Vince Staples: Hip Hop Under the White Gaze

From the second song on his debut album Summertime ’06, Vince Staples makes a point to alienate his white fans. At the Boston stop of his latest tour, they seemed to not have gotten the message. Walking into the show as the opener performed, I was sure this was the whitest show I’d ever been to, and as a hip hop fan in Boston, that’s no small feat.

The concert started with that same song, “Lift Me Up”. It starts, “Hey, I’m just a nigga until I fill my pockets/And then I’m Mr. Nigga, they follow me while shopping.” Vince stuck out his mike for those lines, in what I can only assume was litmus test. Unfortunately, this was an audience that had no qualms with shouting his lyrics back at him, word for word. Sitting on top of a couch to the side, a little removed from the crowd, I settled in for what has become a routine experience of racial anxiety.

Later in the song, when Vince rapped, “All these white folks chanting when I asked ’em where my niggas at?/Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get wit’ that/Wonder if they know, I know they won’t go where we kick it at”, the crowd’s energy level waned a little. He was holding up a mirror to that exact moment and it wasn’t pretty. For a second, we all acknowledged the strangeness of the situation. The fact that Vince is comfortable with those moments is why he’s proven to be such a maverick. He’s okay feeling and saying the things most of us aren’t.

The audience very quickly overcame the awkward moment, and the energy remained high for the rest of the song and throughout a set that went back to earlier work by the rapper. I’m not nearly as familiar with that earlier material, though the rest of the crowd clearly was. In those moments where I was silently nodding my head, I wondered if I was giving myself too much credit. I was making the assumption that our shared blackness made me a more worthy fan. But maybe the white kids in the audience felt him too? There’s plenty about Vince’s music that I can’t directly relate to. I haven’t grown up in Long Beach or anywhere similar.  That’s not to say the white kids in the audience did either, but maybe they related to his nihilism, his dark sense of humor. Or maybe they just like the way his music sounds.

The absurdity of the Black American experience is at the core of what Vince Staples does. He is a quintessential “black artist”, though he’s too irreverent to claim that title.  As much as I don’t relate to his tales of gangbanging, I do when he talks about culture vultures, or denounces the government, or decries the way he is perceived. I feel him when he raps “I need to fight the power, but I need that new ferrari.” Our central frustration is the same, though it manifests in different ways. That’s something that he fundamentally doesn’t share with the kids in the audience. And yet they were the ones rapping every word back to him, jumping up and down to the most obscure songs in his catalogue. They were the ones yelling back “fuck the police”, though I doubt they’ve ever had a negative experience or any reason to doubt a cop’s intentions.

Walking in, I’d like to have thought that these were simply suburban kids entertained by his dizzying number of hilarious interview they binge-watched on youtube. (His social media presence is much more humorous than his music – if they weren’t attached to the same name I don’t know that I would make the connection, save for the world-weary edge that envelopes both.) Add to that the fact that Vince’s music comes from an aggressively specific perspective, with little desire to sugarcoat, explain, or include others. And yet they still listen, and from what I can tell, they are “real” fans. The only answer I have found thus far is that black music has always had an undeniable allure. It’s incredible, first of all, obviously. But listening to the music may also come with a sense of absolution – you might feel like you’ve done your little piece of fighting the power.

During a part of the concert that I’m sure made its way to YouTube, an audience member asked Vince about his favorite decade of music, in an attempt to goad him into another lecture about the 90s. (The way in which Vince’s hilarious demeanor is being co-opted by many a media outlet is another post for another time. Suffice it to say I’m sure more people have heard him talk about his admiration for Ray J or watched him roast NBA players’ style than actually bought his music.) In response, Vince, obviously fed up, pointed out the pointlessness of all the agonizing around musical eras, when there’s people dying in mass shootings. He pointed out that there’s plenty of rappers who are essentially killing their fans by talking about sipping lean and doing drugs that cause the demise of many, including one of his friends. Although he’s not obnoxious enough to draw a line between himself and “mainstream rappers”, à la Lupe, he clearly does see himself as having a purpose. Maybe that purpose is to bring his experiences and struggles to the consciousness of the white kids jumping up in front of him. Maybe that concert looked exactly like it was supposed to.

Or maybe I’m overthinking all of this. The best moment of the concert came during a break when he got his obedient fans to chant “love my neighbor” and “fuck the police”. As if just then realizing the possibilities, he also got them to raise their white fists in a black power salute, in the name of Malcolm X. As Vince Staples dissolved in a fit of laughter, it seemed to me that he reveled in one of the most powerful titles a black person can have in America – rapper.

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