Pity the poor white person. Held back to a mere 99% of Senate seats and claiming only three of five American Idol crowns, nowhere are we more oppressed than in the hip-hop world, where we must be content with the occasional token like Vanilla Ice or Eminem, occasionally leavened by the self-effacing white minstrelsy of a Weird Al Yankovic. We must be comforted with the few spheres of influence society chooses to throw usâ€”the Presidency, Skull and Bonesâ€”while in pop music’s most influential genre, we are the unmourned victims of a heartless apartheid. No sir, life for us ain’t been no crystal stair.
VH1 seeks to remedy this injustice tonight with ego trip’s The (White) Rapper Show (10:30 p.m.), in which ten aspiring white hip-hop artists compete for $100,000. Reality shows tend to succeed or fail in the first five seconds of their conceptionâ€”the right idea is 99% of the battleâ€”and the conceit alone would earn it a TiVo season pass. But The (White) Rapper Show goes beyond the call of duty in execution. ego trip, the hip-hop ‘zine turned multimedia force that produced The Big Book of Racism and the VH1 special Race-o-Rama, hits both the low- and high-concept notes right.
First, the producers had the brilliance to hire as their Heidi Klum figure Michael "MC Search" Berrin, who was a pioneer of ecru-hop in the 1980s with the group Third Bass. (The show is more Project Runway than American Idol, with contestants ejected through challenges rather than audience votes.) The wannabes–male and female, ranging from city and suburban kids to a blonde bombshell from Britain–are put up in a stylized, graffitoed crib in the South Bronx, setting them up for culture clashes not only with the neighbors (who seem amused and perplexed by the caucasian youth on their reverse Outward Bound experience) and each other. Most explosively, in the premiere episode one of the female contestants calls one of her (white, you’ll recall) opponents "nigger" in an argument. As punishment, she’s forced to wear a plaque reading "N-WORD" (did Standards and Practices veto the actual quote?) on a chain around her neck.
It’s an obvious offense, and the punishment fitting, but it also makes you think: how much less offensive and weird is it to hear the guy she was fighting with–a white boy from the suburbs–say he wants to lead a "ghetto revival"? Or later rapping, "I’ve thought about Malcolm/ My last name could be X." (What–to replace your slave name?) That’s not to say that the contestants are all poseurs: while some seem affected, a few seem genuine and have real presence onstage and flow on the mic. Close your eyes and you would be unsure what race many of the contestants are, which is probably an encouraging sign of the blurring racial lines in our society, but the show does a deft job of reminding us that those lines exist.
And we shouldn’t be surprised, by the way: reality shows have long had some of the best racial commentary on TV. A season of America’s Next Top Model offers as many surprising insights on ethnicity and appearance in American culture as Black History Month on PBS; P. Diddy’s MTV seasons of Making the Band were equally eye-opening; and even the last season of Survivor, with its purposely shocking division of teams by race, ended up being respectful and thought-provoking.
The difference between assimilation and appropriation, homage and stealing is a fuzzy one (as it is for established artists like Eminem, who’s as upfront about the benefits and pitfalls of his blond hair and blue eyes as anyone). And The (White) Rapper Show, for all its contrived reality challenges and manufactured moments of drama, lets it play out smartly and implicitly, leaving it to the audience to decide whether the qualifier "(White)" needs to be in parentheses or even in the phrase at all, whether it is an insult, an apology, an oxymoron or an irrelevancy.
It’s only January but I challenge anyone to come out with a better reality show this year. The (White) Rapper Show represents.