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Name: Adam Bernard
Home: Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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Exploring Race & Hip-Hop w/ Jason Tanz
Friday, April 06, 2007

Hip-Hop’s roots are predominantly black, this is a known fact. In 2007, however, a vast number of folks involved in the culture seem to be of a lighter shade. After seeing what was done to Jazz there is an inherent fear that there will be a white appropriation that will do the same to Hip-Hop. Jason Tanz’s new book, Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, takes a close look at the ways in which Hip-Hop has affected white people and how white people have affected Hip-Hop, and this week I sat down with him to talk about the book as well as his thoughts on the subject of race in America.

Adam Bernard: Let’s start out with why you felt the need to write Other People’s Property and why you felt right now was the right time to do it.
Jason Tanz: Well as far as why I felt the need to write it, I’m a business editor, I haven’t written about Hip-Hop a ton professionally, but personally it’s always something that has helped to define who I am and that distance, in some ways, between what I felt my identity was and the way I’ve lived my life always kind of gnawed at me and was always something that I thought about a lot. So when it came time to meet with an agent and talk about book projects this was one that pretty quickly came up as a topic of conversation. Hip-Hop and race, and being a white person listening to Hip-Hop and thinking about race, is something that has defined a lot of my friendships and a lot of my experiences so it kind of made sense that this would just naturally come out. In terms of why now is a good time to write it, it feels like we are reaching a certain point in Hip-Hop’s life cycle, I can remember being in high school and listening to (Ice Cube's) Death Certificate and just thinking “how is this going to become oldies music? How are we going to look at this in 20 or 30 years when this becomes digested and a part of popular culture?” It just seemed so radical and such a break from everything that came before, I couldn’t figure out how we were going to make sense of this and now I think we’re getting to that point where the Hip-Hop story is being canonized and I felt this was an important element of that. In some ways I wanted to get at the urge to canonize Hip-Hop in the book, as well.

Adam Bernard: Who do you feel is the audience for Other People’s Property?
Jason Tanz: I wrote the book essentially for myself and people like me. I think there are a lot of us out there who are Hip-Hop heads but may not find ourselves relating to, for instance, (William) Upski’s Bomb The Suburbs, we didn’t listen to Hip-Hop and immediately start tagging up the playgrounds, we listened to Hip-Hop and incorporated it into our lives. It’s amazing Hip-Hop has maintained this kind of outsider status for 30 years and part of it is because, I think, it plays on some pretty fundamental tensions in American culture and I’m hoping that this gets to people who are interested in a little introspection and who are also interested in a more nuanced look at what Hip-Hop’s real influence has been on how we think about race and vice versa, how we think about race has influenced Hip-Hop.

Adam Bernard: You cover a lot of different aspects of whites in Hip-Hop in Other People’s Property, was there any facet in particular that surprised or shocked you?
Jason Tanz: I wouldn’t say that anything shocked me, but one thing that I thought was notable was that every single person that I spoke with was aware that race is an issue here. One of the narratives of Hip-Hop is that it has led to this post-racial world where people don’t see race anymore and “yes I’m listening to Hip-Hop and does that happen to be by a black person? I didn’t even realize that!” From what I found that’s not the case. Everybody is, of course, aware that they are listening to black narratives and that they are white people listening to black narratives, and it doesn’t take very much to get people to acknowledge that and to have some stance on it. Some people may say “but this doesn’t matter for this or that reason,” and that’s fine, but everybody is aware of that as an issue and is dealing with that in their own way.

Adam Bernard: Do you feel it’s a good thing that we’re all aware? A lot of people speak of having a giant colorblind world where we don’t see race, but is it almost better having everyone aware that yes, we are listening to black narratives?
Jason Tanz: That’s a good question. I think that you can go back and forth. I think there is something to be said for the idea of “don’t talk about this because things are working fine, and making people more self-conscious about race is never a good thing.” I have some sympathy for that, but I just feel that right now a bigger danger to us as a society and as a culture is not overt racism, it’s not people being explicitly racist, it’s people thinking that they’re not racist and that everything is OK and why can’t people just get over this. I look at this book as being about whiteness and about white people almost even more than about Hip-Hop and I think that white people tend not to think of whiteness as a race or as a construct that much. I think that there is something to be gained from looking at this and from being introspective. You can’t get over these issues if you don’t really address them and race has been a huge issue in America for 400 years and it’s not gonna go away because of popular music, that’s not going to fundamentally address what’s going on.

Adam Bernard: It’s interesting that you said white people don’t necessarily think of white as a race, I think that could be because we say “race” and “minority” hand in hand and white people are not a minority.
Jason Tanz: Well they’re getting there. Part of that is because of what whiteness means. I’m not an expert in this but there are academic fields of whiteness studies which are about how different nationalities become white. I’m Jewish, not so long ago that would not have been considered white, but now it is and there is a process through which people come to America, immigrant communities, the Irish, Italians, what have you, and part of their becoming Americans is taking on the idea of whiteness. Again, I’m really not an expert on this but whole books have been written about it and that’s part of the reason why white continues to be the majority, because that’s sort of what people assimilated into, they didn’t just assimilate into being American, they assimilated into being white, not Black and not Latin.

Adam Bernard: Finally, having covered so many different facets of whites in Hip-Hop, did you find a best way to be involved?
Jason Tanz: I think that, to me, and this is just me talking, one of the problems is that hunt for the right way and I’ve, as you can tell from the book, been more guilty of that than anyone I know, figuring out what’s the right way to listen to this and how can I become the exception and escape all of the complications that are associated with this. I think that the best you can do is to acknowledge those complications and acknowledge these tensions that exist and not try to run away from them, but try to take a serious look at your own role in them and again it’s not really a solution but I don’t know if there is A solution except for people to be a little more introspective.

You can reach Jason Tanz at myspace.com/jasontanz and pick up Other People’s Property at Amazon.com.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:49 AM  
  • At 11:38 AM, Blogger Jordan said…

    Great teaser piece Adam-- it sounds like this book tackles many of the issues i've been wading chest-deep in for a minute now. Just hope the library gets a copy soon!

  • At 11:42 AM, Blogger Naijahiphop.org said…

    definitely a book i'd love to see..peace adam

  • At 10:36 AM, Blogger Jack said…

    I like this book a lot. Some of it is a potted history of hip-hop that you could get from other sources, but some of the memoir parts where he describes his own awkward relation to actual black people coupled with the role the concept of black people played in his inner life are as real and well written as anything written on this difficult and important topic.

    Can I ask, how did you happen to get a chance to sit down with Jason?

  • At 10:55 AM, Blogger Adam Bernard said…

    Thanks for the props.

    How I ended up sitting down with Jason was pretty routine. His PR company sent over a press kit, I requested an interview.

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