Commentary: The Assimilation of Hip Hop at the Oscars

Commentary: The Assimilation of Hip Hop at the Oscars

"Glory" win was a bright spot at the "whitest" awards show.

Published February 23, 2015

At the opening of the 87th Academy Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris made a tongue-in-cheek joke that the ceremony would be celebrating the “best and whitest” in film. He was “kidding, not really” considering that Selma stood as the lone ranger of diversity, save for Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) and a few women sprinkled in for “good” measure. It still reflected the constant reminder of racial injustice, as Sean Penn closed the evening with a crude joke about his friend Iñárritu winning the Best Picture (“Who gave this son of a b***h a green card?” Penn asked as he opened the golden envelope).

There were an overwhelming number of Penn apologists (including Iñárritu), but the joke stung many who posed the question of why no British actors/directors were asked that same question. Then Patricia Arquette swooped in to discuss women’s wages during her Best Supporting Actress speech for her role in Boyhood, only to pour White-Out all over her beautiful prose by making remarks backstage that gay people and people of color have to start fighting for women now (as if they’re all mutually exclusive and still not trudging uphill through their own respective battles). So yes, the Oscars were eye-roll worthy in a number of areas, especially given the current climate of our country.

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The silver lining surprisingly arrived in the name of hip hop. Common and John Legend (and don’t forget Rhymefest) won for Best Original Song for “Glory” off the Selma movie soundtrack. The performance was equally awe-inspiring, bringing the cast to tears along with Oprah and anyone else that was listening (Chris Pine certainly was stirred). The most impressive part of the performance and the win traveled well beyond the composition of the song and its well-deserved accolade. It was the fact that it was merely just that: a beautiful, powerful, song.

In 2002, during the 75th Academy Awards, Eminem took home the win for Best Original Song for “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile. This was at a time during Eminem’s career where he wasn’t sure if he was prepared to leave his slapstick Chris Farley-esque rhymes by the wayside in exchange for the duties of a “serious” lyricist. He transcended the pearl-clutching suburban moms by then and became the approved rapper in middle American homes, but still he struggled with the “urban” constituents.

He therefore released this semi-autobiographical film about his time in the brutal Detroit rap battleground as a white rapper — adopting an almost “minority” role of sorts, trading in stereotypical projects for a double wide in a trailer park. “Lose Yourself” was his hip hop equivalent of the Varisty Blues soundtrack, where the anthemic chanting made battle rap feel like a full contact sport with a legitimate championship. That was the fiber that wove itself into the red carpet at the Oscars, making Eminem the relatable rapper. That and he’s white.

Three years later, at the 78th Academy Awards, Three 6 Mafia won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” off the Hustle & Flow soundtrack. Here’s where things got interesting. In 2005, Southern hip hop was still being regarded as another language, where mainstream America was speaking loudly and slowly to Southern rappers, as if they were fluent in Cantonese and attempting to buy a drink in Tijuana. Somehow Three 6 Mafia slid past that for the win, and make no mistake about it: that audience knew that rappers had won an Oscar. It was different from Eminem’s Ritalin rhymes because he looked like white America’s unruly son. Three 6 Mafia were fundamentally different. Queen Latifah had the honor of announcing the win, as she stood there shocked that aesthetically real hip hop won an Oscar. Juicy J, DJ Paul, Crunchy Black and the late Lord Infamous took to the stage in their street clothes to accept that award and run their clean white sneakers over that line in the sand.

Since then, hip hop has become a Hollywood fixture. Ice Cube has effectively divided his time between being an NWA alum and a soccer dad on film (or crime-fighter du jour). Ice-T went from cop killer to cop, LL Cool J and Will Smith do whatever the hell they want, T.I. is getting there and Common’s made it. For the most part, their rap DNA only lives in their stage names nowadays. And that’s just fine, because we know better, and that’s all that matters.

So yes, last night at the Oscars, while swimming through off-color remarks and seas of pale faces plus one pocket of Selma supporters, Common (referred to as Lonnie Lynn) and John Legend accepted their award. They walked up there in suits, thanked the Academy while reminding everyone that while Selma’s sentiment is of the past, it’s still very much a part of our present.

Two artists won for a song. Not a hip hop song, but a song. It was a big day for hip hop to be considered without a disclaimer. And while the Oscars were full of dull and offensive moments, let’s just enjoy this one and take in all of the “Glory” that we can from it. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Written by Kathy Iandoli

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