Illustrations by Annie Ng
This past June, on the heels of her runaway debut single, “Munch (Feelin’ U),” Ice Spice took to Twitter to explain her Dominican-Nigerian roots. In an interview with Teen Vogue, she addressed the connection between her rapid rise and her light complexion, telling the publication, “I feel like that’s been the conversation for generations and forever, since the beginning of time.”
In a May episode, Podcasters Rory & Mal had previously argued that if Ice Spice “was dark-skinned, she would not be as big as she is,” but their opinion isn’t a foregone conclusion. A large portion of hip-hop’s value lies in its position as the voice of marginalized groups, which weighs people of color over most white folks who, for once, were the ones who had to work twice as hard.
At the same time, hip-hop, per usual, reflects the creeds, doctrines, and mores of the greater surrounding society. The culture’s issues with colorism will inevitably mirror outlying beauty standards and the contradictions and conflicts therein. Meaning, if Drake, Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, Cardi B, or Doja Cat receive some kind of leg up in the hip-hop sphere because the mainstream allows light-skinned folks to skip the line success-wise, then welcome to America.
Last year, the ever-brilliant Issa Rae tackled the culture’s issues with light, bright, and white in her HBO series Rap Sh!t, where Aida Osman and KaMillion play aspiring rappers Shawna and Mia, respectively. One subplot details Shawna being abandoned by a producer who doesn’t support her socially conscious rhymes—instead, he collaborates with Reina Reign, a white girl rapper selling hypersexuality. (Opening lines of her fictional hit, “Tongue”: “Light-skinned with a pretty face…”) With literal shades of Iggy Azalea, Reina Reign twerks her way to success, riding waves of white privilege. The three Rap Sh!t MCs end up touring together, a storyline to be continued when season two premieres in November.
Rae satirizes the music industry’s openness to appropriation with her usual acerbic wit. But when it comes to colorism, where does hip-hop really stand these days? Who gets a pass to be considered “hip-hop”?
Historically, there was a time when being white in hip-hop was an iffy affair. With 1986’s Licensed to Ill, Beastie Boys charted at No. 1 with a qualitatively classic multiplatinum album. Vanilla Ice managed to sell over seven million copies of a substandard debut, 1990’s To the Extreme. And Eminem remains the top-selling rapper of all time. But back in 1990, Eazy-E’s whitegirl protégé Tairrie B failed to chart at all with Power of a Woman. Being Caucasian couldn’t guarantee groups like 3rd Bass or Young Black Teenagers sales like Beastie Boys. And when Prince produced a rap album for 21-year-old blonde bombshell Carmen Electra, he discovered sex doesn’t always sell. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the privilege a white rapper has in the overall music industry, outside of hip-hop. But what about a mixed-race rapper?
Whether or not Drake would become the most streamed rapper in Spotify history without leaning into the biracial pretty boy trope is debatable. The likes of Rory & Mal similarly mused over whether or not Ice Spice and Cardi B would receive the same attention if they shared the same skin color as Flo Milli.
The question of whether Doja Cat is hip-hop or not is the most rampant. Responses to it run the gamut. Some peg the Los Angeles-raised pop star as “hip-hop adjacent.” Others have expressed a greater concern about Doja Cat either contributing to or exploiting the culture, no matter how many Little Brother lyrics she’s memorized. “To the same degree Post Malone and Drake are [exploiting it],” a respected hip-hop historian said in a recent comment—which is interesting, given those rappers’ racial backgrounds. In those cases, it’s clear that hip-hop cred is linked to an artist’s connection and relationship to Blackness, along with their physical appearance. “Is Sexyy Red hip-hop?” isn’t quite the same question, because of the specter of colorism.
The gentrification of hip-hop — like the brief success of Macklemore — meanwhile, isn’t the same issue as colorism in the culture. Video vixen Erica Mena losing her spot on Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta for calling co-star Spice a “blue monkey” enters into a different set of woods.
Director Spike Lee famously explored the whole pathology of discrimination within a racial group in his 1988 musical comedy School Daze, wherein light-skinned HBCU students (deemed “Wannabes”) battled against their darker-skinned counterparts (the so-called “Jigaboos”). By the end, leaders of both factions shout for the audience to wake up. Lee didn’t offer any lasting solutions to this intracultural caste system, but he at least raised the issue.
You’d be hard-pressed to find colorism discussed that painstakingly in mainstream hip-hop culture until recently. In the earliest commercial era of its first golden age, rap’s heroes weren’t Wannabes like in School Daze. From Run-D.M.C, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim in the 1980s up through Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and DMX during the ’90s, rap didn’t award points or sales for the light-skinned aesthetic. Even when Hollywood and R&B lifted up multiracialism as a standard of beauty—the Lisa Bonets, Rae Dawn Chongs, Jasmine Guys, Al B. Sures, and Christopher Williamses of the world—hip-hop didn’t buy in. When Biggie rapped about feeling “Black and ugly as ever,” it wasn’t because he was losing cultural impact (or women fans) to Heavy D or, like, Kid from Kid ’N Play.
Double standards do, however, frequently fall along the gender fault line. Case in point: hip-hop always bought into colorism when eye candy was concerned. From the models posing in album art like L.L. Cool J’s Walking With a Panther to all the beauties dancing in a million visuals dating back to Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker,” the message was that light meant right. But only recently has colorism been such an overwhelming topic of fan debate regarding women MCs in particular. “(Bang Zoom) Let’s Go Go” notwithstanding, many hip-hop fans preferred Roxanne Shanté’s rap style over light-skinned Latina rapper the Real Roxanne’s back in the eighties. Historically, hip-hop has made way for successful women rappers of all brown shades, ranging from Queen Latifah to MC Lyte, Foxy Brown, Salt-n-Pepa, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill, to name a few.
That’s not to say colorism isn’t still pervasive. Ebony recently celebrated hip-hop’s golden anniversary with a special edition featuring five cover subjects, including the sole woman representative, Lil’ Kim. Controversy ensued on social media when fans reacted to what looked like extreme airbrushing of Ebony photo director Keith Major’s image. Kim herself jumped into the fray expressing her disappointment in the cover, releasing the image she and her team approved on Instagram. Despite minor skin tone and brightness differences, most fans found the photos to be identical. The whole issue highlighted the cumulative cosmetic surgeries (like Michael Jackson before her) that have dominated conversations about Lil’ Kim since the early aughts.
“Guys always cheated on me with women who were European looking,” Kim told Newsweek back in 2000. “You know, the long-haired type. Really beautiful women [who] left me thinking, ‘How can I compete with that?’ Being a regular Black girl wasn’t good enough.” For once, I’d argue that the music industry didn’t seem at fault for an artist’s personal battles with colorism. Neither Lil’ Kim’s sales nor cultural impact ever boiled down to her skin color, though the industry isn’t exactly a beacon regarding the issue.
However, pundits have raised colorism as a determining factor in the ascent of Ice Spice since she emerged, occasionally roping Cardi B into the argument. Cardi B, who identifies herself as Afro-Latina, once addressed colorism in a 2017 interview with DJ Vlad, discussing a milieu where she actually wasn’t light enough: “I used to work in a white strip club in downtown,” she recounted. “I noticed that the Russian and white girls was making more money than the color girls or a girl like me. It started making me feel like, ‘I wonder how it would be if I was to make more money if I was light-skin.’ But I definitely don’t want to be more lighter than this color; I love my color.”