Commentary: Now's the time for white allies to step up in every way

As a reporter, I spend a lot of time browsing Twitter, for better or for worse. Lately, as the site has been inundated with heartbreaking footage of black death — and a slew of people and/or bots attempting to justify or dismiss those killings— it has been mainly for worse. Still, despite the platform’s capacity to traumatize and disinform, Twitter can also serve as a place for necessary discourse.

In recent days, a number of white rap artists and producers have been increasingly vocal on social media about the non-passive role they must adopt in responding to the racially motivated police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among countless others.

Jack Harlow, a white rapper from Louisville who burst onto the national scene in recent months, took to Instagram last Friday with a message for his white fans, urging them to show support for their black peers:

“If you’re a white kid who likes to wear vintage clothing and listen to rap music, listen to my music, you have a responsibility. And I think all white people have a responsibility, but especially us, especially the ones that are consuming black culture...the right thing to do is not only love black culture, but love black people. Now is your chance to prove it.”

As a white fan of rap music, I found that Harlow’s message very much resonated with me. In America, rap has defined popular music for decades, meaning that white folks from my generation and millions born before and after me have grown up with that genre at the center of their musical experience.

As consumers of a black art form, especially one with explicitly political roots, we have no right to dissociate the music from its historical context, nor from its content, much of which grapples directly with the types of injustices that stem from systemic, institutional racism. And, let’s face it: Given that nearly all American music forms are black in origin, that point stands even for those of us who eschew rap in favor of rock, funk, jazz, house — pretty much any genre you can think of.

But white hip-hop heads, in particular, need to come to terms with that reality, if we haven’t already. Last week, around the same time that Harlow was making his comments, the Boston corner of rap Twitter was alive with producers and record labels delivering similar messages about the importance of showing moral and financial support to black-led movements like the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that posts bail for low-income individuals and advocates for criminal justice reform.

Dust Collector Records — a white-owned and operated, Boston-based record label founded in 2017 as a collective on the r/LoFiHipHop subreddit —was among those voices calling for action, tweeting “we’ve donated money” and urging other labels to do the same.

Later, Dust Collectors co-founder Bret Silverman, after being challenged for proof by a Twitter user, admitted that he lied about the donation and then “forged screenshots” of Paypal receipts in an attempt to cover his tracks.

That development was disappointing to watch unfold, especially since Dust Collectors had been one of the groups behind Mission: Music, an initiative launched in early May that uses streaming royalties to benefit a COVID-19 artist relief fund.

But I think it also may have revealed an important lesson: That white allies need to begin with truth and honesty. I don’t use this example merely to pile on the backlash that Dust Collectors has already received; to his credit, Silverman did eventually donate $1,000 to a worthy cause, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that while his actions were wrong and deceitful, his original intentions were good. But it seems that for a lot of white folks, myself included, our actions don’t always live up to our intentions, however good they may be.

By starting with honesty, by listening to the truths of others, by respecting the truths inherent in hip-hop history, and by being straight with ourselves about the roles we play in both perpetuating and fighting racism, white rap fans can avoid the mistakes made by some of our peers through perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately hurtful and destructive actions.

After that, we can make meaningful positive impacts by verbally, physically, and financially leading the charge of the fight for justice, a fight that should mainly fall on our shoulders.

At the Reporter, I’ve been lucky enough to meet and write a handful of stories about some of the talented artists from Dorchester and Mattapan’s vibrant hip-hop scenes. I’m grateful that they shared their music and experiences with me. But to hold up my end of the bargain, I,and all of us,need to be doing more.

As Jack Harlow said, now is the time for us to step up, rather than put our mouths where our money should be.