Echoing James Braxton Peterson (2014), scholar of Africana studies, I understand the hip-hop underground as a black literary concept (or “trope”) that engages in the use of language specific to African American culture as a way to deconstruct dominant white ways of social being. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s (1988) notion of signification (i.e. signifyin[g]) and religious studies hip-hop head Monica Miller’s (2013) spin on the postmodern idea of “linguistic play” are useful to illustrate this notion further, providing a vocabulary that helps us better understand what the hip-hop underground accomplishes as a conceptual maneuver that uses language–namely, irony–as a way to resist white supremacy.

To demonstrate a performance of such transgressive play at work I turn to the cross-racial collaboration that is Run the Jewels—consisting of Brooklyn-bred white underground rapper El-P, and Atlanta-based black underground rapper Killer Mike, both of whom gained more mainstream prominence in the late 2000s by way of their engagement with the underground hip-hop scenes in their respective locales.

Across the span of their three-album catalog, the two veterans of the underground hip-hop scene work to signify on dominant white society’s self-representations through the “verbal mask” of the “crook,” disclosing through irony the pathological predilection toward violence underlying the masks of white respectability in which those holding positions of political dominance so often disguises themselves. By the same token, as I argue in conclusion to this piece, El-P and Killer Mike are holding a mirror to the ways in which we all participate in, and share responsibility for, the crimes of whiteness against humanity.


The Art of Signifyin(g) and Linguistic Play

Also punned on as “signifyin(g),” signification is a rhetorical strategy that finds its inspiration in the folk tradition of the West African (Yoruba) trickster Esu-Elegbara and his derivative, New World equivalent the Signifying Monkey (Gates, 1988). The trickster is an enigmatic figure who stands between two worlds as the mediator of divine and human will, and factors prominently in African and African American folk wisdom as a kind of wise fool and prophet, sought out for insight on matters of ultimate importance in light of its ability to interpret the world of everyday experience through a facility with figurative language, including, but not limited to, such devices as metaphor, irony, parody, satire, and wit.

In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism(1989), Gates defines it as a specifically “black” (read African American) style of discourse that plays on standard English through the filter of African American (read black) vernacular. As he calls it, signifyin(g) is a “trope of tropes” that makes use of figurative language to persuade, insult, praise, repeat, revise, encode, and ultimately self-preserve, particularly in the context of political oppression (Gates, 1988: 67).

Miller sees this “play of language” in hip-hop culture as a means by which to “[recast] everyday uses of words such as nigger, black, and queer” so as to reclaim them for the purposes of survival (43). As Miller has it, the “cultural marketplace” is a charged site of undoing and redoing that can allow for a reclamation of bodies such as that of the “nappy headed ho,” rendered “illegible” (or excluded, invisible, incapable of participation in the body politic/public sphere) by a “cultural superstructure” that operates according to fixed understandings of difference—in terms of class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion—that permit little to no room for its expression in both word and flesh. Through such rhetorical strategies as signifyin(g), the rap artist can perform multiple identities/identifications that cut across lines of difference, particularly that of race.

This is in part because of the fungibility of language, which works as a means by which to index one’s social location within dominant society’s social hierarchy and subvert the status quo through the use of signifiers by which “marginal individuals” self-identify, embodying what black cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal (2001) calls a “post-soul aesthetic”—a concept that arises out of postmodern theory and which concerns the construction of (black) self-identity/ies within the context of de-industrialization, globalization, “cybernization,” the general commodification of black expressive culture as well as the political, social and cultural experiences of black Americans following the civil rights era and Black Power movement (3).

Loaded signifiers such as “bitch,” “n***a,” and “ho” in this way allow for the performance of transgressive identities that upend a whitepolitics of respectability which interprets such self-identifications as evidence of black social pathology (Miller, 2013: 43-44). Miller suggests that these signifiers, contested and contestable though they may be, can be reclaimed and repurposed to disclose “more troubling societal un-wellnesses” that deem certain kinds of bodies—namely, white, heterosexual, male, Christian—more acceptable for inclusion in the (North American) public sphere than others (44).

In other words, as significations on the terms of identity/identification as defined by dominant white culture, such self-representations function to reveal not black, but white social pathology, particularly in terms of a white identity politics of exclusion. Such is the art of “signifyin(g)”—whereby practitioners articulate an ideological critique of dominant society’s representations through a vernacular “double speak,” saying one thing while meaning something else, embodying a tricksteresque guile that liberates them to discursively reclaim and guard their bodies from and against the norms of inclusion in a society that, through “white religion” (Driscoll 2015), that ritually sustains the supremacy of whiteness by granting particular kinds of (white) bodies privileged access to the socioeconomic benefits of self-possession and property-ownership at the expense of other bodies.

Moreover, to explore what this “linguistic play” looks like as an embodied act of protest against the “powers that be,” mediated by the language of “R.A.P. music,” I turn toward the deconstructive work that emcees Killer Mike and El-P–as cross-racial duo Run the Jewels–are accomplishing in their collective embodiment of the “communications revolution” (Peterson, 2014: 29) that is the hip-hop underground. A thorough examination of their oeuvre, beginning with a subtextual analysis of the video for “Nobody Speak”–a joint project with white, Bay Area-based DJ Shadow–should do well to illustrate what’s at “play” in their use of language as a weapon against white supremacy.

“Nobody Speak, Nobody Get Choked” – RTJ Putting Signification at Play (or Work)

By way of illustration, the video for “Nobody Speak” (2016) begins with a shot of what looks like a United Nations-style meeting space in which are gathered a group of mostly white men and women dressed in business attire—what we could interpret to be a convocation of good-will ambassadors, or political delegates, from different countries around the world—seated at a semi-circular wooden table. A bronze, or gold, statue of the earth stands resolutely in the background between national flags lined up like soldiers on each side of the glimmering globe. As the camera closes in on the scene, a twanging guitar riff intones the song before the beat drops and El-P begins the first verse, lip-synched by an older white man in a plain suit and red tie:

Picture this
I’m a bag of dicks
Put me to your lips
I am sick
I will punch a baby bear in his shit
Give me lip
I’ma send you to the yard, get a stick
Make a switch
I can end a conversation real quick

As he’s mouthing these indecent provocations, directed at a suited man sitting directly across from him in the sun-roofed room, the other members of this unidentifiable assembly look at each other in confusion and disgust, caught off guard by the speaker’s pornographic ad lib. His unwitting interlocutor responds in kind, mouthing Killer Mike’s verse:

I am crack
I ain’tlyin’, kick a lion in his crack
I’m the shit, I will fall off in your crib, take a shit
Pinch your momma on the booty
Kick your dog, fuck your bitch
Fat boy dressed up like he’s Santa
And took pictures with your kids

El-P and Killer Mike continue to trade verses, both fronting—true to the personae of the at once valiant and villainous anti-heroes they have created as part of their jewel-thieving rap alter-egos—like a pair of rhyming sociopaths, “[b]urning, pillaging and looting,” as Killer Mike raps, through their lyrical finesse (i.e. signifyin[g]) on the microphone.

As the song continues into the refrain, “Nobody speak, nobody get choked,” the assembly members launch into a fist-a-cuffs with each other, inciting a riotous encounter between all parties in attendance. Captured in slow motion we see flittering in the background, above all of the chaos, a white dove, flapping its wings in a desperate attempt to flee the scene, signifying a failed peace treaty, a forsaken peace offering.

The sequence ends with a disturbing, though comedic, scene of the dueling white protagonists on top of the round table—one standing over the other, ready to stab his defenseless opponent in the throat with the blunt edge of a pole from which is draped the American flag. He stops short of following through with his murderous intention, however, when he sees from the corner of his eye an elderly, light-skinned, presumably (at least by stereotypical appearance) Hispanic,cleaning woman looking on in contempt as if to say, “And you call us ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals.'” (Here I am alluding to what Donald Trump said of Mexicans during one of his campaign stops leading up to his election as United States president in November 2016.)

In this way, she indicts the man—standing there in bewilderment of his own, unconscious violence—for failing to uphold his role as a public figure, less concerned with the well-being of those whom he has been summoned to represent than with his power over them.

I turn toward a subtextual analysis of the video for the song, “Nobody Speak,” because it, alongside the comedically grotesque lyrical content, offers an incisive, through veiled, commentary on the state of political discourse in this country at the conclusion of the Obama presidency and the beginning stages of the reign of President Donald Trump, whose perversions of what it means to be a public figure are caricatured in both lyric and video—as in El-P’s bar when he claims he can “Flame your crew quicker than Trump fucks his youngest” (alluding to some questionable comments Trump made about his daughter Ivanka in a Rolling Stone feature on the man in September 2015).

In an interview with online music magazine Pitchfork Media in January 2017, on occasion of the release of the duo’s third studio album, RTJ 3, the pair discuss, as the subtitle of the article intimates, “the pursuit of hope, liberty and rap glory in the Trump era.” Known and appreciated for the “sulfurous rage aimed at crooked cops and kleptocrats”—subject matter addressed repeatedly in their individual and shared catalogue(s)—both rappers articulate a politics of hope through their engagement with the “linguistic play” of signifyin(g) as they don the role of comic book vigilantes whose disingenuous “don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude belies a sincere concern for the procurement of racial justice in a “pestilential time,” snapshotting “the bleakness and despair [of it without letting] it drag them down.”

In fact, Killer Mike (né Mike Render) found himself on the campaign trail with democratic socialist and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont in 2016, advocating for the man whom he believes sincere in his commitment to civil rights, a commitment Render himself embodies through is advocacy for black voting rights.

Speaking to their dystopian worldview in an historical moment when dystopia seems on the verge of realization under a presidential cabinet that, through the anti-establishment ruse of “draining the swamp,” is operating with the stated intent to deregulate big business, criminalize immigrants (particularly Mexicans and Muslims), disband the Environmental Protection Agency, defund public funding for the Arts, disinvest in public education, and repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the rappers, as noted in the Pitchfork feature, suggest that their music is meant to function as a kind of uplift, calling out political crookery and resisting the oppressor(s) at the same time that it celebrates the human capacity to embrace beauty, even in times of trouble.

This is perhaps no better evinced than in their live, June 15, 2016 performance of “Nobody Speak” on Jimmy Fallon when Killer Mike closes out the track with a shout out to “all the victims of violence from Chicago to Orlando” as El-P flashes a rainbow heart patch from the inside of his black jean jacket.

An obvious reference to the police killings of unarmed American blacks and a lack of police accountability in a corrupt American criminal justice system, as well as the terrific mass shooting at the gay night club Pulse on June 12, 2016, this dedication is emblematic of the underlying thrust of their low-down and dirty art of signifyin(g), which plays the dozens with powerful elites through the indecent identities El-P and Killer Mike perform collectively as Run the Jewels, an ironic variation on myth of Robin Hood and Little John, calling out corruption as it manifests in the “fuckboy” mentality of “FUBAR [Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition] rulers getting rich” without pretending to be innocent themselves—as evidenced in their banger “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” when El-P and Killer Mike trade the following verses:

El-P: “C’est la vie, girl, when in Rome / I gave the face, please pay with dome / My business card says you’re in luck / I do two things, I rap and fuck”

KM: “I fuckin’ rap / I tote the strap / I smoke the kush / I beat the puss / I read the books, did the math / Don’t need a preacher preachin’ on my behalf”

By signifyin(g) on the “FUBAR” status of those who claim power at the level of the State—“Fuck the law, they can eat my dick, that’s word to Pimp”—through their self-professed arrogance as subversive “fuckboys” in their own right, Run the Jewels pinpoint the underlying hypocrisy of a social system predicated on a deceitful politics of respectability that betrays a deep-seeded sociopathology, or “white religion” (Driscoll, 2015): a structurally engrained habit of ritually instrumentalizing the human person, particularly the black body, for the sake of profit in a way that further distinguishes the haves (whites) from the have-nots (non-whites).

By way of such signifyin(g), El-P and Killer Mike reclaim their bodies through a professed hedonism that works to take the power back, putting an end to political “fuckboys” by in a sense becoming “fuckboys” themselves, as when Killer Mike raps: “That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled /  Fuckboy jihad, kill infidels / Allah Akbar, BOOM, from Mike and El.” In this regard, Run the Jewels embody this thing called the hip-hop underground—a sensibility subversive of the status quo that is articulated through the vernacular of rap music, “rooted/routed,” as Peterson (2014) intimates, in an ongoing tradition of African American cultural responses to the legacy of slavery in America—that is, a “communications revolution” (29).

The Racial Politics of Jewels-Running Thievery 

I turn toward Run the Jewels in demonstrating the hip-hop underground at work because I think the racial makeup of the duo is significant for what the hip-hop underground, and white engagement of it, accomplishes as a method/ology for disidentifying with a politics that ensures white racial supremacy at the level of the State.

In the case of Run the Jewels, we have two MCs—”one black, one white, we shoot to kill”—practicing the hip-hop underground via the shared lexicon of rap music, a variation on African American Vernacular English, crossing a racial divide through a process of identification that reveals the malleability of racial identity as it is embodied in the act of signifyin(g). Inasmuch as this is true, which I believe it is, then the two thieves have something to teach us about negotiating the boundaries of race in the performance of the hip-hop underground as both theory, or “concept scheme” (Jackendoff, 2009Peterson, 2014), and cultural move (Gray, 2005; Peterson, 2014), or practice.

Both MCs act on each other in enunciating their identities through the linguistic play of rap music and, in so doing, act on the category of race, defying the normative social scripts associated with hip-hop’s standard racial hierarchy—an inversion of dominant society’s racial representations—whereby people of color occupy the highest rungs of the social ladder, particularly in terms of cultural capital (Harrison, 2009: 111).

Not only is the duo engaging the hip-hop underground as a method of cross-racial identification, but also as a means of redefining the terms of inclusion within both hip-hop and dominant cultures by the very fact of their identification, mediated as it is by a cultural practice rooted/routed in black self-formation. By dint of the duo’s racial makeup, it upends those racial ideologies, or (hip-hop) essentialisms, that hold to a stringent racial identity politics which cannot hold room for white folks in hip-hop. Rather, through their camaraderie, Run the Jewels give witness to the possibilities for cross-racial collaboration inherent in hip-hop, as an at once global and local, i.e. “glocal” (Alim et al. 2009), practice that unsettles what we take to be normative both within hip-hop culture and in dominant society as well.

In this way, they embody the kind of “strategic anti-essentialism” (Lipsitz, 1994) of which sociologist Nitasha Tamar Sharma (2010) speaks in her study of South Asian American underground hip-hop artists. Riffing on literary theorist Giyatri Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism” by which “individuals and groups may choose to emphasize their common history and interest […] to build unity around common needs and desires,” ethnic studies scholar George Lipsitz (1994) articulates the concept of “strategic anti-essentialism” as a practice of playing on the “fluidity of identities” in order to express “an aspect of one’s identity that one can not [sic] express directly” (62).

In the context of Sharma’s (2010) study, she observes the ways in which desi rappers, including queer-identified female desis, draw upon black cultural formation through the most relevant expression of it at this time, hip-hop, in order to construct an “alternative desiness” rooted in “interminority solidarity” and a “global race consciousness” which functions to reconceptualize race as a “shared ideology and consciousness of how power operates through racism” (Sharma, 2010: 3-5).  Sharma (2010) identifies this as “racialized hip hop” inasmuch as it “addresses inequalities and injustices against minorities” (12).

Taken together, El-P and Killer Mike engage the hip-hop underground through a “strategic anti-essentialism” that enacts “discursive transcoding” (Kellner and Ryan, 1988; Lipsitz 1994): “an indirect expression of alienations too threatening to express directly” behind the masks of “thieves” in order to proffer “a critique of mainstream middle-class Anglo-Saxon America” (55) as well as the powerful elites concerned with maintaining the supremacy of whiteness through the exclusionary practices of “white religion” (Driscoll, 2015).

Such masking, as Peterson (2014) notes in his reading of the Fugees’ “The Mask,” off of their 1996 hit The Score, “assists” the artists in the “daily navigation of public spaces” (29). As with the narrators on The Fugees’ track, the members of Run the Jewels “camouflage their identities” so as to “interact with the people whom they do not trust” (Peterson, 2014: 29).

As noted above, they accomplish this through language, articulated through the “verbal-vernacular” of African American English (AAE/AAVE), or Ebonics, that Peterson links to the fluid movement of black bodies through the Underground Railroad, the subway system, as well as those underground spaces imagined by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright in their respective literary works, thus “[deterritorializing] mainstream conceptions of space” (29).

For his part, meanwhile, El-P deploys “discursive transcoding” to “[air] feelings of marginality and contestation” (Lipsitz, 1994: 55)—themes resonant in his solo catalogue—through his conscious white engagement of black cultural production, enacting a kind of racial self-reflexivity by way of the “discursive transcoding” that the linguistic play of rap music facilitates. Through such engagement, El-P makes a “cultural move” (Peterson, 2014; Gray, 2005), performing a transgressive white identity that gives more than mere lip service to the culture which created rap music, even as his whiteness fails to abdicate him of responsibility–of taking ownership over “being wrong” (see “A Report to Shareholders,” below)–for the crimes committed in the name of whiteness against his closest of brethren: Killer Mike.

Indeed, his first collaboration with Killer Mike on the critically-acclaimed album R.A.P. Music (2012)—the acronym standing for Rebellious African People (which, in addition to the RTJ trilogy, he produced)—addresses social issues such as urban deindustrialization, police profiteering, mass incarceration, unsanctioned government surveillance, and the socioeconomic devastation wrought by the drug war and Reagan’s policy of trickle-down economics (i.e. “Reaganomics”) that disproportionately affect communities of color.

Run the Jewels take up these issues on their own shared terms with the aid of fellow “racialized” rappers (Sharma 2010), including Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de La Rocha, whose appearance on RTJ2’s “Close Your Eyes (And Count  to Fuck)” and RTJ3’s “A Report to the Shareholders/Killer Your Masters” amplifies the cross-racial fertilization that can and does take place in hip-hop culture. Accordingly, the duo explode the boundaries of race at the same time that they deploy blackness, by way of the hip-hop underground, as an ideological disposition toward the world.

Such a stance functions as a critique of whiteness as a “god-idol” (Driscoll 2015), worshiped through practices of the colonial “powers that be” which rely on a police force, militarized in the 20th Century by the Clinton Crime Bill of 1994, to coerce communities of color into a kind of unwilling submission to the profiteering whims of the corporatized State, operating the levers of the prison industrial complex that devours black bodies in particular. Killer Mike raps thus on “A Christmas Fucking Miracle” (RTJ 2012):

The powers that be even offered up reprieves
Told us they ain’t take us out if we bow to our knees
But they can give that to the kings and the queens
And the worshipers of idols and followers of things
Cause I would rather be in the jungle with the savages

To this, KM adds: “It’s kill or be killed, and I’m working with the averages / My professor emeritus / Say we been cursed being brought to the AmeriKKKas.”

El-P raps in the same vein on the RTJ 2 (2014) cut “Early”—a sobering reflection on racialized violence in a divided America where unarmed African American bodies, such as that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, are rendered disposable by dint of the criminality associated with them in the white racial imagination:

I made it in the dark like Civil War surgery / Woke up in the same air you huff, early / By twelve o’clock the whole Earth felt dirty / Street Lamps stare when you walk watch the Birdie / They’ll watch you walk to the store they’re recording / But didn’t record cop when he shot, no warning / Heard it go pop, might have been two blocks / Heard a kid plus pops watched cop make girl bleed / Go to home, go to sleep, up again early

In a further reflection on state-sanctioned, racialized violence, El-P and Killer Mike enlist the aid of Zach de la Rocha to offer a scathing commentary on the nature of police brutality as vivified in the music video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” which features two individuals—a white police officer and a young black male—engaged in a wrestling match which takes them from the street of an unidentified project block into an apartment bedroom, signaling a kind of homoerotic undercurrent that runs through the dramatic sequence.

The implication here is that white violence functions as a form of warped sexual intimacy whereby desire and disgust conflate at the site of the black male body—that which is deemed abject, criminal, “super-predatorial,” in the white racial imaginary. The video’s imagery suggests that black bodies are fucked by law enforcement, rendering the black male a castrated servant to the State.

By the same token, the video ends with the two individuals at a relative stand-still, each person sitting on opposite sides of a queen-sized bed, huffing and puffing in an exhausted daze of a seemingly post-coital refractory period, implying that indeed both individuals—white as well as black—are fucked by the State, oppressed by conditions that leave them both in bondage to a system that transmogrifies them into cogs of a well-oiled, corporately-geared money machine.

Together, El-P and Killer Mike engage in the hip-hop underground as a means of racializing “R.A.P.” music and of signifyin(g) on the themes of bondage and freedom that resonate within the hip-hop underground as a “conceptual structure” (Jackendoff, 2009; Peterson, 2014).

In this vein, during National Public Radio’s February 2017 Tiny Desk Concert, the two rappers remind their audience members that they were born free with a performance of “A Report to Shareholders” off of the third installment of their RTJ trilogy, released in December 2016. The song is an ode to a brotherhood that revolves around their shared suspicion of the world as it is, particularly in terms of political corruption and the racialized struggle for power.


And I’m scared that I talk too much about what I think’s going on
I got a way with this, they might drag me away for this
Put me in a cage for this, I might pay for this
I just say what I want like I’m made for this
But I’m just afraid some days I might be wrong
Maybe that’s why me and Mike get along
Hey, not from the same part of town, but we both hear the same sound coming
And it sounds like war
And it breaks our hearts
When I started this band, didn’t have no plans, didn’t see no arc
Just run with the craft, have a couple laughs
Make a buck and dash, yeah
Get a little dap like “Yeah I’m the fucking man!”, yeah
Maybe give a little back like, “Here, I do what I can”
It’s all jokes and smoke ‘till the truth start schemin’
Can’t contain the disdain for y’all demons
You talk clean and bomb hospitals
So I speak with the foulest mouth possible
And I drink like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical
I will not be confused for docile
I’m free, motherfuckers, I’m hostile


Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gon’ win
It could all be over tomorrow, kill our masters and start again
But we know we all afraid, so we just simply cry and march again
At the Dem Conven my heart broke apart when I seen them march mommas in
As I rap this verse right now, got tears flowing down my chocolate chin
Told the truth and I’ve been punished for it, must be a masochist ‘cause I done it again

“Ooh, Mike said ‘uterus’”
They acting like Mike said, “You a bitch”
To every writer who wrote it, misquoted it,
Mike says, “You a bitch, you a bitch, you a bitch”
Add a “nigga” for the black writer that started that sewer shit
I maneuver through manure like a slumdog millionaire
El-P told me, “Fuck them devils, Mike, we gon’ be millionaires”
I respond with a heavy, “Yeah”
Big bruh says, “Fuck that, toughen up
Stay ready, write raw raps, shit rugged rough”
The devil don’t sleep, us either
El spits fire, I spit ether
We the gladiators that oppose all Caesars
Coming soon on a new world tour
Probably play the score for the World War
At the apocalypse, play the encore
Turn around, see El, and I smile
Hell coming, and we got about a mile
Until it’s over I remain hostile

Though they are not, as El-P indicates, from the same part of town (i.e. though they come from different cultural-racial backgrounds), the duo find common ground in the “same sound coming” (i.e. hip-hop), which for them stretches across an “arc” of three albums—RTJ, RTJ 2, and RTJ 3—that is “all jokes and smoke ’til the truth start schemin'” to “oppose all Caesars.”

“One Black, One White, We Shoot to Kill”: On the “Brotherhood” of Cross-Racial Exchange in the Underground and its Challenge to the Whiteness of the White Body

In the volume, Everything But the Burden: What White People Take from Black Culture (2003), contributor Carl Hancock Rux offers a critical response to Norman Mailer’s 1959 essay, “The White Negro,” in which the white social critic essentialized blackness as a site of expressive sexuality and anti-authoritarian cool that defies white rigidity, yet which can be taken up by the white hipsters in their turn toward black primitivism as a survival strategy in a totalitarian era of existential angst (30). Rux notes that what constituted hipness in the mid-twentieth century, constellated as it was around a caricatured blackness in the white American imaginary, is now articulated through a hip-hop stylized blackness associated with rebellion and located in the urban ghetto.

His key insight, applicable here, is that white performances of blackness as emblematized in the super-stardom of “new white negroes” such as Eminem says more about whiteness than it does about blackness, particularly in terms of how whites deploy race to perform disposable racial identities. (Indeed, that does say something about the “black magic” of “white religion”!) Through such minstrelsy, race difference is decontextualized, depoliticized and, in some ways, deracialized (i.e. rendered blind of itself) in a commercial landscape where blackness can be taken up by non-blacks without the burden that race signifies in the experiences of blacks themselves (Jones, 1963).

In a word, Rux writes that the “new White Negro—like Eminem—has not arrived at black culture…He has arrived at white culture with an authentic performance of whiteness, influenced by a historical concept of blackness” (37). What Rux is arguing here is that white hip-hop practitioners represent dominant white culture’s representation of comical, surreal, primitive blackness that, despite having been “socialized as black,” or culturally conditioned by blackness, only works to replace black culture with a re-imagined whiteness that decontextualizes the whole concept of race at the same time that it reinforces it as a category of identity (28). In this way, white rappers can borrow from and identify with black culture without taking responsibility for the actuality of race as a lived experience of difference for those marked as non-white—hence, they take on “everything but the burden [of being black].”

Rux’s wisdom in this regard offers a sobering check on unexamined white identifications with black culture and indeed throws into a crisis of meaning white engagement of the hip-hop underground—as well it should. However, when done self-reflexively, as noted above, appropriation can work as an act of cultural contribution. Similar to what Gayle Wald (1997) says of Janis Joplin’s appropriation of black blues women’s sexuality in her self-fashioning as the impolite, transgressively female alter-ego “Pearl,” there are white performers (or, in the case of El-P, rappers) who reflect “an ambivalent dissidentification with whiteness” through, as noted above, “discursive transcoding,” which Wald, echoing Lipsitz (1994: 53), defines as “the process by which white artists ‘disguise’ their own subjectivities in order to ‘articulate desires and subject positions’ that they cannot express in their own voices” (158).

El-P in many ways embodies this process insofar as he engages with/in black culture, via his immersion in hip-hop, as a “source of cultural self-fashioning” because it has “nurtured and sustained ‘moral and cultural alternatives to dominant values'” and served as an “important source of education and inspiration to alienated and aggrieved individuals cut off from other sources of oppositional practice'” (Lipsitz, 1994: 54). Moreover,  not only does El-P act upon black american culture, but African American culture acts upon him, sharpening the racialized lens through which he views the world, as in his verse on “Early.”

Whereas Ward casts Joplin’s appropriation of black blues female sexuality as a romanticization of black culture that echoes Mailer’s celebration of black sexual potency, I am hesitant to reduce El-P’s loyalty to the “black art” of hip-hop as a mere act of what cultural critic Eric Lott (2013) would call “celebration and exploitation” or “love and theft” that at once crosses and reinforces racial boundaries through its instrumentalization of blackness, or black (male) identity, for the purposes of white (male) identity formation.

Here, Michael Eric Dyson’s (1998) concept of a “post-appropriationist paradigm of cultural and racial exchange” is useful for parsing out the importance of cross-racial collaborations such as we find in the case of Run the Jewels, whose members demonstrate the possibility for “the revisioning of whiteness through the prism of black cultural practices, especially as white subjectivities are reconceived and recast in the hues of transgressive blackness” (Dyson in Chennault, 1998: 321).

As Dyson makes clear, in terms of white appropriations of blackness (or black culture/cultural idioms), it is instructive to consider “[w]hat uses [whites] have made of blackness”: “How has blackness allowed them to alter dominant modes of whiteness? How have their knowledge and cultural practices pitted ontological contents of racial identity against strictly biological or phenotypic ones?” (Dyson in Chennault, 1997: 321).

El-P’s involvement with Killer Mike provides us with one such instance where our essentialist (biological/phenotypic) notions of racial identity are deconstructed and reconstructed in favor of a more porous notion of identity that opens up space to talk about white engagement of the hip-hop underground not only as an epistemological stance, but a strategy for repositioning oneself ontologically—that is, in terms of how one chooses “to be” in/for/against the world.

Run the Jewels is emblematic of the fertility inherent in hip-hop’s cross-racial associations as it points us to the kind of “brotherhood” that is possible when black cultural practices such as that of the hip-hop underground work to create a kind of “differentiated whiteness” (Dyson in Chennault, 1998: 320) or “differentiated white identity” for white practitioners such as El-P. It is in this vein that, proceeding Jeff Weiss’ interview with Run the Jewels, the Atlanta-born rapper could say to the Pitchfork contributor about El-P: “Making [RTJ3] with my friend in there, I learned what an ally was. I learned what a brother was. This has meant more to me than even I knew.” I’d imagine that if this is true, then El-P learned what it means to be an ally, as “A Report to Shareholders” implies, in conversation with his partner in crime.

In this way, a “post-appropriationist paradigm of cultural and racial exchange” provides a theoretical platform, as Dyson (Chennault, 1997) seems to suggest, for interrogating the ways in which whiteness and blackness, or, more specifically, white identity and black identity, co-constitute one another. Such a paradigm not only “accents” the symmetries of white-black collaboration within a specific cultural practice, but also the imbalance of power relations and potential trouble-spots in such association (Dyson in Chennault, 1997).

On this note, their “brotherhood” does not call for an unquestioning celebration of multiculturalism intrinsic in hip-hop culture(s). Rather, it calls for white diligence in terms of recognizing that any white identification with black culture is always already ambivalent, especially given the fact of white privilege and the ways it permits whites the luxury of picking up a non-white cultural practice without assuming the burden that comes with being ethnically or racially identified with said culture.

In the case of Run the Jewels, it is true that El-P’s association with black cultural creativity does not happen in a vacuum of decontextualized, sentimental, and imagined cross-racial association. It happens in friendship with Killer Mike, which is not to instrumentalize the Atlanta rapper, nor his blackness, but to suggest the the real work of allyship takes shape within the context of  community across the proverbial “color line” (Du Bois, 1994).

Their “brotherhood” prompts us, particularly whites who identify with the blackness of African American culture, to reflect upon the ways in which such cross-racial association can function to signify upon white identity so that whites might see their own whiteness “reflected b(l)ack upon” (Dyson, 1993) upon themselves in a constructively self-scrutinizing light–one which might prompt white practitioners of black American culture to recognize that the “white devils” to whom both rappers direct their disdain is indeed a reflection of the white devil that is within the social body writ large. Thus, in the end, it is not simply a “them” who is being signified upon, but an “us.”


Chennault, Ronald. “Giving Whiteness a Black Eye: An Interview with Michael Eric Dyson.” In ed. Joe L. Kincheloe, et al. White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.

Driscoll, Christopher. White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minnesota: University of MN Press, 1993.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Jones, Leroi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: QUILL, 1963.

Lipsitz, George. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place. New York: Verson, 1994.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Miller, Monica. Religion and Hip Hop. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Peterson, James Braxton. The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Rux, Carl Hancock. “Eminem: The New White Negro.” In ed. Greg Tate, Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. New York: Harlem Moon / Broadway Books. 15-38.

Sharma, Nitasha Tamar. Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Wald, Gayle. “One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender, and Popular Music Studies.” In ed.      Mike Hill, Whiteness: A Critical Reader. New York: NYU Press, 1997. 151-167.