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Dancing around white America's embrace of hip-hop

Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, By Jason Tanz, Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $24.95

Sadly for Jason Tanz, the lasting contribution of "Other People's Property" to the ever-thickening ranks of hip-hop scholarship is destined to be one word. Even more unfortunately, that word is "Wegro," and Tanz is its inventor.

"Wegro," Tanz tells us, is "a contraction of white and Negro." The author has created this term out of a desire to differentiate between what he sees as two species of white hip-hop fans. One group "seeks countercultural flash" through hip-hop and focuses on "the ways African-Americans are different from white people." "Wegroes," meanwhile, listen to hip-hop in the hopes of "transcending their racial identities" and emphasizing "the ways we are similar."

Where to begin? Probably with Tanz's assertion that Negro "carries with it an air of respectability, dignity, old-school nobility . . . an almost quaint belief in the possibility of finding common ground between well-intentioned people of all races." The outright ahistoricality of such a claim -- and Tanz's audacity in championing a word long rejected as derogatory by those to whom it was once applied -- can hardly be overstated, never mind explained. Perhaps if he'd tested the word's ability to evoke such halcyon days by bandying it about his Brooklyn neighborhood, the resultant collection of incredulous stares and bruised body parts would have caused some rethinking.

In order to bolster the legitimacy of "Wegro," Tanz links it to a series of public people, implying their approval. He claims that author and activist William Upski Wimsatt is "one of hip-hop's best known Wegroes," then recruits actor Danny Hoch, and finally states that author Bakari Kitwana has profiled dozens of Wegroes and sees in them "the dawning of a new reality of race in America." The quote is from Kitwana's most recent book, "Why White Kids Love Hip Hop," but Tanz manipulates it to seem like an endorsement of his word.

Most objectionable, though, is the way a construct like "Wegro" reveals Tanz's inability to perceive blackness as anything but a foil for whiteness: something to study not for its own sake, but only as a lens through which to examine the souls of white folks. Consistently absent from "Other People's Property" is the kind of multifaceted conception of blackness that would allow the project of defining white hip-hoppers -- their motivations, ironies, and impacts -- to move beyond simple formulations about appropriation, voyeurism, and identity.

Tanz, an editor at Fortune Small Business, toggles between personal reminiscence (the tortured relationship between his whiteness and his love of hip-hop serves as both a point of entry and a leitmotif), punditry, and quite capable journalism. His shadow history maps a whimsical path across hip-hop America. Stops include a breakdancing class in tony New Canaan, Conn., the suburban home studio of Johnny Crack, an unknown rapper whose identity involves embodying "gangsta" stereotypes to the point of farce, and a gaming convention where "nerdcore" rappers rhyming about computer programming are marquee stars.

Tanz's prose is lively, and he situates his subjects aptly within the larger context of hip-hop's history, but his insights are seldom striking. He chronicles the various reactionary forms that white relationships to hip-hop culture take, but there is little here that is new. Tanz can chronicle the contributions of Norman Mailer, Carl Van Vechten , and Al Jolson to our understanding of white cultural crossover, but has little to add beyond the kind of handwringing about white incursion that has long been de rigueur. He's (correctly) worried about hip-hop , and the power of white kids to ruin it through ignorance, earnestness, and economic sway, but the book never pulls back to consider the larger stakes. It is concerned primarily with white people -- as is evident when Tanz, in a discussion of gangsta rap, posits that blacks are "attractive only because they are so exciting and scary and alien, so very different from you and me." But if a white "you and me" are the only participants in Tanz's conversation, and hip-hop is important simply as a site of authentic blackness that makes whiteness momentarily visible, then hip-hop's true significance -- as a culture rooted in resistance, with the power to push for social justice -- is bound to disappear .

This tension is indicative of a growing divide in hip-hop studies. On one side are scholars interested in hip-hop as a liberatory tool; on the other are those invested in hip-hop for its own sake. Tanz seems caught between the two. He understands hip-hop's greater meaning, but his conception of how to address the question of whiteness leads him far afield, into the easily analyzed, marginally relevant provinces of nerdcore and New Canaan.

Tanz sometimes appears to dwell deliberately on the outskirts of the culture, not because it's where exciting developments are unfolding, but because he's more interested in pointing out the absurdities and contradictions of white hip-hoppers than he is in digging deeper. When he does train his attention on the mainstream, his analysis suffers. No book on white hip-hop can avoid Eminem, but Tanz's discussion of the rapper's biopic "8 Mile" is so focused on the matrix of race that he fails to address the issue of class -- central not just to the film but to Eminem's career. The rapper's argument for his own legitimacy, writ large in "8 Mile," is that class trumps race, and thus his poverty gives him purchase. Tanz never backs up far enough to make this basic point.

Adam Mansbach's novels include "Angry Black White Boy" and the upcoming "The End of the Jews."