settling back in the couch,I'm getting down to NWA on Much. I'm just getting comfortable when the video credits come on, and it's not NWA at all, but *NSYNC's Pop!, those bad muthas, singing, "It don't matter 'bout the clothes I wear or the ice around my neck," tearing open their shirts to show off the bling-bling.
They've adopted that gangster hand thing, swinging the arms outward from the body, that's so hard to imitate without looking like a fool. Their faces scowl in defiant challenge. I think to myself, "This is all getting out of hand."
I start noticing it everywhere. During a MuchMusic interview, the Backstreet Boys look as if they've rifled through Sean "P-Diddy" Combs' castoffs, and they delicately drop the subtlest of Ebonics-flavoured phrases, nonchalantly moving their hands in wide arcs in front of their faces.
I'd already seen white pop performers like the B-Girl-clad Gwen Stefani and corn-rowed Christina Aguilera racing to perform with hiphop ladies like Missy Elliott, though I'd thought nothing of it. It's a good thing, this crossover movement. But out-and-out impersonation?
Whassup? American pop-culture rebel heroes have always owed great debts to blackness. Says Rinaldo Walcott, a professor of African-Canadian studies at York University and editor of Pop Can: Popular Culture In Canada, "People of colour in North America have continued to live with pleasure under adverse conditions, and there is an attraction to the kinds of pleasure they make," he says.
"(It's about) a whole series of signs and signals around how people talk, how they dress, that supposedly hearkens back to this thing that we imagine is blackness. It's a kind of hipness that commercial culture is invested in selling."
But he's not as cynical as I am. "Every white kid perceived as performing blackness may be forming a genuine multicultural politic," he says.
Canadian rapper Maestro, formerly Maestro Fresh Wes, shows the same generosity. As a Canadian artist, he has always played to audiences that are primarily white, as is his DJ. "Hiphop has a way of bringing love and unity together," he tells me. "You've got to understand, hiphop is rock and roll -- it's the spirit of rebellion. You can't put a boundary on the love of the art form. White kids are hiphop, they grew up with it. My people have a fascinating culture, and white people are drawn to it."
Of Eminem, everyone's favourite opponent of "political correctness', Maestro says, "I don't care if he's black or white -- he's dope."
Walcott takes a more cultural-studies approach, noting that whenever black cultural forms enter the mainstream, "a Euro-American superstar" emerges. He then adds casually, "There's a continuum between black-face minstrelsy and Eminem."
He directs me to Eric Lott's Love And Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy And The American Working Class. Lott writes that "to wear or even enjoy blackface was to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood." (Black women evidently had to wait for R&B and lady rappers like Li'l Kim to put them on this dubious cultural map.)
While there may once have been something called white guilt about all of this, there now exists white shame. The price white folks pay for privilege is vulnerability to ridicule for being so hideously uncool. The main symptom of white shame is acute embarrassment. Once, at a party full of English majors dancing to Bob Marley's Legacy, I remember my white gangsta-listening boyfriend cringed in mortification, whispering, "White kids gettin' irie."
Another telltale sign of white shame is excessive irony -- for example, white kids grinding to funk band Parliament at a "pimps and hos" party, sporting rented afros and outfits that look like they were stolen from Ike Turner's garage sale.
Then there's the use of Ebonics among urban white people. Witness "Tarzan Dan" of Toronto's Kiss 92 as he exclaims, "We've got some Destiny's Child for you, yo!" and greets female callers with a "What up, girl?" When I ask the program director, Julie Adams, about it, she insists the DJs are not instructed by management to adopt hiphop vernacular. They come by it honestly, she says, as a result of "listening to the music and being involved in that scene."
It's not like white people are taking over rap or anything. As Court Jester, host of the CIUT urban radio show Worldwide points out, talented hiphop producers are both raking in the cash writing "edgy" songs for bubble-gum acts like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys and remixing those songs with surprisingly popular results. "It cuts both ways," he says.
But don't shed tears of racially harmonious happiness just yet. After all, record sales don't translate into political clout. Popular politicians are still resurrecting references to African natives and boiling pots. Says Walcott, "If cops in Toronto were to shoot four black men tonight, you wouldn't see thousands of white youths on the streets protesting, regardless of what kind of music they listen to."