All posts by Mykel Miller

Let Nas Down

Back in high school, one of my best friends on the football team was a white guy named Jack Jones. Jack and his family are, in all measurable terms, the perfect American family. Jack’s dad played football at Cornell, where he met Jack’s mom. He is now an electrical engineer in Portsmouth. Jack’s mom teaches at our high school as the chair of the music department where she often brings the family golden lab, Roscoe. Of his two siblings, the oldest is a football player at Lafayette College and the younger sister is a track star at Harvard. They live in a beautiful house with an American flag on the front porch, that they built in the suburbs of town.

The one feature that doesn’t quite fit the archetype of a perfect white family is Jack and his love of rap music. Whether it in be the locker room before football practices, in the library writing papers, or in the dining hall in between classes, Jack would be listening and often singing out loud to rappers like Ace Hood, Young Jeezy and Rick Ross. As his best friend, and a person who also listens to rap, I would sing along with him, providing the backdrop for our friendship. Due to our tight bond, I have often wondered if we would have been as close a set of friends if we had not both shared a love for this subgenre of rap. The next inquiry that thought led to is, why is Jack such a fan of those rappers?

To answer that question, we must first take a deeper look into the rappers of which he is so fond. For example, I’d like to examine Ace Hood, one of the artist we would listen to the most. One of his most popular songs, Hustle Hard, was played everyday before practice. The hook is, “Same old shit / just a different day / Out here tryna get it / each and every way / Momma need a house / Baby need some shoes / Times are getting hard / Guess what I’mma do / Hustle hustle, hustle hustle, hustle hustle, hard”. Most evident in the song is the hard times that Ace Hood had to go through while growing up before he became successful in the rap game. Throughout the song, there are also references of selling drugs, gun violence and theft. This rings true in other songs we liked to play such as Blowing Money Fast by Rick Ross and Put On by Jeezy.

The evident connection between the three songs, beyond their upbeat tempo and bass heavy beats, is their categorization into “gangsta rap”, a classification most commonly thought to be made popular in the late 80’s by groups like NWA and record labels like Death Row Records. The songs these were characterized by the same signature features as those we listened to in the locker room, hard trap beats, upbeat tempos, violence, often against police in the community, and heterosexual sex. This led to a strong reaction by the general population, both in support and against. Songs that symbolized the gangsta rap ideas like Fuck the Police were able to go double platinum, but at the same time, were not even allowed to be sold in certain stores, in fear of the police not coming to protect the establishment. This, music, thought to be antithetical to the very ideals that Jack and his family represent, is exactly what Jack loves because it both perpetuate his whiteness, while also verifying his masculinity.

To prove gangsta rap acts to perpetuate Jack’s whiteness, we must first understand what it means to be white, at least within the boundaries of Western culture. To be white, of the many connotations, most prominently means to be beyond the body, both spiritually and mentally. We can see this most evidently in the Queen of England, as the very definition of being a white anglo-saxon person. As the leader of the Church of England, she acts as God’s representative on Earth. She is above the people spiritually and only relatively recently in the monarchy has a King or Queen even attempted to relate with the common people, considering them a tier below. This ideal of being mentally and spiritually above others is not as easily seen out of context, but in comparison with other races, it is quite evident.

Another example of the perpetuation of what it means to be white is the use of religion in colonization of the world by European countries. In contrast to the native religions of the people that originally inhabited that land, Pope Alexander VI proclaimed “There is one God who rules in the Heavens above, and one Emperor who reigns upon earth,” Both the Catholic Church, and those European countries that fell within its reach, found their religion to be superior to that of any of the colonized territories. So much so that missionaries came with the intent to educate the people of the one true God. These missionary trips resulted in loss of the native religion and culture and arguably more pertinent, the native people’s claim on the land.

As a result of this idea of white superiority in the mental and spiritual arena, being white also implies an inferiority in matters of the body. This conclusion can again most evidently be seen in contrast to other races. A study by Northwestern psychologist compiled studies of white perception of white and black people. When shown a face of a black person or a white person, white people were more 27% less likely to be chosen to have supernatural powers such as “Which person “has supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a tank?’” Taken completely out of context, a white person is thought to be less capable of supernatural physical feats, yet in instances of mental competence as compared to black Americans, white people are just as often thought to have the clear edge. Another example, and maybe more obvious, is that white men are thought to have smaller penises than black people. Both of these facts, being weaker and having smaller penises acts as way of demasculinizing those who are white.

Because whiteness has now been explained, we can return to gangsta rap and see how it perpetuates whiteness while also allowing white men to perform an exaggerated form of masculinity. As we saw earlier, we know that gangsta rap is defined by its performer, whether true or not, giving off the image of being a gangster. This is especially helpful in perpetuating whiteness because it allows white men to compare their lives, and therefore their whiteness against the rapper’s life. More likely than not, the experiences of selling drugs, being against the norms of society, and generally living a life of danger is not what the vast majority of the people listening to gangsta rap are living their lives. By being able to contrast their own way of life to what the rappers are living, and seeing that their lives are nothing like what they are hearing, they can become more confident in their whiteness.

At the same time, they can use gangsta rap to assert their masculinity. Again we imagine the gangster life as being violent, having women flaunting over you, and doing this all while maintaining the cool persona. This is in direct opposition to the lack of physical superiority that whiteness implies. By listening to the experiences rapped about in the songs, listeners are able to live vicariously through the rapper. Singing along to lyrics like “I just hit the mall / You just swipe the card / I’m with a couple latin broads / I just do menage” in Hustle Hard allows listener to feel, if only for a moment, like they are able to have the ability to support a reckless spending habit which opposes the idea that the listener is inferior in ability to do their job. It also gives them the chance to imagine they engage in threesomes with latina women, which combats the idea that white men are incapable sexually. In both a purely physical and sexual sense, being able to immerse oneself in gangster rap allows white men to step out of the confines that whiteness has placed on them and experience a bolder sense of masculinity.

In retaliation, some might say that it isn’t the fact that it is gangsta rap that makes these songs attractive to white viewers. In preparation of this argument, I offer J Cole’s Let Nas Down. He says “And I was strikin’ out for months, 9th inning, feelin’ fear / Jeter under pressure, made the biggest hit of my career / But at first, that wasn’t clear, niggas had no idea / Dion called me when it dropped, sounded sad but sincere / Told me Nas heard your single and he hate that shit / Said, “You the one, yo, why you make that shit?” / I can’t believe I let Nas down” The whole basis of the song is that, Mr. Nice Watch, the song that made him famous, was only good because it did the things expected of gangsta rap, flaunt money and women. It also implies that song was a clear change from the material that he was making before, material free from the claws of industry standards. Nas saw this as a disappointment, seeing that Cole had essentially sold out. In writing this song, J Cole indirectly admits in Let Nas Down that he and others in the music industry understand how to cater to a white male audience, and gangster rap is the way to do it, even if it doesn’t result in the best music.

Whether or not it is true that the music industry caters to its audience to create a persona of blackness that white men can compare themselves to, and masculinity they can internalize, it is evident that gangsta rap is enjoyed by white men like Jack across the country. Furthermore, the concepts of comparing masculinity and race are not exclusive to white men, as I enjoyed the music in a similar way. But in examining cases such as Jack, we can examine the group being most catered to, white men, and therefore have a greater understanding of how our music is being made.


This essay was written in the style of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

An earlier draft of this essay was edited by Moises Mendoza.




  1. Boucher, Geoff. “Rapper Ice Cube talks about the 20th anniversary of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 12-8-17.
  2. Dyer, Richard. “The matter of whiteness.” White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (2008): 9-14.
  3. F.W. Hodge, ed. (1917). “Proceedings of the Nineteenth International Congress of the Americanist.” 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago. p. 508.
  4. Waytz, Adam, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter. “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 6, no. 3 (2014): 352-59. doi:10.1177/1948550614553642.

Billy Learns to Dance

After pouring over Dance with the Devil by Immortal Technique for the better part of the last few days, I felt uneasy with the very premise of the story. This discomfort actually doesn’t begin with the song itself, but to its incompatibility with my general idea of stories. A pretty straight forward example of the prototypical story for me goes back as early as kindergarten, and the fairy tales my mom would make me read before bed. In Little Red Riding Hood, a seemingly simple tale, the story has a very distinct hero, villain, conflict, and resolution. Red, an innocent young girl, gets attacked by a wolf. The resolution to the story then comes in two parts: First, is for Red to distrust the imposter and take steps to save herself. Second, Red is saved by a friendly lumberjack bystander.

When I was young, I enjoyed this tale because it felt like a complete story. Red, the obvious protagonist, is saved from the villain, in equal parts by her caution and by a man coming to save the day. The story is a simple case of a person being wronged by a villain, but coming out on top due to outwitting or overpower their adversary. As I have gotten older, I can see it as an analogy for many things, most prominently, sexual assault. By outsmarting her pursuant, Red can be safe long enough for the good people to come and save her. Does it suffer from antiquated beliefs that the only savior for women are men? Of course. But in the end, we are provided with a resolution to solve an issue. This idea of stories having the simple hero, villain, and solution is reflected all throughout our media. Dance with the Devil, on the other hand, rejects that notion.

The song begins by explaining how William, our main character, was raised by an addict single mother and turned to selling drugs to live a lifestyle of money, sex and power. He eventually is caught and confesses his crimes to the police. This tarnishes his name in his neighborhood so, to rebuild his reputation, he attempts to join a gang. To join, the initiation ceremony is raping and killing a woman with a cloth over her head. Williams does the initiation, but right before he shoots the woman, he takes the cloth off of her head, revealing that the woman is his mother. He then jumps off the building in grief.

Tech’s song, on the surface level, is a commentary on the conditions in poor neighborhoods, the first of which referenced is the rampant drug use. Within the first stanza, drugs are implicit in both splitting up families, as seen with William’s mom and dad, but also sentencing a young man and more broadly, his community to time in prison. Secondly, the song references gangs and the violence that their presence ensues. We see these gangs replacing the support system that the failing families and schools are supposed to provide. So much so that William feels the only way to be respected is to join this gang. Third, and most evidently, sexual violence and how rape can become a sport-like activity for some predators. Although all very important, these ideas are very much apparent to the listener and are not the true focus of the piece.

Our feelings towards William are what truly brings complexity to the song. We have always known stories to have a conclusion that wraps up the message into a neat, digestible package. A story’s mode of transportation for this message is the hero and villain comparison. In taking note of the character traits and actions in a story that define the hero and villain, one can determine the ideology the creator of a piece of media is trying to portray. With Little Red Riding Hood, the ideology that can be extracted is that curiosity is positive and looking after one’s safety is important. We can see this is important from the protagonist’s perspective. Another point to be taken from the story is that sexual assault is wrong, and this is obviously pointed out by this being the defining characteristic of the antagonist. The main reason it is accessible is because we have these clearly defined roles of hero or villain.

This is in stark contrast to Dance with the Devil because, at first examination, we cannot tell who the villains or the heros are, if they even exist. The obvious first choice for villain would be William, seeing as he assaulted and raped someone, an inexcusable offense. Yet, everything thing from lack of variation in the instrumental, or intonation in Tech’s voice, both of which symbolize changes or decisions, aids in the idea that what happened to William was bound to occur, almost independent of the decisions William makes.

In the simplest sense, he truly is a product of his environment. From the opening stanza of the song, Tech establishes that not only is William growing up in a single parent house, but that his mother was a former addict. Then furthermore, he turns to drug dealing and dropping out of school. These two actions are presented as such a common occurrence that it seems almost inevitable. Eventually being arrested, snitching to stay in prison for as little time as possible, and finally trying to gain his reputation again, all then seem like the next progression of the lifestyle that he did not originally decide to lead. Of course William made the wrong decisions, but to a certain extent, Tech makes it seem as if William’s life is simply a function of his circumstance.

If not William, who then is the villain of the story? To disprove the other gang members as the main villain, or at the very least to relegate them to side villains, one must only substitute those members for William in the previous argument. Like William, to an extent, they are products of the environment and although inexcusable what they did, Tech does not place as much emphasis on them either. They act as cogs in the machine of the story, nameless and emotionless. By dismissing all probable characters from the villain role, we must find another culprit to find our villain. In dissecting William’s death, the true villain, and furthermore the ideology that the song is putting forth, can be brought to light.

Being the end of the story, most would conclude with the solution to the supposed major conflict. In this instance, the rape and murder of William’s mom. But, this story does not do that. William’s death does not resolve the fact that his mom was raped and murdered. Nor does it absolve William of the lives he may have negatively affected in trying to mend his reputation. Alternatively, his death does provide a solution to the actual conflict and villain of the story. The true conflict, is that society is set in such a way that made William’s life possible. In this instance, culture is both the conflict, the social interactions between the people in the story, and also the villain, the force that allowed people to be put in the situation to begin with. This idea is made especially evident in the chorus of the song;


Dance forever with the Devil on a cold cell block
But that’s what happens when you rape, murder, and sell rock
Devils used to be God’s angels that fell from the top
There’s no diversity, because we’re burnin’ in the melting pot


Tech makes it quite evident, that no matter who you are, be it God’s angel or the Devil, you are stuck in the melting pot that is this culture of need for sex, money and power and the willingness to do anything to achieve that goal. Even if you are one who seems innocent and pure, or are trying to turn your life around, like William’s mom, you can still be hurt by this culture. In the end, all of the characters in the song are victims, in a broader sense, of society.

The solution that Tech than provides, is for William to kill himself. Even this though, is flawed, as Tech points out that “He jumped off the roof and died with no soul/ They say death take you to a better place, but I doubt it.” The idea of trying to leave the culture by killing himself does not work for Williams. Instead he is left soulless and in a worse position than when he began. Ultimately, we see that Immortal Technique seems hopeless that there is a solution to the dance with greed that our culture breeds other than staying vigilant and not trusting others.

How then, does this story, one with no happy ending or solution to the crisis it points out resolve itself? It doesn’t, which is exactly its point. The effectiveness of this piece is that because you are not given the answer and are ultimately not told how to feel, you are left to puzzle over a solution. Dance with the Devil leaves the listener with a discontent that can only be satiated by finding an answer to the problem of the culture. The final push that Immortal Technique gives to the people is that the listener must find the solution.



Langley, Jonathan, Jacob Grimm, and Wilhelm Grimm. Little Red Riding Hood. New York: Diamond Books, 1998.