colorism in hip hop ave by Scott W

The phrase ‘keeping it real” was coined by the hip hop world, a genre of music I’ve been known to enjoy. But many of the biggest names in hip hop are consistently guilty of NOT keeping it real. This applies to many aspects of hip hop, but for our purposes, we’re going to examine colorism in hip hop. The following are eight aspects of colorism in hip hop that we must be “real” and honest about.

1) Colorism in hip hop does exist.

There’s debate about whether or not colorism exists in general, so we can expect controversy when discussing whether or not colorism exists in hip hop. Many have argued that it’s merely a preference rather than a prejudice. Defenders of all things hip hop would have us believe that it’s merely coincidence that so many rap lyrics glorify light skinned women and diminish dark skinned women, that it’s mere coincidence that so many rap videos exclude dark skinned women altogether, or that so many rappers choose to partner with light-skinned or non-black women exclusively and openly brag about it.

Well, as Huck said on a recent episode of Scandal, “Two things make a coincidence. Three things make a conspiracy.” Colorism in the music industry and elsewhere is a sign that the conspiracy of white supremacy has been fairly successful thus far. The pattern of positioning light skin and european features as the standard of feminine beauty is too pervasive to not be seen as something more insidious than “coincidence” or “marketing” or “crossover appeal.”

But, in case anyone still has doubts, just remember that hip hop stars have explicitly expressed their colorism. They can’t argue “coincidence” when rappers are blatant about their prejudice against dark skinned women.

2) Colorism in hip hop is another product of our long history of white supremacy.

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I read recently that colorism exists partly because all cultures tend to favor the “exotic.” If this alone could explain colorism in our world today, we would see more dark skinned or mixed race people in European fashion shows. But we don’t. It’s hard to find even lighter skinned women of color on runways around the world. The exotic argument is related to the idea that colorism is nothing more than trivial preference or coincidence.

Really, there is a carefully built system that’s been strategically maintained (though weakening with time) which allows certain people to monopolize various forms of power. When you can convince an entire group of people that they are inferior to you, there are less obstacles to gaining and maintaining your power. And while that group is preoccupied with destroying itself by self-segregation and infighting, you’ll have a lot less competition. You can pull the wool over their eyes because they’re focused on their “inadequacies” rather than your injustice.

3) Colorism in hip hop has a negative effect on society.

Colorism affects us all, no matter how light or dark our skin is, because it’s an element of the racism that undermines every society. It reinforces racist stereotypes that have substantive effects in people’s lives, including employment opportunities, criminal convictions and prison sentences, marriage prospects, harassment and abuse, and more.

While hip hop is not solely responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes, it currently has one of the most significant roles in doing so. Hip hop spreads its colorist message around the globe, and it’s heavily marketed to highly impressionable youth, which leads me to the issue of low self-esteem in girls.

Some might argue that girls shouldn’t expect the media to build their self-esteem, that self-esteem should be built at home, or that girls should build their own confidence. That’s no excuse, however, to ignore direct attacks against the image of an entire group of people. If we don’t accept hip hop as a vehicle for building self-esteem, we most certainly should not accept it as a vehicle for tearing down self-esteem.

4) Artists have power to do something about colorism in hip hop.

There may be varying levels of power based on how long an artist has been in the industry or how important an artist is to a particular company. However, there are countless instances of artists in all genres exercising creative license in their videos, influencing the direction of their videos, and sometimes generating the entire idea themselves.

The idea that hip hop artists can’t do anything about casting in their videos is not only false, it also perpetuates the sense of helplessness that’s plagued our communities for far too long.

Kendrick Lamar By Jørund Føreland Pedersen

Here are a few examples of rappers who have directly affected the casting in their videos. Please note that this list does not represent an endorsement of the artists, their songs, or their videos. It merely illustrates the level of control rappers can have over their work. It also shows that rappers themselves are also aware of the level of colorism in the industry.

British Rapper Tinie Tempah said he choose all of the models for his video “Trampoline.”

2Chainz Colorism in Hip Hop Keeping it Real
2Chainz by WealthRangers

Kendrick Lamar made a last minute switch for the casting of the leading lady in his “Poetic Justice Video.” And he directly stated that his intent was to represent more dark skinned women.

2 Chainz was also outspoken on more than one occasion about purposely choosing to feature darker skinned models in one of his videos. He even pointed to the fact that his mom was dark skinned, suggesting that he has a reason to appreciate dark skinned beauty.

Finally, there’s no excuse for what rappers say in their music. While it may be easy to blame casting directors for the lack of diversity in video models, who can they blame for the colorism in their lyrics? If anyone has the power to stop perpetuating colorism through lyrics, it’s the artists themeselves.

5) Fans have power to do something about colorism in hip hop.

For us fans, it all comes down to money and support. If we stop spending money on them and stop supporting them, rappers will quickly learn that colorism shouldn’t be profitable.

6) Most don’t do anything about colorism in hip hop because they’ve been conditioned by white supremacy.

When people have power but don’t use it, it’s for one of two reasons: they don’t know they have any power, or they simply don’t want to use their power. When it comes to hip hop and colorism, most people, fans and members of the industry included, are complacent because they believe lighter and whiter is better. They don’t protest the existence of colorism because many of them agree with it. It’s a hard reality, but we won’t make progress on the issue of colorism unless we admit that our communities are filled with people who think it’s okay to privilege one shade of skin over another. We have to know where we stand. If a fan agrees that light skin is better, of course they’re going to attack you on twitter in defense of racist rappers.

7) Colorism is not just in Hip Hop.

Colorism leaks from the society at large into every genre of music that we create. It’s just more obvious in hip hop because the majority of the artists in that genre are people of color.

R&B has gotten away with a lot of colorism because the genre as a whole has less of an image problem, but it exists there too.

I point this out not to let hip hop off the hook, but to make sure we’re considering the issue holistically as well. We must address the issues in hip hop, but we must also address the issues in homes, schools, runways, churches, movie screens, magazines, boardrooms, and wherever else it needs addressing.

8) Although colorism in hip hop may seem overwhelming, we must continue to speak and act against it.

Social progress through out history shows us that change is slow, painful, and contentious. Some of us may not live long enough to see the full fruits of our labor, but we must labor anyhow.

Let’s be critical consumers and spread media literacy. Let’s create and and appreciate more constructive images of diversity. We don’t have to ban hip hop altogether, but let’s be real about the problems that exist within its culture.


  • Belinda

    Thank you so much for speaking out about this. It is so sad what I see these days. One video on youtube led me to another and than another. As I looked down at all of the options that popped up, it seemed EVERY singer that is popular in 2016 fits the European look. I am like wow…this is crazy. Dark skinned female singers are not “popular” it seems anymore. They do not get promoted as much either. Looking at videos and music from the 90’s it seemed dark skinned women were better represented. In the 2000’s it seemed to decline. There were issues then, but it seems to be so much worse now. It is sad. I got into a debate on youtube about it and of course the guys kept saying women have low self-esteem. I said, ok, come talk to me when you raise a daughter in this culture and see how that line changes.

    • Hi Belinda! Thanks for commenting. Yes, it’s crazy to think that things have actually gotten worse. And the response your got from the guys on YouTube is unfortunately typical. But it’s awesome that you spoke out on it anyway!

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