The other day, Jon Caramanica of the NYT checked out the “TiK ToK” singer’s rap credentials, situating her in a lineage of white-girl rappers from Debbie Harry to Peaches to Lady Sov. Caramanica argues that, while Ke$ha is a rapper, she’s also a pop artist, and this has larger implications for how we think about blackness, whiteness, rap and hip hop–namely, that while rap and hip hop as genres and musical practices used to be only “black,” now they are so common, pervasive and popular that people like Ke$ha are redefining them as “white,” too. He places Ke$ha within the burgeoning white-lady-electro-rap trend.
Take a listen to the first bit of the song:
As an aside, I personally think her flow sounds a lot like Fergie’s and wonder why that wasn’t discussed more. Anyway.
I think it’s obvious to anyone that Ke$ha does, in fact, rap during this song. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a rapper per se (and neither would Latoya Peterson over at Jezebel). Here’s why.
Along with Caramanica, I think it’s pretty clear that rap used to be considered a black-only practice, but is now more culturally acceptable for white people to do (though this is, of course, often contentious). I also agree that “TiK ToK” has quite a lot of rapping in it but is not a “rap song” per se. Why? Because she’s white, she’s female and because it’s being used the way dance-pop songs are used and marketed the way dance-pop songs are marketed.
Latoya Peterson attributes the music business’ classification of Ke$ha as a pop artist as “intentional mis-labeling” that speaks to a larger “fear of [racial] cross-pollination” in musical genres–i.e., hip hop=”black” and pop=”white” and ne’er the twain shall meet. Which is, of course, the way it was quite explicitly for a long time and still is, implicitly.
I don’t think it’s mislabeling, though. Rapping per se does not make one a “rapper.” Just as someone who plays a violin can be a classical violinist, a fiddler, a klezmer, a “trad player,” or what have you depending on the musical scene they’re a part of, someone who raps is not necessarily a rapper. Because Ke$ha, her handlers, and the musical public don’t attribute to her the other qualities that people generally associate with “rappers”–blackness, maleness, urban poverty, flashy stuff–she’s not a rapper.
This shows why genre classifications are pretty useless much of the time, and can often serve to reify nasty ideas about race, gender, class and all the rest. When we define a genre as the exclusive provenance as a particular type of person, and censure those who don’t conform as somehow inauthentic, we run into a whole bunch of problems. The homophobia in hip hop, for example, is connected to constructing that genre as the provenance of macho black misogynist masculinity–which, of course, is not the only type of black masculinity (nor, lots of people would argue, a positive type of black masculinity).
Ke$ha raps, yes. There are also lots of other influences on her song, just as there are on almost every other song, ever. Peterson spotlights the myriad ways in which contemporary musicians have crossed the imaginary and rather silly borders of genre in the past couple years:
It is this environment that allows for Lil’ Wayne to cut a rock track like “Prom Queen,” that gives space to hip-hop violinists like Miri-Ben Ari, Sarina, and Nuttin But Stringz, to allow neo-soul crooners like Van Hunt to sing ballads and then thrash on guitars, and have one of the most downloaded albums of the decade be a mash-up between Jay-Z and the Beatles. We are in a world where the K-pop sensation The Wonder Girls can open for the All-American Jonas Brothers, and where traveling DJs take Baltimore House and Baile Funk all over the globe, while artists like M.I.A, Esthero and Nelly Furtado dabble in any and every genre they please.
Genre can be helpful in certain ways, most notably to record labels and music-store clerks who have to organize things. But given that so many artists so openly acknowledge the diverse influences on their work, and given that the internet and digital media more broadly is giving so many people access to tons of new sounds, why bother forcing people and things into narrow categories?
I’m personally more interested in looking at the many ways in which musicians and listeners are part of multiple communities at the same time, and all of the sources from which they draw inspiration–not policing the boundaries of a small, boring genre box and worrying when things don’t fit neatly inside.