctuated deadpan toughness with which Lajoie expounds his mediocrity satirically mirrors Rabbit’s hostility during the rap battles. Whereas Rabbit/Marshall Mathers self-deprecates because of his whiteness, “Everyday Normal Guy” accepts it as part of his humdrum, bourgeois lived experience. Lyrics like “I get nervous in social situations, motherfucker!” and “My parents are really nice people, motherfucker!” contextualize Lajoie as representing middle-class whiteness not out of vitriol against an abusive legal system or the trials of life on the streets, but out of comfortable, complacent boredom. Lajoie presents himself as being outside rap culture but with no real aspirations to join, boasting that, “When I go the clubs, I wait in line.” Lajoie also cites sexual and professional mediocrity as authenticators of his white rap performance. Just as Rabbit commands to his audience to “put your fucking hands up and follow me!” Lajoie tries to incite his audience to unite with him through dance as a sign of communal bonding:
If you rarely get laid, put your hands up!
If you’re not well paid, put your hands up! If you’ve got a pet cat, put your hands up!
If you’ve got a bad back, put your hands up!
Lajoie’s videos distinguish themselves from those of The Lonely Island and the Eminem with their obviously-minimal budget and homemade aesthetics. The music video for “Everyday Normal Guy” is clearly not financially backed by a major television network or Hollywood studio, and exists instead as a music video only on video-streaming video websites like YouTube. The low- resolution digital camera pans of the Montreal harbor behind Lajoie throughout “Everyday Normal Guy” prevent any notion of slumming or fronting on Lajoie’s part because the mundanity of the background is a perfect compliment to the bored complacency of the lyrics. As a self-reflexive articulation of bourgeois whiteness, “Everyday Normal Guy” relocalizes high-budget white rap music videos to unimpressive urban roots, but also parodies rap by not demanding social change to mollify the rapper’s lived experience of that un-impressiveness. Lajoie has nothing to prove, and even if he did, he would not mind if others were unconvinced.
Dawkins describes the Eminem persona as the most appropriative of traditional black rap culture: marginalized, “underdog” Eminem is in constant trouble with various branches of white legal authority, such as the police and the court system (471). Eminem uses this conflict with authority to establish the persona’s authenticity as a rapper by aligning himself with rap’s ability to express Other-ness, due in large part to Eminem’s malleable community identifications. Moreover, Eminem aligns himself with his audience to create the impression of communal solidarity; a unified resistance against white legal authority. By seeking community with his fans, Eminem “other”s the official censorship that would remove the trouble-making artist from public discourse.
The music video for “Sing For The Moment”, released shortly after 8 Mile’s cinematic release, relies on a communal bond between performer and audience, who in this video are predominately white teenage girls, to consolidate his ability to resist legal persecution for the occasionally misogynistic and homophobic content of his material. The video’s juxtaposition of documentary footage of the artist in concert with staged sequences of Eminem rapping in a studio soundstage scrutinizes the construction of his racial performance as a fiction based in reality. This conflation of documentary and staged moments lets Eminem cite his own celebrity as a legal liability, as he angrily raps:
Thats why these prosecutors wanna convict me
Swiftly just to get me offa these streets quickly
But all their kids been listen’n to me religiously
So I’m signing CDs while police fingerprint me:
They’re for the judge’s daughter, but his grudge is against me.
Eminem makes rap seem race-neutral to gain access to the sympathy of diverse rap audiences, as if rap itself is what is being prosecuted, and thereby essentializes the experience of all rappers – himself included – as being in conflict with legal authority.
This persona, however, tests the boundaries of acceptability within a rap community that remains vigilant against exploitative white appropriation (Hess 375); if whiteness becomes invisible within rap, the fear remains that the art-form will lose its connection to the African- American experience and, with it, its authenticity and reason for being. “Sing For The Moment” thus walks the line between racially essentializing and alienating the rap community in which Eminem purports to be a member whilst citing his membership as a form of legal defense.
Whereas some of The Lonely Island’s music videos rely upon an essentialized white-face rap persona for satirical purposes, Eminem’s “serious” attempt to appropriate and blend in with black rap’s resistance to white authority could be seen as racialized profiteering. At best, Eminem’s whiteness “provides limited invisibility and unlimited mobility within which he plays on difference and universality” (Dawkins 473). At worst, Eminem reifies the fears of racial appropriation as a form of neo-minstrelsy, donning the wardrobe and musical styles of black culture to assert a safely invisible whiteness (477), and even citing his whiteness as the target of legal racial profiling. This persona’s pursuit of allegiance with the audience through pretenses of racial homogeneity amongst fellow rappers as a shield against sociopolitical and legal persecution is at odds with the parodic whitenesses that undercut the artist’s other personas.
Eminem performs a version of vulnerable whiteness that is threatened externally, which is significantly-less open to parody than a whiteness that cites its own failures or relies upon acceptable mediocrity, such as those depicted by Slim Shady or Marshall Mathers. The parodic white rapper inverts the glorified suffering of the sincere white rapper into self-deprecation for the performer’s nerdy and mediocre shortcomings. Without Slim Shady’s proverbial shooting gallery of popular culture references, or the option to poke fun at Marshall Mathers’ troubled introspection, Eminem’ professional frustrations have no correlative in the nerd archetype (Kendal 262-3). Eminem’s problems are vehemently those of an established rapper, as opposed to a readily-parodized personal issue or a sarcastic critique of popular culture. The nerd cannot rap from a place of popularity and success, because the nerd is innately unpopular and under-appreciated (263). Moreover, the insular nerd zeitgeist is incapable of enlisting a wide audience base to resist a legal, authoritative antagonist. Even when T-Pain plays against type in “I’m On A Boat” with his tongue-in-cheek, white-faced complicity in Samberg and Schaffer’s racial self-deprecation, he remains a competent and credible rapper who is merely performing in a non-typical comedic style. The nerd would have to play too far against type to make an effective parody of the Eminem persona.
The Eminem persona vicariously restricts rap parodies to the nerdy fringes of rap authenticity. Parodic white rappers have no need to use their performances to align and aggressively mobilize their audience on the rappers’ behalf. Even the most successful parodic white rappers, such as The Lonely Island and Jon Lajoie, have been unable to create sufficient public controversy to warrant enlisting their audience as defensive collateral. Parodic white rappers must accept their comedy as a mild but acceptable form of fronting; comedy alleviates just enough of the burden of rap authenticity to let the front stand in for the depicted racial performance.
The parodic white rapper makes his whiteness visible by performing a version of whiteness that is liminal, or even antithetical, to what Dyer asserts as its hegemonic invisibility and normalization. Although parodic and serious rap performances in music videos, television shows, and films often feature both white and black performers, whiteness’ negotiation of legitimization often walks on the edge of authentication and appropriation. When the non-hegemonic whiteness performed in these examples becomes the target of parody, whiteness outs itself as such, thereby revealing the latent social, sexual, autobiographical, and economic tensions encompassed therein. The degree to which white parodic rappers essentialize and undercut the performance of blackness directly and vicariously through their re-workings of established white rap personas, like those of Eminem, is difficult to ascertain; such a line of questioning would imply that rap performance can only be authentic when performed by black artists, thereby leaving no space for white artists to represent themselves as such, even when they can otherwise achieve the necessary criteria for communal representation. In any case, the parodic white rapper provides a unique articulation of whiteness qua whiteness which, like white trash and nerd identities, deserves further critical attention.
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———– “The Real Slim Shady”. dir. Dr. Dre and Phillip Atwell. starring Eminem (Slim Shady). Aftermath/Interscope, 2000.
———– “Cleaning Out My Closet”. dir. Dr. Dre and Phillip Atwell. starring Eminem (Marshall Mathers). Aftermath/Interscope, 2002
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1 One of the difficulties of writing about Eminem is negotiating the taxonomy of his personas. “Eminem” is not only one of the three distinct personas but also the brand name for the combination of the three, and therefore also the referent for the artist who performs these personas. When a distinction between a persona and the rapper performing that persona is required, the rapper will be referred to as “the artist”.