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Vince Staples Challenges White Fans’ Privilege

In Music
STREET PREACHER: Like Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples has made a name for himself with his insightful rhymes.

STREET PREACHER: Like Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples has made a name for himself with his insightful rhymes.

In the era of performative wokeness, it didn’t take long for the Internet to explode in a fit of raging think pieces over the second single from Macklemore’s second LP, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. The eight-minute “White Privilege II” finds the white Seattle rapper taking a long, hard look in the mirror—acknowledging his complicity in cultural appropriation and conceding that he has, and continues to, reap untold benefits simply because he happened to be born with a pale face and blond hair.
On Summertime ’06, an album released a year and a half earlier, a young, black rapper by the name of Vince Staples, finds himself taking an equally long and hard look in the mirror. On “Lift Me Up,” the album’s lead single, Staples ponders his own complicity in in the black-on-black violence and crime that has long plagued his city of Long Beach.

And, not unlike Macklemore, he considers the state of hip-hop—a genre of music created for and by African Americans, which now finds itself catering to an audience that gets whiter with each passing year.

“All these white folks chanting when I ask them, ‘Where my niggas at?’” Staples rhymes pointedly on “Lift Me Up.” “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 targeted line captures a tension in modern hip-hop. The genre has long since crept from its birthplace on downtrodden inner city streets into comfortable two-story suburban homes.

As an artform, hip-hop necessarily operates in the figurative sense. Listeners can draw conclusions about “the streets” that are fundamentally misguided and lacking in nuance. Early rap hits, like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, meditated on sociological issues and portrayed gangster lifestyles like Scorcese did in Goodfellas—savoring the benefits, but also highlighting the immense, long-lasting pitfalls of the dangerous lifestyle.

However, by the late ’90s and early 2000s, gun-toting, drug-dealing kingpins were celebrated in mainstream hip-hop. And somehow, they became my heroes. I watched 50 Cent’s film. I played his video game. I told my public defender mother I wanted to be a pimp—much to her horror.

I thought being a pimp meant being just a really awesome, respected dude. Thirteen-year-old me didn’t want to oversee a stable of prostitutes, I just wanted to embody the bulletproof cool of 50 Cent.

Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar represent a new, and more nuanced strain of gangsta rap. As demonstrated by the aforementioned line from “Lift Me Up,” the mental mining in which Staples is engaging can unearth some rather difficult and unwieldy realizations.

And I celebrate Staples’ ability to balance gritty, unflinching realism with worldly, philosophical rumination. But in my sing-a-long support, I delight in his depictions of the grisly realities that actually killed his friends and drove his loved ones to drugs. I can imagine why my chanting must drive him nuts. He knows that I don’t have the frame of reference to understand his struggle.

When I listen to him, it’s tourism. Through his imagery-laden self-expression, I merely catch a glimpse of things I could never fully understand. As much as I’d like to be in his circle, enjoying complete solidarity with Staples isn’t something I’ve earned, or likely would even want to.
Staples’ rap comes from bleak circumstances. I can’t relate to a lot of it. But I don’t listen to music solely as a reflection of myself. That’s dull and limiting. On his album, Staples paints a meticulous self-portrait within a highly detailed landscape. He drips with disarming authenticity. His raw self-awareness inspires my admiration.

He can’t educate me sufficiently on his own, but he highlights circumstances that I should understand before making social, personal and political decisions that affect people very different from myself. I don’t identify with the precise details of his upbringing, but I can gain from the universal truths he’s culled from his life. And plus, his beats bang.

Next Monday, Staples will open for Logic, a half-black rapper who scans as white with—let’s face it—a lot of white fans. At some point during Staples’ performance, some of those white fans might feel uncomfortable singing along, and that’s fine. After all, in those moments, it’s probably better just to listen.

Vince Staples plays on Apr 11, 7:30pm, $40-$45 at San Jose State Event Center.

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