We Don’t Care?: Rappers and Institutional Recognition

A couple months ago, Kanye West was awarded an honorary degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Around the same time, Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Generational Icon Award by the California State Senate. And of course, back in 2005, Three 6 Mafia was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Song, a fact that “Academy Award Winner Juicy J” rightfully makes sure no one forgets. Those images – of Kanye in cap and gown, Kendrick on the State Senate floor, Three 6 Mafia on the Oscars stage – seem pretty strange. These rappers were happily being awarded by the very institutions that they, and hip hop generally, exist to reject and often dismantle.

Much has been made of rappers assimilating into white culture financially – Jay-Z, Diddy, 50 Cent have done so very successfully – but this is something very different. In those cases, as with Kendrick’s Reebok deal, Kanye’s various fashion endeavors, it was a matter of the rapper expanding their empire, stretching themselves creatively, and of course getting their money. But in these cases, there’s no material gain, and it doesn’t raise their profile as a rapper either. (Nor are these affirmations coming from the fashion world, with which hip hop has always been in dialogue.) What’s happening here is rappers accepting a pat on the back from white, often upper-class, institutions, the very institutions that have kept them out and kept them down. It’s an affirmation that they have traditionally never sought nor accepted.

Of course, these awards are absolutely deserved; Kendrick is indeed a generational icon, Kanye has contributed to the art as much as anyone. And their voices absolutely deserve to be heard in their spaces, provided they speak for the many who have been shut out. Imagine the power of Kendrick bringing “Blacker the Berry” into the halls of power, Kanye teaching the innovation that brought us College Dropout808s and Heartbreak, or Yeezus in the classroom. But I’m not sure that’s what’s happening here. You could argue that this might be where selling out really exists within hiphop culture – at least I know that these awards confuse me more than any sneaker or alcohol deal ever could.

Kendrick’s honor is the more confusing of the two.  Writer Ferrari Shepard compared it to the way that same institution had treated Tupac. On Twitter, he wrote, “Somewhere along the line, the establishment aborted its practice of publicly condemning rap. It began co-opting and awarding it instead. … The establishment learned the most effective way of taking power away from a subculture is to embrace it.” I’m not 100% sure that’s what’s happening here, but it’s hard to see a rapper sitting with a governor and the (admittedly, Black) state senator, who awarded him, and wonder exactly what the dynamics are. From his short statement, it doesn’t seem that he was attempting anything at all radical. He was honored for his charity work in Compton, and thus there seems to have been no discussion of the racist social structures that would require such work in his community, but rather a recognition of individual achievement. In that way, this situation runs counter to the narratives he advances in his music. It may be that Kendrick has not yet developed the unapologetic persona that Kanye has perfected, and thus wasn’t able to take advantage of such a platform. Regardless, seeing him interact so complacently with the source of his community’s problems is troubling.

Kanye’s honor, on the other hand, makes a little more sense. In his acceptance speech, he seems to understand the way in which such an honor lends him credibility with the wider, and whiter, public. He sees the instutional validation for just what it is. To some who long for the “Old Kanye” (as much as I hate that naming), this runs entirely counter to his College Dropout persona, for whom these kinds of honors shouldn’t matter at all. But its clear that since those days, Kanye sees himself as a larger cultural figure, with the issue being that others do not see him the same way. Thus, for today’s Kanye, such an official validation is necessary, and combined with a clear understanding of what it means.

Rap is growing up, and so maybe we should become used to seeing rappers in the halls of our government and universities. And, as representatives of their communities, they belong there. The problem is what they do with that platform. If they do not use these platforms to further the messages in their music and the grievances of their audiences, preferring to buddy buddy with the powerful, then they should be prepared to face the accusation of selling out.

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