Carlton, Karmin and Why White Rap is Just Wrong

By Jesse Kinos-Goodin

There’s an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Carlton tells Will that he borrowed his Public Enemy tape to jog to. “You like Public Enemy?” Will asks, to which Carlton replies by singing in what can only be described as the whitest, most Vegas showman-sounding voice possible, “Get up get, get, get down, 911’s a joke in this town.”

“That used to be my favourite song,” deadpans Jazz, a line I’ve used a million times since.

Carlton was the symbolic white person — from his privileged lifestyle and tucked-in shirts to his complete obliviousness to black culture. Carlton’s “whiteness” not only made for one of the sitcom’s funniest running jokes, it also sent a message to a young, impressionable me: Black (Will and Jazz) is cool; white (Carlton) is, well, not.

As a young white kid living in a city that was probably 95% Caucasian and majority redneck — one who blared Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers from my car stereo while everyone else bumped Garth Brooks — I not only recognized Carlton’s awkward place on the show, but sort of felt embarrassed for him, and for me. Is that what I looked like as I drove in my Ford Bronco, windows down, past the farmer’s co-op while a hip-hop collective from Staten Island’s call to “bring da ruckus” played from my speakers?

I got over that feeling, but just like never-ending Fresh Prince reruns, a Carlton moment is never far off to remind me of just how ridiculously uncool us white people can be. Take, for instance, Karmin. The SNL-appearing, hip-hop karaoke-ing, speed-rapping, children’s-theatre face-making, “swag popping” two-piece that has its first album due out in April.

Karmin (made up of Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan) has covered everything from Kanye West to Nicki Minaj on YouTube, and have millions of views to show for it. Things really started for them when they covered “Look at me Now” by Chris Brown featuring Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. A few things are worth noting: Heidemann and Noonan are without doubt very talented musicians; Noonan gets into his own grooves so much that his head banging resembles a diabetic fit; Heidemann raps really, really, fast; Heidemann’s facial expressions make it look like she should be singing to children and telling them how to tie their shoes, not saying “then I’’m gonna murder everything and anything.”

I’m not a fan of Karmin’s take on hip hop (they should stick to Adele), which comes back to that embarrassment I felt watching Fresh Prince. Carlton made Public Enemy sound like Michael Buble; Karmin makes hip hop sound like a Canadian Idol try out.

To be clear though, Karmin has legitimacy. They’ve performed original music on SNL (unfortunately their original songs also have lots of speed-rapping) and they’ve performed “Look at Me Now” onstage with no less than hip hop icons The Roots (!), who not only admit to being big fans, but even appear in Karmin’s Super Bass cover. Busta Rhymes is not only NOT offended by Heidemann’s take on his “Look at Me Now” verse, he’s actually seen here giving Heidemann props and telling her he has something they can battle over.

And yet, as a white person, they still make me feel slightly embarrassed to go to a hip hop concert ever again. It’s as if I would spend the whole night apologizing (“Ya, I’m really sorry about Karmin.” “No, I swear I don’t sing-a-long to them.”).

In the investing world, securities that are zero risk are called “plain vanilla.” My issue with Karmin is its plain vanilla approach to hip hop. Here are two white kids from a preppy arts college in Boston appropriating rap songs from black artists from places like New York, Chicago and New Orleans. They strip their covers of any risky elements (such as swear words) that might offend white middle-class sensibilities. Their success is based on making it all seem oh so uncool. The entire gimmick is built on an awkward Carlton Banks moment.

Of course, they’re not the only ones: From Vanilla Ice to Asher Roth, I shouldn’t be surprised that bands like Pomplamoose can sell out concerts with twee versions of “Single Ladies,” a white girl called Kreayshawn can become an online sensationby acting “black,” and something called frat boy rap even exists.

I’m not saying white artists should be relegated to strictly guitar-based music (despite this rant, I do admit that there are some good, even great, white rappers around, but if you even think of saying, “Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake aren’t bad,” we can no longer be friends). What I want is for white artists to show a little respect for the genre, and it isn’t a lot to ask. When Karmin makes Kanye West’s All of the Lights seem more like an extended scene from Glee (more specifically, this gruelling scene from Glee), it not only does a disservice to the music, but it means somewhere, somebody is shaking their head, saying “that used to be my favourite song.”

Jesse Kinos-Goodin is a Toronto-based journalist and photographer. He writes mainly about music, travel and culture for the National Post. He is also embarrassingly bad at hip hop karaoke. You can follow him on Twitter @jessekg

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17 thoughts on “Carlton, Karmin and Why White Rap is Just Wrong

  1. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. You better burn all your dusty springfield, gil evans and the beasty boys records. What you really mean is you hate starry-eyed twee hipsters (who happen to be white).

  2. Now you should make a list things black people and Asian people aren’t allowed to do.

    Congrats on reinforcing racial stereotypes. Good music is good music. Period.

  3. It’s all about being authentic. Take the Beastie Boys for instance, who never put on an act and were always real to their own experience. They came up at a time when hip hop, especially their native New York scene, was largely influenced by a greater sense of Afrocentrism. But despite that they were well-respected by their peers, case in point their appearance on ATCQ’s Midnight Marauders album cover. The same can be said about Eminem and Das Racist, who like Karmin are from a preppy liberal arts college (Wesleyan, where they hung out with MGMT), who also speak to their own experience despite not belonging to the dominant ethnicity of hip-hop.

    And on the topic of white rappers, please check out El-P if you haven’t already. The guy can really spit.

  4. The writer needs to spend more time judging people by the content of their character, and not let skin colour bias their opinions. Fresh Prince was all about classic city mouse vs country mouse. Calton was a snobby, nerdy, rich kid who clashes with Will, because his cousin is from a rough neighbourhood in Philadelphia. The show’s dynamic had little to do with race. Watch the Odd Couple from the 60s. It shares many of the same jokes.
    Also, Tom Jones is awesome. There’s nothing wrong with a black kid liking Tom Jones. Just like there’s nothing wrong with white kids liking Hip Hop. Quit being in so hung up stereotypes and just do what you love.

    • “The show’s dynamic had little to do with race.”

      Red flags for me on this. Race is always a dynamic, in real life and in television. Maybe even moreso on television.

  5. Congrats on having the stones to attach your name to this drivel and destroying any journalistic integrity you might have had.

  6. Hey Jess –

    I think rap that comes from a place of irony (a defensive, oblivious, parodying distancing of black expression) is what’s utter shit and it seems that that’s what white people are so guilty of. Though, this is definitely not limited to white people (see: Donald Glover).

    I also think you’ve misread one element of Carlton, which is that he existed not (specifically) to lampoon white people but provide an alternate face of blackness in popular culture. I mean, this was the core of Carlton and Will’s ongoing “tension” right? Will offended by Carlton’s apparent non-blackness; Carlton (who, admittedly, bowed to cluelessness sometimes) pushing back against a facile, one-dimensional perspective of what it means to be black.

  7. I think this was a really well written piece, and yes congrats for having the stones to attach your name to something most people won’t (and clearly some of the commentors don’t) understand.

    I’m actually really enjoying The White Issue. As a mixed race Canadian it’s really nice to see the issue of “whiteness” touched on. One of my parents is white and very east coast of anglo descent, and the other is black but third generation Canadian so I never really had an “enthic” experience growing up. In fact I was often accused of not being “black enough”. And while I consider myself to be both black and white racially and culturally, I consider my ethnicity to be Canadian.

    “I’m not saying white artists should be relegated to strictly guitar-based music (despite this rant, I do admit that there are some good, even great, white rappers around, but if you even think of saying, “Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake aren’t bad,” we can no longer be friends). What I want is for white artists to show a little respect for the genre, and it isn’t a lot to ask.” This quote clearly shows that the writer isn’t saying white rap is wrong (obviously the title is just to grab your attention). As commenter hg says “It’s all about being authentic.” and that’s what the writer is calling out. The appropriation of hip hop culture’s ever evolving art form by the white middle class without respecting or understanding it’s roots and without properly adapting the art form to their own experiences. I believe some people would call that being fake or posing and it can be extremely devaluing. (Please note that I think a lot of the recent commercial hip hop is also extremely devaluing.)

    And lastly, I’m sorry but the social construct of race was definitely a theme in Fresh Prince. It’s articulated better here then I could http://com489group8.wordpress.com/2007/11/07/herman-grays-discourses-of-race/ and here http://www.wstudies.pitt.edu/wiki/index.php?title=The_Construction_of_Race_in_%22The_Fresh_Prince_of_Bel_Air%22.

    • I don’t think it’s that the commenters don’t understand, it’s that Jesse doesn’t.

      How is Karmin disrespecting the genre in the slightest? By not having a rough upbringing? By not slinging rock as kids? By being educated at a liberal arts college? For not living up to some mythical standard of how hip-hop must be birthed?

      Common, Kanye West and Talib Kweli are all university educated sons of college professors. Why isn’t Jesse calling out their inauthenticity? They didn’t sling rock like Jay-Z, yet nobody casts aspersions upon their credibility? Why is that?

      The fact that he would feel obligated at a rap concert to apologize for Karmin to…well, actually he doesn’t say who. To black people? That’s what’s implied and that’s far more egregious than anything that Karmin has done.

      According to Jesse, Karmin has transgressed the mores of hip-hop and he must apologize for their sins. Why is it that Karmin isn’t allowed to appropriate a musical form predominately associated with another race, but Jesse has no problem being offended on behalf of this other ethnicity?

      Jesse says himself that the Roots and Busta Rhymes, practitioners of this art form, are not only not offended by Karmin, but are even supportive of them. Even still Jesse remains put off by them, which essentially implies that he’s more in touch with the hip-hop community and hip-hop sensibilities than the artists themselves are. Karmin is okay by ?uestlove, but not okay by Jesse Kinos-Goodin. I wonder whose side of the argument I would take.

      This piece was nothing more than a bunch of white guilt with a basis in nothing more than the author’s own meandering thoughts.

      • Yes, Common, Kanye, and Talib all were middle class and Tupac went to the Baltimore School for the Arts, but they all have something that Karmin doesn’t have: the experience of being black. That’s why no one can really say they’re inauthentic. I’m sure any one of the black artists that you mentioned can relate to the fact that it often doesn’t matter if you’re middle-upper class, there are experiences that you have as a black person that reminds you regularly that you’re not white. Racial stereotyping effects the spectrum of black experience as much as social class does. And you can see those experiences reflected in the different themes that those artists use in their music.

  8. Yeah, if the artist is rapping/singing/whatever about “the black experience” and they’re white then they deserve to be called out. However, saying that rap is the exclusive domain of black people is only feeding into racial stereotypes and comfirming that black music is only legitmate when it takes the form of rap.

    It’s not about the music, it’s about the message in each song. If the person lived the experience what does it matter how they want to express it.

  9. Karmin is just another bubblegum pop group and they are two a penny. In their defense, do they even consider themselves rap? Just because they cover hip hop doesn’t make them so. Remember folks this IS the era of genre-bending mash-ups, and they are just a modern version of the Mini-Pops. Do you even know the Mini-Pops? If not you better recognize! http://youtu.be/KtAYIyCwdKc

  10. I’m pretty sure at least part of the reason The Roots etc. would support a group like Karmin is that they see them as a fun and silly pop act- NOT as a legitimate representation of hip hop or r&b etc.
    I don’t see anything wrong with Karmin, as long as they keep on doing these covers in a very self-aware and fun way like they have been doing. When they come out with an original gangsta rap album, then I might think differently.

  11. Karmin is from YouTube. Land of covers and parodies. By covering hip hop songs they are not “appropriating them from black artists.” So any YouTube user singing someone else’s song is insulting that person’s genre? And who are you to prescribe what is “authentic” or not? Music is ever changing and genres play off each other. Did you think making fun of other white people (as you are white) would make you look more hip or badass? You sound like a douche actually. Kbyethx~

  12. Yes! And black people shouldnt sing opera… or how about we divorce ourselves from the racist idea that a certain ethnicity or culture owns art.

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