LC#12: Nerd Politics — White and Nerdy
Some thoughts on nerdy rap.
Last time I introduced this series on nerd politics by discussing the relationship between the nerd and something we could broadly call “the tech bro” — an alliance that helped shift the former’s status from underdog to something very different (go read it). This week I’m investigating another nerd-related trope and its cultural-political underpinnings: the “white and nerdy” rapper. While still commonplace in current media, this figure had a sort of golden age during the explosion of YouTube and social media (and also the Obama years), so I talk about that. Below the links, as usual.
A bit lazy with the warm-up this week, but not so much to make this about Suez memes. Here’s something else then.
This is a podcast I started listening to recently. This episode is about using racial stereotyping as a form of edgy comedy and the relevance of the Boston scene etc:
Some people talking about pandemics tech and stuff and also at some point about using humor to spread political messages:
An old Mitch Hedberg joke:
“I wanna roll with
But so far they all think
I'm too white 'n' nerdy”
- Weird Al Yankovic, “White and Nerdy”, 2006
If you have ever been online in the current millennium, chances are you’ve come across your fair share of white rappers ironically displaying their nerdiness through hip-hop. The clip above is the most literal representation of this phenomenon: Weird Al Yankovic’s “White and Nerdy” is an iconic parody and celebration of nerd culture, modelled on the rap hit “Ridin” by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone. Weird Al's lyrics heavily reference cultural artefacts and pastimes that are stereotypically white and nerdy (playing Dungeons and Dragons, being an MIT student, drinking tea instead of beer), highlighting them by contrast against hip-hop's self-confidence and swagger. Weird Al had been doing nerdy rap parodies for a while, however the song was his biggest hit. Perhaps this suggests the ripeness of the time: as of the mid-2000s, in fact, white and nerdy artists rapping was becoming a big thing. In 2005 the popular sketch group The Lonely Island, probably the highest profile parody rappers after Weird Al, had their first viral hit with the song “Lazy Sunday”, which uses an aggressive rap style to describe the banal weekend outing of two average-looking white men. In 2006, Nice Peter and epicLLOYD launched Epic Rap Battles of History, a format where famous historical figures enact aggressive and factoid-heavy confrontations based on costumes and clever rhyming. Also driven by community requests and input, over the years the channel evolved to become the biggest on the entire YouTube (at one point, it’s currently not even in the top 100).
In terms of aesthetics, the juxtaposition of mostly white, mediocre-looking individuals to the aggressive attitude of certain types of rap (gangsta rap especially) is a fully tested comedic format. The clip above is a great example. Taken from Office Space, a 1999 cult comedy directed by Silicon Valley creator Mike Judge, the scene represents a pivotal moment in the movie: after two of them are laid off, three employees in a tech firm decide to get revenge against their company by devising a complicated financial scam. As a Geto Boys song plays in the background, they celebrate their transition from underdogs to villains by finally venting years worth of office alienation against a malfunctioning printer. While the scene is hilarious (and the multiple Geto Boys songs featured in the soundtrack gave a boost to the group’s visibility), the appropriation of the gangsta aesthetic to express (mostly white) working class anger against capitalism can be seen as problematic. Brian J. McCann writes in fact about the use of gangsta rap in the movie’s soundtrack to mark its most successful moments in terms of “proletarian blackface” — as he calls the “appropriation of black vernacular practices to articulate a predominantly white male, working-class rage against modern capitalism” (he references both Norman Mailer’s famous essay on the hipster or “the white negro”, who explores alternative identities by experiencing black culture, and James Baldwin’s critique of it).
At the turn of the millennium, this attitude towards an increasingly globalized hip-hop was undoubtedly legitimated by the success of artists like Eminem. Singing lines like “I don't do black music, I don't do white music /
I make fight music for high school kids”, the Detroit native (whose hyper-technical rhyming style has clearly influenced a lot of battle rappers, including some of the nerdy ones mentioned above) was a key figure in establishing hip-hop as an increasingly “post-racial” lingua franca.
We’re back to color-blindness, then. But if the college nerd once compared nerd oppression to racial oppression, the “white and nerdy” rapper embodies a more complex convergence of music, technology and identity.
In terms of the latter two, those studying social media cultures and race are very familiar with the dynamics of identity tourism outlined above. Lisa Nakamura has been writing at length about “cybertyping” and the survival of racial stereotyping online, while more recently Lauren Michele Jackson has discussed the appropriation of black vernacular on social media (especially in reaction GIFs) referring to this as “digital blackface”. It is worth highlighting, then, that the rise of the “white and nerdy” rapper in the mid-2000s clearly coincided with the momentous explosion of social media as a major pop cultural influence, and that at least to some extent the color-blindness outlined above reflected on the music associated with it.
Let’s go back to that. Along the many rap-driven viral comedy videos mentioned above, a more earnestly community-driven scene called “nerdcore” (with its own sub-genres, for example “geeksta rap”) was also developing across the US. In 2008 it started achieving wider recognition, with the release of two documentaries titled Nerdcore Rising and Nerdcore For Life. While Weird Al and The Lonely Island used the popular appeal of rap to achieve a humorous contrast between the genre's historical connotation and their own lifestyles, the nerdcore scene represented a more collective and faceted entity, organized around a range of artists with different styles and audiences that gathered at in-person events like expos and fairs as well as online.
Compared to parody videos, nerdcore has slightly different implications in terms of identity labelling, the main tension being the balance of authenticity and irony. In terms of labelling, there is a re-appropriation of stigma that is similar to the one typical of the “gangsta” label. In this sense, Brian Braiker offers a profile of YTCracker, a nerdcore rapper with a past conviction for computer cracking — a label he appropriates in his own moniker and conflates with “cracker” as a derogatory term for white man. As Chris Russell writes, however, nerdcore is somehow different from the “gangsta” label as it is an “opt-in” subculture, where only self-identifying nerdcore rappers count as such.
If the definition of nerdcore is quite clear, opinions about its satirical and appropriative attitudes still vary amongst scholars of the genre. In this respect, Braiker highlights the genre's racial component and distance from parody: along with the aforementioned nerdcore documentaries, he credits VH1's hit TV show "The (White) Rapper Show" (an “'American Idol' for would-be Eminems”) and the publishing of Jason Tanz’s Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America as signs that the concept of a white rapper is no longer a joke. Amanda Sewell also highlights how nerdcore artists do not see their music as satirical, although she concedes it can be considered as a respectful parodic doubleness, as in one text standing in relation to another (in this sense, it should come as no surprise that legendary hip-hop personalities like Prince Paul have endorsed nerdcore rappers). In terms of authenticity, it is then arguable a key element for nerdcore's seriousness is the fact that, unlike the infamously appropriative Vanilla Ice (who faked a ghetto upbringing and did not acknowledge his black producer until he got sued) nerd rappers write about what they know.
Russell, on the other hand, dissects the politics of appropriation within nerdcore rap more strictly, paying particular attention to its racial and parodic elements:
“[T]he connection between nerd 'oppression' and black cultural history is a thread of cultural logic extending back to Revenge of the Nerds. A mythic blackness and a nerdy hyperwhiteness are placed into entangled opposition— mutually constructed as racial opposites. Nerdcore’s entanglement with its strategies of appropriation and parody demonstrate the complex and often paradoxical relationship nerddom has with both itself and its imagined racial other. Hip-hop is deployed both as a political music of resistance and as a joking acknowledgment of nerdiness’s implicit whiteness. Nerdcore remains serious in its parody and its inversions and its production of identity”.
Once again, nerd politics seem to be about empowerment of the oppressed, but at the same time they often wind up enforcing a post-racial attitude that is very much in line with the systemic color-blindness lamented by many scholars of social media and beyond. Not always, though. Next time I’ll write about another nerd trope that is quite different from this.