Colorism In Rap

Nicolas Adeleye

Rap culture is infamous for many reasons ranging from the glorification of drug abuse and gun violence to the perpetuation of misogynistic themes and values. However, one of the most prominent issues within present-day rap culture is the perpetuation of European beauty standards, particularly light skin. How does the rap industry advertently and inadvertently endorse these standards of beauty? The answer to this can be found in the lyrics, videos, and interviews of your dearest rappers.

 In the summer of 2017 rapper, Kodak Black conversed with an interviewer on the topic of women, stating that he preferred a lighter-skinned woman over a dark-skinned woman (Witt). While it would be convenient to write this off as Black’s personal “preference” or an isolated incident of blatant colorism, statements such as these are ubiquitous within rap culture. When asked about red lipstick rapper A$AP Rocky stated: “light skin is the right skin”(On Hip-Hop’s Intersection of Colorism and Misogyny). This culture of colorism is not a modern rap issue, but a long-established staple of rap culture, observable through the mentions of “redbones” (light skin women) in the lyrics of popular old school artists like Cameron and Master P. In fact, this fixation with redbones emerges many times throughout vintage hip hop, especially in the lyrics, and now subsist in the diction of emerging stars like Blueface, Lil Yachty, and the aforementioned Kodak Black.

Colorism in rap materializes in far more than just verses though. In a casting call for Yeezy Season 4 Kanye West, who happens to be married to a white woman, stated that he fancied “multicultural woman” as models for his brand, a perspicuous placeholder for light-skinned women. This statement comes only days after Kodak was slammed for lyrics in an unreleased song which divulged his light-skinned fetishization, stating: “I don’t want know black bitch, I’m already black”(On Hip-Hop’s Intersection of Colorism and Misogyny). While these statements are quite blatant in their colorist nature, more elusive acts of colorism transpire in some of the most salable rap music videos of today. The women featured in these music videos as “video vixens” seem to share three indistinguishable traits: long hair, bright eyes, and most essential, light skin. All three of these traits fit the glove of European beauty standards securely and purposively. These women are meant to characterize the archetypal appealing woman for the watchers of these videos, and it is not fortuitous that dark-skinned women seem to seldom appear as the leads of these videos, but may (if lucky enough) be placed somewhere in the context of light skin and curly loose hair.

Being that so many people watch and listen to rap and the interviews that accompany it, many have been exposed to the glorification of European beauty standards by rap artist. How does this affect the psyche of listeners? Well, according to a study published in the Psychology Of Music by Morgan L. Maxwell, Jasmine A. Abrams, and Faye Z. Belgrave, rap music played a huge role in how young African American girls understood their blackness. They asked a focus group of 30 African-American girls between the ages of twelve and sixteen four questions about their perception of light-skinned Black girls; dark-skinned Black girls; messages about skin tone from rap music; and how those messages should be used. The data gathered produced 3 general themes present in all interviews: rap music sends messages showing preference to light-skinned females; messages about dark-skinned females were either missing in music or negative, and music used specific nicknames to describe females based on skin tone. Ultimately this music altered these kids’ perception of themselves negatively and made them feel as though there skin wasn’t the right skin (Semein).

 Feelings of inadequacy constructed by colorist themes materialize in black female rappers as well. An example of this is the distorted appearance of 90’s rapper Lil Kim, who’s skin tone progressively whitened throughout her career, going from brown in complexion to ghostly white produced by skin bleach and cosmetic surgeries. Through Lil Kim’s self-hatred driven mission to become the idolized “redbone”, we see just how deeply indelible this standard of beauty is within the rap game (Brown). When asked why she changed her appearance so drastically, Kim responded “ I have low self-esteem and I always have. Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.” Lil Kim’s struggle with being a “regular black girl”, and the apparent rejection of her blackness by black men even before entering the rap industry shows that  America’s European standards of beauty produce a proclivity for light skin by men and a lack of self-confidence in black women, as seen in Lil Kim. With these European standards of beauty palpable in every part of the media and pop culture, its presence in rap is not nonplus. However, rap could change this narrative of “light is right”.

Rap is the number one music genre in the world and its themes and messages are expelled through speakers across the land. With this in mind, rap is capable of being quite influential. Many rappers have begun speaking out against colorism within the industry, like Tory Lanez, who chastised his director for swapping a dark-skinned model for a lighter-skinned one during a video shoot (Tory Lanez Claims Directors Tried Enforcing Colorism on Set of Video Shoot), and rapper Kendrick Lamar, who featured a dark-skinned woman as the lead for his “Poetic Justice” music video (Gordan) intentionally. While these instances may seem insignificant when compared to the years of colorism thus far, the conversations enabled by these actions serve as evidence for how influential rap can be for producing social change.In conclusion, while present-day rap culture is capable/does perpetuate European beauty standards through lyrics, videos, and lifestyles, it is this same culture that can, if used correctly, spread messages of black beauty and self-love universally.

Citation Page

Brown, Anyke. “Lil Kim, Skin Bleaching, Plastic Surgery, Self Hate & Colorism.” Beauty, Health and Curls, 2 May 2016, beautyhealthandcurls.com/lil-kim-skin-bleaching-plastic-surgery-self-hate-colorism/.

Coleman, C. Vernon. “20 ‘Light Skin’ And ‘Dark Skin’ References In Rap Lyrics.” Vibe, 3 Nov. 2019, www.vibe.com/photos/20-light-skin-dark-skin-references-rap.

Gordon, Taylor. “Kendrick Lamar Tackles Colorism in ‘Poetic Justice’ Video.” Atlanta Black Star, 6 Mar. 2013, atlantablackstar.com/2013/03/06/kendrick-lamar-tackles-colorism-in-poetic-justice-video/.

Semein, Tommeka. “How Rap Music Influences African American Girls’ Perceptions of Skin Color.” PsyPost, 29 Aug. 2016, www.psypost.org/2016/08/how-rap-music-influences-african-american-girls-perceptions-of-skin-color-44632.

“On Hip-Hop’s Intersection of Colorism and Misogyny – Features.” IMPOSE Magazine, 13 Sept. 2016, www.imposemagazine.com/features/on-hip-hops-intersection-of-colorism-and-misogyny.

Staff, TMZ. “Tory Lanez Claims Directors Tried Enforcing Colorism on Set of Video Shoot.” TMZ, TMZ, 16 June 2019, www.tmz.com/2019/06/16/tory-lanez-colorism-black-girls-music-video-shoot-directors/.

Witt, Aja. “Colorism in the Music Industry and the Women It Privileges.” Iowa Research Online, ir.uiowa.edu/honors_theses/187/.

2 thoughts on “Colorism In Rap”

  1. Your analysis of how colorism in rap is socialized among black female rappers in the industry and young black girls who are fans is both saddening and not surprising. Often times within hip hop, male rappers perform a specific type of thug or gangster masculinity that demands an aggressive and dominant personality and negatively portrays women, especially dark-skinned women. While I agree that the colorism against females is rampant within the hip hop industry, I think it points to the bigger issue of overall representation of black female emcees, and how dark-skinned female rappers are often pushed to the side compared to lighter-skinned female rappers. This is why rappers such as Meg Thee Stallion are so important because they are rejecting traditional and European notions of beauty within rap, demonstrating other possibilities to which young girls can look.

  2. I agree that colorism in the rap industry has superiorly negative impacts and truly affects young African-American girls and even African-American men in modern society. The demonstration of the fact that this concept of self-deprecation that is becoming so prevalent around young black girls is a striking issue that is not being discussed enough; however, I do appreciate you pointing out the countering part of the spectrum whereas the rap industry can be a positive outlook in regards of rejecting traditional beauty standards among the black community and having a positive representation of black women for younger generations to see. If used adamantly in the future, the connotation of dark women could subside into one of beauty instead of division among the general community.

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