If your first exposure to black people is through rap music, chances are you might be in a little over your head. That’s certainly what happened to me and my friends at our Jewish private school when I was growing up in Los Angeles. We didn’t really know what to do with rap, so we tried to take its power away by changing the way it sounded. One of the ways we’d do this was to pretend rappers spoke “properly,” just like we did. “I enjoy big pimping and spending cheese”… you get the picture. Needless to say, even though I loved rap music a whole lot, this was insanely racist. I outgrew this phase, thankfully, and began to try to see rap on its own terms. So you can imagine my horror upon seeing this same concept being celebrated by the suddenly-huge Respectful Rappers Tumblr.
Respectful Rappers has blown up in all the ways Tumblrs generally blow up these days — a little BuzzFeed here, a little A.V. Club there, and suddenly you’re getting thousands of Tumblr notes for each piece of content you churn out. And what is Respecftul Rappers’ content? Imagine Feminist Ryan Gosling, with pictures of rappers laid out over re-imagined lyrics. There are a handful of white rappers featured, but the majority are black — and what matters here is that this Tumblr’s content does is ridicule black speech.
Not that Respectful Rappers will admit this. Instead, its stated goal is to imagine what would happen “[i]f rappers were a little less angry and misogynistic.” On the latter point, our society as a whole is still insanely misogynistic, and rap exists within that society, so sure. There have been many fascinating discussions throughout the years about misogyny within rap, like bell hooks’ interview with Ice Cube in Spin 20 years ago. But Respectful Rappers is not a part of these discussions, because unlike hooks’ interview, it starts with the premise that rappers are dumb.
Wouldn’t it be hysterical, Respectful Rappers intones, if rappers spoke like you and me? It’s not really shocking that the blog’s creators, Bob Vulfov and Eli Grober, are white and claim to “love rap,” just like I did when I was 13. They use “respectful” as a code word, a dog whistle for “white.” What purpose does it serve to imagine if N.W.A. had said, “Police brutality is very real, and we will not stand for it” instead of “Fuck the police”? None, unless you think that Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren and the rest were incapable of saying that in the first place. These people couldn’t think of the right words, so we did it for them. That’s the joke!
In 2007, then-Senator Joe Biden got in trouble for using the word “articulate” to describe then-Senator Barack Obama. “What faint praise, indeed,” wrote Lynette Clemetson for the New York Times. “Being articulate must surely be a baseline requirement for a former president of The Harvard Law Review. After all, Webster’s definitions of the word include “able to speak” and ‘expressing oneself easily and clearly.’ It would be more incredible, more of a phenomenon, to borrow two more of the senator’s puzzling words, if Mr. Obama were inarticulate.” Similarly, in an essay called “Why I Hate Being Articulate” for the Black Youth Project, a young author named Edward describes how in his experience he “come across far too many white people who use the word to compliment a black person for speaking ‘standard’ English.”
Respectful Rappers flips that script, depicting all rappers as sex-crazed idiots who are incapable of speaking in full sentences. In this respect, it’s the latest in a long line of examples of the privileged ridiculing the underprivileged for not being able to “speak properly,” a politicization of language that makes it another means of oppression. Sure, rap isn’t perfect, but what genre of music could possibly satisfy Vulfov and Gruber? They disdain the general concept of anger as much as they do misogyny, and it clearly never occurred to them that rappers could actually choose to speak the way they do, that they might have self-determination.
Anger is a healthy, vital part of music. Respectful Rappers somehow forgets to notice that in “Fuck tha Police,” the entire song is set within a courtroom run by N.W.A (“Judge Dre presiding”), where the group’s members speak in turn to the jury about the oppression they have seen and experienced, and how they hate the police. And yes, they’re angry. But Respectful Rappers pretends that the entire song is its chorus over and over again, and helpfully decides to give these clueless but spunky rappers a helpful lesson in what they’re really talking about. If this blog ever encountered a Trina video, it’d probably self-destroy like a computer in Star Trek forced to answer an impossible question.
I’ll take the Respectful Rappers founders at their word, and believe that they really love rap. But as a fellow white fan of a genre made mostly by people who don’t share our skin color, I’ll also give them a helpful piece of advice: don’t tell people how to say their words. The way rappers speak is part of what makes rap great, just like the way any singer sings influences the song’s quality. If you really love rap, you’ll shut down your dumb, racist Tumblr and listen.