Tanz, Jason.Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America. New York, NY: Bloomsburg USA, 2007. 272 pp. $24.95 (cloth).

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To be sure, there is no dearth of critical exploration of white male obsession with and love of black masculine cool. Take, for instance, Norman Mailer’s 1957 Dissent essay, “The White Negro,” in which he tried to articulate what he saw as the power blackness had in shaping the language, aesthetic, and psychology of the counter-hegemonic freedom for the white hipster. Not to mention Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1995), a cultural history of how nineteenth century working class white men lost and found themselves in blackface. Or more recently, Greg Tate’s edited collection, Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (2003), and Bakari Kitwana’s Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wangstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America (2005). Thus, Jason Tanz’s Other People’s Property: A Shadow of History of Hip-Hop In White America enters a long critical debate concerning what motivates white people to take ownership of black culture, with hip hop being only the newest installment on a long list of co-opted black cultural artifacts. Tanz depathologizes Mailer’s assumptions about blackness, while also updating and broadening the scope and scale of influence blackness has on mainstream culture. Additionally, he differentiates himself from many contemporary analyses of white appropriation by grounding his analysis in the narratives of white people who grapple with their relationship to black culture and people. This book explores the multifaceted and complex anxieties Tanz believes many white people may have regarding their capacity to love hip hop in the face of American racism and inequity.

Tanz begins Other People’s Property by telling his readers what he will do: provide—from a white, male perspective—a “shadow history” of the relationship between hip hop’s white, male audience and that audience’s assumptions, emotions, and subtextual relationships to black culture and black men (xi). He also tells us what he won’t do: give extended attention and deep analysis of women’s role in hip hop or white men’s relationships to hip hop’s misogyny and homophobia (xii). These absences are among the book’s greatest failings because they presume that issues of gender and sexuality can be extracted from discussions of race (and romance). Decades of intersectional theory have proven that such dissection, while appearing to make topics more manageable, often weakens analysis. In light of what Tanz does and doesn’t do, he is bound to both entice some readers and garner a great deal of critique from others.

When taken as a collection of unrequited love stories about white men who love hip hop, Other People’s Property shines. Tanz uses biocriticism to tell a story of black fetishisization and white self-actualization through hip hop. From his first-hand account of being a rider on a safari-like bus tour of hip hop’s South Bronx birthplace to his account of a group of white slackers who find making gangsta rap a creative outlet for their suburban angst, Tanz has a gift for finding characters and treating them respectfully and generously. For instance, his characterization of DJ Gummo, a fellow rider on the Legends of Hip Hop bus tour of the South Bronx who has an encyclopedic knowledge of hip hop history, is as careful and loving as it is critical. Tanz writes, “I understand DJ Gummo’s urge to impress. I’ve met plenty of white rap fans who have a little bit of DJ Gummo in them—indeed, I’m one of them.” Tanz spends the rest of the book meditating on what drives Gummo, himself, and other white men towards their love of hip hop. But like most romances, once one moves past the pathos and sentimentality of love, one finds a much more dynamic and sometimes less flattering tale.

To begin to understand the dynamic tale of white hip hop consumption, at least as it relates to Tanz’s argument, one must assume that hip hop is inherently black music. This notion is central to Tanz’s argument. It is also the thing that traps Tanz within a monolithic understanding of what black culture is and what white culture isn’t. I say this knowing and agreeing with cultural theorist Imani Perry’s assessment that hip hop is black American music. However, even if one believes hip hop is black American at its roots, to critique the people who consume and create hip hop today because they aren’t black Americans is to render the form static, which it has never been. Hip hop has been changing, growing, and moving outside and away from its origins since the beginning. The subway cars that moved early graffiti writing between the New York City boroughs are apt metaphors for hip hop culture’s modernity and mobility.

Stasis, however, allows Tanz’s to imagine a white consumer binary that he embodies in the difference between wiggers and wegroes. “Wiggers,” are drawn to rap because they “seek countercultural flash,” while “wegroes,” are “drawn by the promise of transcending their racial identities” (102). “Wiggers” are fad followers. They are the consumer equivalent of Vanilla Ice. “Wegroes,” on the other hand, are a service-oriented group, committed to black racial uplift and disavowal of their own white privilege. That fact that “wegro” is derivative of that antiquated term, negro speaks to the nostalgic nature of Tanz’s racial project. For instance, one of the most confounding narratives of the text is the story of a white man nicknamed Tha Pumpsta (nee Jeremy Parker), who, draped in racial irony, uses hip hop to make himself blacker, according to Tanz (101). Tha Pumpsta throws “Kill Whitie!” parties in Brooklyn, to encourage attendees to “kill the whiteness inside” of them, thereby undermining the white power establishment. The only problem with these parties, as Tanz notes, is that they end up providing an overwhelmingly white upper-middleclass population the space to engage in a type of racial cross-dressing that strikes many outsiders as neo-minstrelsy. Although he loves hip hop, Tha Pumpsta’s method for fighting the system rests too heavily on stereotypes that arise when we cultivate the black-white racial binary, even when one employs an anti-racist ideology.

Tanz uses Tha Pumpsta, then, as an object lesson in the difficulties white hip hop consumers might encounter as they attempt to navigate between “wegro” and “wigger” status. Yet, even this intra-racial binary perpetuates the notion that white folks are either culture vultures or racial masochist: they either mine blackness for their own pleasure or mine it to feel bad about their whiteness. Either way, there is little room left to imagine a space in which hip hop is part of a long line of black music that is beloved for its artistry, as much as it is appropriated for the outsider status it grants its white listeners. In his attempt to account for the politics of white consumption, Tanz misses the poetics of hip hop.

Ultimately, the evacuation of hip hop’s poetics creates a large gap in Tanz’s book. Focusing on how white listeners and white-owned media outlets have divested hip hop of its “artistic purity” and political agenda, Tanz describes black artists as a group of men “seeking a modicum of respect and financial security” from a “commercial world that had ignored them for so long” (192). This happens to be an assumption about black artists and their work that centralize the white consumer, while neglecting the possibility of black artistic and black consumer agency. In effect, the analytical framework of his work rests on a vicious love triangle in which Tanz neglects the implied “rightful” lover (black consumer), even as he critiques the adulterating other (white consumer).

For Tanz, it’s rather teleological that hip hop music is diluted as it moves into the white mainstream. And there might be an element of truth to his teleology of race and music, but Tanz fails to consider that black consumers could be as equally enamored by the seemingly apolitical lyrics of popular hip hop. Black listeners might be more willing to “crank that” Solider Boy than listen to Talib Kweli. In fact, it just might be that black consumers have always been happy to consume apolitical hip hop. This is not to diminish the possibility of a vast mainstream commercial and cultural machine at work to undermine the political struggles of black equality in the United States, but hip hop was never the only front on which black struggle has been enacted. Moreover, both black artists and consumers are as implicated in dismantling the systems of oppression of which Tanz assumes white hip hop listeners are the sole progenitors and, thus, the only consumers truly in need of self-evaluation. Again, because Tans has given gender and sexuality little analysis throughout the text, he is unable to engage with the growing critical discourse that requires hip hop creators to take responsibility for the homophobia and misogyny that is foundational to the music. Such engagement might have allowed him to create more dynamic, less racially one-sided criticisms of hip hop consumption.

Other People’s Property is best when Tanz writes about white-on-white rap. The narratives of how white men fill in the framework of hip hop with the content of their lives—as is done by nerdcore artists who rap about the problems of being a white nerd over a gangsta rap beat—allow Tanz to illuminate issues of masculinity and power that arise from the cultural exchange between white men and black artists. Unlike the ventriloquism of Tha Pumpsta, white-on-white rap is an artistic innovation in a form that is foundationally innovative. It’s in these biocritical moments that Tanz shows us what is most fascinating and depressing about white hip hop consumers: they just might be a bunch of guys looking for something to love that might move them out of the confines their self-perceived silence and ineptitude.

In the end, one wonders if Tanz’s love story between white men and hip hop music isn’t just another story of white narcissism. One wonders if Tanz isn’t more like Tha Pumpsta than he’d like to admit: a white man looking to save himself by critiquing whiteness and fetishizing a static, monolithic blackness that may have never been. If one truly believes that hip hop is a racially unifying music genre, then it’s hard to agree with Tanz’s closing argument: that “hip hop let’s [white consumers] create a fantasy space in which the old categories of race can be renegotiated, and where we can finally take another step closer to living up to our color-blind ideals” (211). This closing ideal rests too heavily upon the notion that black artists (black people) create art in order to foster the moral development of white consumers. One is left wondering, besides increased record sales, what do black consumers and creators stand to gain for the hip hop exchange?

About the Reviewer: EVE DUNBAR is an Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College. Her research interests include African-American studies, twentieth-century African-American literature, and feminist theory. She is currently at work on a book project—provisionally entitled “Black is Region”—about the influences of American literary regionalism on the writings of those famous mid-twentieth century black American writers who traveled/lived abroad.