Robert Clift Looks at Racial Identity in Hip-Hop Music

Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, airing in February on public television, explores the tension between white racial identity and black cultural propriety at a time when hip-hop is redefining American life. Filmmaker Robert Clift recounts some of the questions he received about the film and what it was like working with white rappers — including Vanilla Ice. Read his take below.

C-Note of Too White Crew performs at the Bluebird in Bloomington, Ind.

In the years leading up to this film’s release, I’ve wondered, like any filmmaker, how people were going to react to it. Thanks to Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl show, fines from the FCC was a top concern for many at PBS, and the topic of my film lent itself to some objectionable language. So for years while my film waited for an audience, I fielded people’s questions and comments.

“When am I going to see it?”
“White kids and hip-hop? You’re doing a film about wiggers?”
“Don’t you think we’re past this already?”
“Is that what my kid is doing?”
“It’s going to be on PBS?”
“Did you really interview Vanilla Ice?”

First, yes, I did really interview Vanilla Ice, and yes, he really did consent to the interview. To be honest, I found his cooperation surprising. Getting white people to talk about race was perhaps the most difficult part of making this film, and that difficulty doubled when it came to white rappers. I would have loved to interview Eminem, for example, but I had little success with anything but being brushed off by his handlers. The perception was that he had too much to risk. Too many people, too many hip-hop magazines, some of which were started by white people, might use it as an opportunity to go after him.

Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity airs February on public television (check local listings)

The perception that race, as a topic for discussion, is bad for business is one that I encountered with every white rapper I spoke to with a market to their name. So those with a fan base that did agree to be in this film the people –– Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, and some of the others –– deserve some credit for putting the topic of the film above the safety of avoiding it. By doing so, I hope that they, along with all the film’s participants, are given a sincere listening to by viewers. Even Vanilla Ice, who has been at the butt of the joke for so long that his appearance in a television show has the effect of a laugh track, deserves credit. He’s the kind of person who just puts himself out there –– without thinking too much of the consequences. That may be naïve, but I think his perspective should be taken into account, at the very least because it is forthright.

In talking about my film with those that have not yet seen it, there is all too often a kneejerk response to side either for or against whites in hip-hop, as if the topic were as simple as choosing sides in a football game –– on one side, the color-blind participants, who just love the music for what it is; on the other side, the racists, who are mimicking, mocking, romanticizing, and capitalizing on it. Rarely is it so straightforward. Take the characters in the film and give thought to what they’re doing –– Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, Vanilla Ice, Too White Crew, Crack’d Owt, and Empire Isis, an aspiring female rapper from Bloomington, Indiana, who had to leave her high school after receiving death threats for “acting black.” They may all be white, but they’re not all simply racist or color-blind.

Robert Clift
Filmmaker of Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity