Drake, Childish Gambino, and the Specter of Black Authenticity

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Neither rapper is a conventional hip-hop star, and each deal with that fact in different ways

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AP Images / Glassnote Music

"What's the point of rap if you can't be yourself?"

As Drake says, "jealousy is just love and hate at the same time," and with the gaudy sales estimates of his new album, Take Care, jealousy is in the air. Haters lament Drake's brand of sing-along pop/hip-hop fusion. Lovers revel in Drake's wordplay, appreciate his self-examination, and nod their heads to the seductive beats on his new record. Several rungs below him on the hip-hop ladder, upstart Childish Gambino (aka comedian Donald Glover, who plays Troy on NBC's Community) has his own collection of supporters and detractors. Glover's Camp is prickly and captivating, driven by hipster-hip-hop sensibilities. Standing at different stations of success, neither Drake nor Glover embodies the stereotypes of rap music superstardom or expectations of black authenticity. Their strategies for negotiating these expectations are different, yet eerily similar, and vital for understanding connections between racism and sexism.

In hip-hop, pressure to "keep it real" is largely driven by the encroachment of the music business on the mythically pure music of the urban poor. This idea of artistic authenticity is racially encoded, as corporate investment laid the path for massive white audience consumption of black performance. "Real" blackness in commercial rap often requires hyper-masculine claims to dangerous ghetto experience, sexual power, and conspicuous consumption. Critics argue that commercial rap is nothing more than actors performing racist stereotypes of black male deviance in a soulless attempt to cash in. The key point here is that "racial" authenticity is not merely racial—it depends on a particular version of dominating manhood for its cultural and commercial appeal.

Drake (Aubrey Drake Graham) was born into a multiracial family in Toronto. His parents split when he was five years old, and Drake's mother, who is white and Jewish, took on primary child rearing responsibilities. The family lived in an economically stable and largely Jewish neighborhood, and Drake was Bar Mitzvah'd at age 13. One year later, he became a successful child actor, starring in the Canadian teen drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation. After releasing a few stellar mixtapes via the Internet, Drake signed a recording contract with Lil' Wayne's Young Money Entertainment.

Take Care , Drake's second release with Young Money, boasts a sharp, stylized depiction of luxury, love, and loss. When he is not emoting, Drake brags about the fast life, but he makes it clear that he is "having a hard time adjusting to fame." Drake's singing and foregrounding emotional vulnerability on record, in combination with his upbringing and his skin tone, place him outside the bounds of commonly assumed hip-hop/black authenticity. Though Drake does not address "real" blackness directly, he makes a number of choices that allay authenticity concerns.

For starters, Drake benefits from his association with Lil' Wayne, who meets the criteria for "real" hip-hop blackness more easily, thanks to his origins in impoverished New Orleans and outlaw habits. Second, Drake uses African American vernacular speech patterns. For instance, Drake frequently substitutes the sound "ah" for a hard "r" sounds, invoking an accent. This is especially important because Drake constantly uses the word "nigga" on record, ceaselessly repeating that he is, in fact, a "real nigga."

Demonstrating command of the correct ("black") way to say this phrase is critical to claiming "real" black hip-hop identity. Drake describes himself as such mostly to communicate that he is truthfully portraying his life and his feelings, but the phrase carries racial weight nonetheless. On one hand, there is nothing extraordinary about this style of singing. Vocalists from Amy Winehouse to Mick Jagger make similar changes to their accents, because African American speech styles are baked into music traditions founded by African Americans, like the blues, rock, R&B, and rap. On the other hand, assuming that this is the only way black people speak, or that "real" black people are those who have reclaimed the n-word in this way, is wrong. Such thinking ignores black cultural diversity and subjugates those who do not meet expectations.

In addition to "talking black," Drake builds an imposing masculinity that allows him to be "real" without telling ghetto war stories. In part, he achieves this simply by objectifying women and bragging about sexual conquest. But he also hears his critics, and replies:

I know that they tryin' to push me

I know that showin' emotion don't ever mean I'm a pussy

Know that I don't make music for niggas that don't get pussy

So those are the ones I count on to dis me or overlook me.

The message: If you criticize Drake, you are less of a man than he is, because a real man who "gets pussy" would recognize the value of Drake's lyrical content.

Donald Glover is a former writer for 30 Rock and current star on Community. Like Drake, his brand of hip-hop fails to meet supposed authenticity standards. Unlike Drake, Glover's rap persona, Childish Gambino, is explicit about his disgust with "one size fits all" blackness. On Camp, Gambino unleashes a series of attacks on critics who dismiss him, both as a rapper and as an everyday person who defies racial stereotypes. He asserts that he "sound[s] weird, like 'nigga' with a hard 'R'," and recounts being called an "oreo" and a "faggot" because of his style of speech and dress. Gambino raps about the ways black folks are ostracized by their friends and former neighbors when they leave the hood. He laments the ill-fated path chosen by his cousin, who caved to the expectations of living a "real" street life.

No doubt, Childish Gambino is an imaginative alter-ego; the silliness of the name tells listeners that he's not trying to be "real" in the conventional hip-hop sense. But despite the playfulness and irreverence of Camp, Glover is serious about uprooting extent ideas about black authenticity. He addresses critics, who say, 'You won't speak to the hood, man,' and retorts:

If I was given one chance I think I could, man

These black kids want somethin' new, I swear it

Somethin' they wanna say but couldn't, 'cause they embarrassed

Unfortunately, for all his good intentions and courage in meeting black authenticity head on, Glover still relies on familiar crutches to prop himself up and compensate for perceived weakness. His use of the word "nigga" doesn't seem as compulsive as Drake's, but Glover's objectification and degradation of women is, in many ways, more offensive. Glover's performance as Gambino is purposefully over the top, but comedic license does not excuse the sexism in his lyrics, and there is little of the self-examination featured on Take Care. Especially disturbing is Glover's exoticization of women based on their racial identity - he raps dismissively about Asian girls, white girls, and black girls as if they are different flavors of ice cream to be consumed.

Both Drake and Donald Glover have crafted albums worth listening to, and both chip away at racist stereotypes of "real" blackness. But sadly, neither is willing to shatter the mold. Doing so requires disowning the sexism and norms of masculinity that undergird oppressive, corporately funded black/hip-hop authenticity.

- Childish Gambino, "All The Shine"

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Michael P. Jeffries is an assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of  Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.

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