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From Minstrelsy to Migos

:

An Examination of White American Enjoyment of Trap Music

Benjamin Imani Glover
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INTRODUCTION

In late September of 2017, I attended a party at the University of Chicago’s Psi Upsilon

fraternity. The crowd of students was fairly large and as diverse as most UChicago frat parties

are: predominantly white with a smattering of students of color. However, this party in particular

was strange because the only other black people I could see were members of the frat itself. The

steady mix of EDM (electronic dance music) and Taylor Swift songs on the DJ’s playlist pretty

accurately reflected this demographic composition. I was on my way out when the DJ played a

familiar song: “T-Shirt” by Migos, an Atlanta-based rap trio. The crowd exploded with

excitement. Lead member Quavo’s sedate chorus blared from the speakers, and I looked around

in awe as almost everybody I saw was screaming it verbatim.

“​Momma told me, not to sell work // 17 5 same color T-shirt”

After the song finished, I found my way to the frat house exit. I began to wonder whether

the (white) people singing the chorus knew what it meant. I grew up listening to what is called

“trap music,” a subgenre of rap named after “the trap,” typically a socioeconomically

disadvantaged area inhabited by black and brown people where drugs are exchanged. The music

itself was founded upon, and pays homage to, drug culture. I did not grow up ​in ​the trap, but I

had a fair amount of friends who did. They told me about their experiences and taught me their

slang. From them I learned that “​work​” means drugs, “​17 5​” is shorthand for the average cost of

a kilogram of cocaine ($17,500), and that “​same color T-shirt​” is a reference to the whiteness of

that cocaine. But as I scanned the crowd, I was unsure if anybody actually knew what those

lyrics meant, or if they were familiar with trap culture, or if those things even mattered. I decided

to ask a white girl who was also on her way out. I asked her what she thought of “T-Shirt.” She
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said it was one of her favorite rap songs. I asked her if she knew what the chorus was about. She

said she was pretty sure it was about T-shirts. I asked her if she knew what “17 5” meant. She

said she had recently bought a T-shirt for $17 so she thought those numbers had to do with

T-shirt price. For her to be so enthusiastic about a song whose meaning was completely lost on

her was interesting, to say the least; despite not recognizing the underlying meaning of Quavo’s

euphemism and presumably having no knowledge of trap culture whatsoever, she loved the song.

For my thesis I am asking the following question: why do white Americans enjoy trap

music? Here, enjoyment refers to white Americans consuming the music with a positive affinity

despite (ostensibly) being unfamiliar with the messages presented in the song. I have chosen to

evaluate white Americans and not all white people because trap music was created by black

Americans in the United States and has been consumed more voraciously in the United States

than anywhere else. (I will refer to white Americans interchangeably as “white people” and

“whites” throughout the paper, as well as refer to black Americans interchangeably as “black

people” and “blacks.”)

In this paper I will detail the history of trap music and its emergence into the forefront of

rap and black culture. But before I do that I need to examine white American enjoyment of

previous forms of black music and/or entertainment during their peaks; blackface minstrelsy and

jazz, despite not being borne of white spaces, both amassed sizable white American followings

during the eras in which they were popular. (Although by grouping blackface minstrelsy in with

jazz I indirectly categorize it as a form of “black” entertainment, I would like to acknowledge at

the outset that it is not. It was created by white people to parody black people and is therefore a

white art form inspired by blackness but not a black art form. However, for the intents and
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purposes of this paper, namely to emphasize the connection between it, jazz, and trap music, I

will be referring to blackface minstrelsy as a black art form. I am making this distinction now so

that it is understood later what I mean when I refer to it as such.)

White American interest in these black art forms provides the historical precedent for

how trap music is currently being received in the United States. The question of authenticity has

always been a pressing one; white American fans of black music will always be scrutinized due

to their tendency to distill the music (blues, jazz, and rock, to name a few) from the culture and

develop an appreciation for the former while disregarding the latter. This invariably leads to

discussions about cultural appropriation, or whether white Americans should be allowed to

engage with the music in question if they cannot identify with the underlying culture.

Through my B.A. I plan on investigating why white Americans have such interest in trap

music despite not having roots in blackness and (typically) not having roots in trap culture;

although trap culture is synonymous with the drug-based exploits of black and brown people, it

is important to note that this culture is not exclusive to black and brown people. First I must

examine the literary histories of blackface minstrelsy and jazz and determine how they attracted

white fans, which should not only provide adequate background for my subsequent examination

of trap music but may also supply reasons as to what makes trap music so compelling for white

American listeners despite it being devoid of personal cultural significance. There are legitimate

reasons why “T-Shirt” is such an immensely popular song among white Americans, though none

of which have anything to do with T-shirts or their prices.
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LITERATURE REVIEW

Before I begin to dissect the possible reasons why trap music is so compelling for white

listeners I must first illustrate the centuries old historical precedent for white enjoyment of black

art. White enjoyment of black art was precipitated by white admiration of blackness itself. In ​The

White Negro​, Norman Mailer details why a generation of white Americans began to engage with

black culture in the mid-twentieth century. He discusses how the stringency and conformity

promoted by totalitarian society made it so that “if one is to be a man, almost any kind of

unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage.”1 That courage to break loose from

social convention, white Americans discovered, was not foreign to black Americans. Inherent

outsiders to their country’s culture and society, black Americans have been, by virtue of their

existence, participating in “unconventional action” for as long as they’ve lived in the United

States. These white Americans, whom Mailer refers to as “hipsters,” admired their black

counterparts for their bravery and “Hip,” which Mailer describes as the spirit of nonconformity

and unapologetic individualism. Therefore, “it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro

for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.”2

Mailer soon after attributes the presence of Hip in American society to jazz music “and

its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde

generation,”3 a generation which had been negatively impacted by the Twenties, the Great

Depression, and World War II. Jazz was a product of the emotional outpouring of black

Americans given two options in America: they could either humiliate themselves by tempering

1 Mailer, Norman. "The White Negro." ​Dissent Magazine​, digital ed., Fall 1957, pp. 1-22.
2 ​"The White Negro."
3 ​"The White Negro."
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their blackness to appear more palatable or they could refuse to do so and await persecution for

not assimilating into whiteness. Life for the black American was perpetually turbulent. Because

they could not typically afford the ways by which white Americans curbed the stress and anxiety

of everyday life, “he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the

mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the

character and quality of his existence.”4 As jazz swept across the nation, its evocative power

transcended attempts to dilute its blackness, and it enticed younger white people who struggled

to come to terms with their own existential musings.

Mailer claims that the hipster “had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro,”5

and that this is how the white Negro was born. But with regards to the prominence of blackface

minstrelsy in nineteenth century American society, perhaps it would be more apt for Mailer to

refer to jazz as the “adolescence” of the white Negro. I argue that the “white Negro” was born a

century earlier, during a time in which another “black” art form set the precedent for this white

interest in black culture. Granted, this nineteenth century art form was (generally) an indirect

product of blackness, in that it was created by white people pretending to be black. Conversely,

jazz came directly from black musicians. However, it is still important to note that white

Americans engaging with what they perceived to be blackness from the safety of their skin color

was not a new phenomenon in the twentieth century; black culture had become a target of white

intrigue far before jazz reached its apex.

Blackface minstrelsy was one of the most prominent forms of entertainment in nineteenth

century United States. Reaching its apex in 1846 and remaining there until 1854, it swept the

4 ​"The White Negro."


5 "The White Negro."
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nation, in particular the North, providing white spectators a glimpse of what they believed to be

black culture.6 In his book “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy & the American Working

Class,” Eric Lott discusses the varied ways in which American citizens both black and white

interpreted such a derisive theatrical practice. Today, the idea that blackface minstrelsy was, is,

and will always be a maliciously racist exercise goes virtually unchallenged. Writers and orators

such as Frederick Douglass who have lent their pens and voices to analyzing the history of

blackface minstrelsy have supported that very claim. Lott, however, separates himself from

“most other writers on minstrelsy, who have based their analyses on racial aversion, in seeing the
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vagaries of racial desire as fundamental to minstrel-show mimicry.” He believes white people’s

attraction to minstrel shows was derived not out of anti-black malice but out of envy.

Throughout his book, Lott pushes aside the obvious racism and ignorance which

undergirded nineteenth century minstrel shows in order to engage with the less-discussed

motivations of their white creators; curiosity about blackness and envy directed toward their

dark-skinned counterparts spurred white people to tiptoe over racial lines. He further argues that

the genuineness of white people’s desire to participate in blackness “made blackface minstrelsy

less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure.”8 If it

accomplished nothing else, blackface minstrelsy acted as the problematic ferry between two

cultural docks until the early twentieth century, by which time black people gained enough

agency to make their own cultural contributions.

6 Lott, Eric. ​Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class​. Oxford University Press, 2013.
7 ​Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.
8 ​Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.
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Lott’s point about white cross-racial desire, that blackface minstrelsy served as a sort of

liberation for its caricatured subjects, is unusual. Citing the positive reviews given to minstrel

shows by W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, Lott discusses a perception of blackface

minstrelsy that labels it as black culture; therefore, the white people participating in minstrel

shows are participating in “a celebration of an authentic people’s culture, the dissemination of

black arts with potentially liberating results.”9 This view seems to be an optimistic attempt to

re-contextualize what we now know as blatantly racist, but it does hold some merit. Regardless

of the inaccuracy with which minstrel shows represented blackness, white spectators were drawn

to them because they cast white actors; it unclear whether minstrel shows would have reached

the level of acclaim they did had the actors been black. White people were responsible for the

growth in popularity of minstrel shows and the “black culture” they depicted. As I will later

discuss with regards to trap music, white people thrusting blackness into the mainstream, a

phenomenon I will refer to throughout my paper as the “white co-sign,” has proven in many

cases, from minstrelsy to Migos (the rap trio mentioned in the introduction), necessary to grant

black art exposure it wouldn’t have received alone.

Blackface minstrelsy in the antebellum decades of the United States set the precedent for

white people to adopt, parody, and exploit black art forms as they saw fit. As the popularity of

minstrel shows began to dwindle in the 1920s, white people in turn found a new form of black

expression they could mimic. In “Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture,” Les Back

illustrates the crossover appeal of jazz music for white Europeans. The Savoy Ballroom in

Harlem, one of the first places in the United States where dancers could gather and dance openly,

9 ​Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.
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served as the training ground for new black dance techniques. New forms of jazz pioneered in

the Savoy Ballroom reached Europe via the jazz subcultures of London that had previously been

established there. From there young Europeans adopted jazz music and its accompanying dance

style, swing, in an attempt to express themselves and their dissent against the totalitarian culture

established by Nazi Germany and iterated elsewhere throughout Europe. It is important to note

that the Savoy was a racially integrated space, often allowing for whites and blacks to be dance

partners. Just as the popularity of jazz surged in Europe, so it surged just as, if not more,

powerfully in the United States, where jitterbugs (the name given to white swing dancers)

became engrossed by jazz music. As par for the pre-Civil Rights course, dance establishments in

the American Midwest banned swing dancing, which only compelled rebellious jitterbugs to

continue dancing elsewhere.10

Back notes the complexity of jitterbugs’ affinity for black dance and cites the thoughts of

Malcolm X, who describes their relationship with jazz and swing dancing “as a combination of

white voyeurism and sexual adventure.”11 In a time and space that were overwhelmingly

anti-black and conservative in terms of individual expression, young whites were drawn to what

was black and ostentatious. Their relationship with jazz music and swing dancing not only

allowed them to participate in the exhilarating practices of a culture to which they didn’t belong

but also provided them with a release from the rigid structure of everyday life.12 This music and

dance borne of a black space was slowly becoming as white as it was black.

10 ​Back, Les. "Syncopated Synergy: Dance, Embodiment, and the Call of the Jitterbug." In ​Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and
Culture​, by Vron Ware and Les Back, 169-95. N.p.: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

11 "Syncopated Synergy: Dance, Embodiment, and the Call of the Jitterbug." In ​Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture.
12 ​"Syncopated Synergy: Dance, Embodiment, and the Call of the Jitterbug." In ​Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture.
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Black and white people experienced jazz music differently. For the former it was a

cathartic experience ingrained in their bodies and souls. For the latter it was a new, inviting

sound and memorizable set of steps that happened to catch on at the time. Enjoyment of jazz

music across racial lines seemingly occurred in different dimensions.

In 2017 America blackface minstrelsy has effectively been exterminated, save for the

occasional ignorant Halloween costume or edgy art demonstration. Jazz is no longer in the

forefront of the music scene but it is a pillar of American music, continuing to have a strong

foundation of listeners and influence artists belonging to other music genres. The newest and

most popular current form of black art is called trap music. Before there was trap music there

was crunk rap, a southern hip-hop subgenre characterized by looped drum machine rhythms and

repetitive refrains. It was exclusively party-oriented music and compensated for its lack of

substance with its catchiness and up-tempo style.13 During the height of crunk rap’s popularity in

the early 2000s “DJs started fusing crunk music with synths to produce the quintessential trap

sound.”14 It was around this time two Atlanta-based rappers named T.I. and Young Jeezy

released their debut albums, thereby ushering trap music into the mainstream. Recognized as the

pioneers of trap music, both artists claimed their stakes in the burgeoning subgenre. T.I. even

titled his second studio album, which he released in 2003, ​Trap Muzik​.15 This album provided an

official blueprint for trap’s crunk-influenced sound, which is characterized by its “​stuttering kick

13 ​Adaso, Henry. "Crunk Music." ThoughtCo. Last modified March 6, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/
definition-of-crunk-music-2857305.

14 ​Adaso, Henry. "The History of Trap Music." ThoughtCo. Last modified March 18, 2017.
https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-trap-music-2857302.

15 ​Lee, Sammy. "A Brief Track-by-Track History of Trap Music." Red Bull. Last modified July 11, 2017.
https://www.redbull.com/us-en/a-track-by-track-history-of-trap-music.
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drums, hi-hats, 808s and eerie synths.”16 But trap rap departs from crunk rap with regards to its

lyrical content. While crunk music was known for its upbeatness and vapidity, trap songs often

“deal in the gritty reality of street life, while the sounds are bleak and dystopian.”17 Yet, lyrics

are arguably less integral to the success of a trap song than is production. The importance of trap

production cannot be understated; without producers such as Shawty Red, Mannie Fresh, and

Zaytoven, the three of whom curated trap music’s sound during the early 2000s, trap music

would not have been able to distinguish itself from crunk rap and become popular in its own

right.18

T.I. and Young Jeezy continued to release trap projects as the subgenre grew throughout

the 2000s, and eventually other trap rappers emerged. One in particular, another Atlanta-based

rapper named Gucci Mane, became trap music’s biggest mainstream superstar after releasing a

slew of hits starting with “My Kitchen” in 2007 (which put him on the mainstream map),

“Lemonade” in 2009, and “Wasted” in the same year.19 “Wasted” peaked at number 36 on the

Billboard ​Hot 100 chart, the music industry’s popularity metric which measures a song’s fame

based on Nielsen Music data and sales data,20 and was Gucci Mane’s most popular song for 7

years.21 In 2015 a New Jersey-based rapper and singer named Fetty Wap released his debut

single “Trap Queen” which peaked at number 2 on the ​Billboard ​Hot 100 chart.22 These are just a

16 ​Lee, "A Brief Track-by-Track History of Trap Music," Red Bull.
17 ​ ​Lee, "A Brief Track-by-Track History of Trap Music," Red Bull.
18 ​Lee, "A Brief Track-by-Track History of Trap Music," Red Bull.
19 ​Lee, "A Brief Track-by-Track History of Trap Music," Red Bull.
20 ​"The Hot 100." Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100.
21 ​"Gucci Mane Chart History." Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/music/gucci-mane/chart-history.
22 ​"Fetty Wap Chart History." Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/music/fetty-wap/chart-history/
hot-100/song/868296.
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handful of the artists who have catalyzed the growth of trap music and have contributed in no

small part to the fact that this year, according to Nielsen Music data, hip-hop music surpassed

rock music as the most popular genre in the United States.23

Though it is surely not the contemporary marriage of blackface minstrelsy and jazz, it

appears as if trap music’s burgeoning white fanbase readily consumes it for the same reasons its

predecessors readily consumed blackface minstrelsy and jazz. With regards to blackface

minstrelsy, trap is a genre whose saturation in blackness drives white listeners to rap along so

that they may experience black culture and drug culture from the safety of their own skin. With

regards to jazz, trap is sonically captivating and its hard-hitting, gritty style has invited the

condemnation of older generations and the adoration of younger ones. I am writing this paper to

examine why white people like trap music but I cannot ignore the importance of their patronage;

many groups of people pushed trap music into the national spotlight, but white listeners pushed

the hardest.

In January of 2017 Donald Glover won two Golden Globes for ​Atlanta​, his television

show about two cousins navigating the Atlanta rap scene.24 As he stood on stage delivering his

acceptance speech, he thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press, television network FX, his fellow

cast and production crew members, and the city of Atlanta and its inspiring black citizens. Then

he did something unexpected. To conclude his speech, he thanked the aforementioned rap trio

23 ​Chesman, Donna-Claire. "Hip-Hop Passes Rock as the Most Popular Genre in the US, According to
Nielsen Data." Business Insider. Last modified July 18, 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/
hip-hop-passes-rock-as-the-most-popular-genre-in-the-us-2017-7.

24 ​Dionne, Zach. "Watch Donald Glover Win Two Golden Globe Awards for 'Atlanta,' Thank Migos & His Baby
Son." ​Fuse​, 9 Jan. 2017, www.fuse.tv/2017/01/
atlanta-donald-glover-golden-globe-award-speech-video-2017.
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Migos, ​“not for being in the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee. Like, that’s the best song

ever.”25 The Golden Globes were held on a Sunday night. According to Spotify analytics,

between 7 AM and 9 AM the following morning, streams of “Bad and Boujee” were up 243%

compared to streams from the previous Monday morning.26

It is important to consider the context of this streaming surge. Each year, the Golden

Globes, much like many other entertainment awards shows, is an overwhelmingly white space,

and it can be reasonably assumed that its viewership corresponds to that.27 And even if black

people had decided to watch the 2017 award show at higher-than-pedestrian rates, they would

not have needed the praise of Donald Glover to compel them to listen to the Atlanta-based trio’s

hit single because they had already been listening; due to the streaming numbers “Bad and

Boujee” accrued from the month prior to the Golden Globes, it leapfrogged Rae Sremmurd’s

“Black Beatles” to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (which was officially announced

on the day after the Golden Globes).28 “Bad and Boujee” streams didn’t skyrocket because black

people, Migos’s biggest consumers, were just discovering the music of the Migos in the year

2017. But many white people were. The following section of my paper is dedicated to defining

and explaining the importance of the white co-sign.

25 ​Lang, Cady. "Donald Glover's Shoutout to Migos at the Golden Globes Lit Up the Internet." ​Time​, 9
Jan. 2017, time.com/4628583/donald-glovers-migos-golden-globes-2017/.

26 ​Darville, Jordan. "Spotify Streams of Migos’s “Bad & Boujee” up 243% after Donald Glover’s
Golden Globes Shout Out." ​Fader​, 9 Jan. 2017, www.thefader.com/2017/01/09/
spotify-streams-bad-and-boujee-donald-glover-golden-globes.

27 ​Logan, Elizabeth. "Golden Globes 2017: The Biggest Wins for Diversity." ​Glamour​, 9 Jan. 2017,
www.glamour.com/story/golden-globes-2017-diversity.

28 ​Dandridge-Lemco, Ben. "Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” Is Now the No. 1 Song in the Country."
​Fader​, 9 Jan. 2017, www.thefader.com/2017/01/09/
migos-bad-and-boujee-no-1-song-hot-100-memes-donald-glover.
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White co-sign is a term which refers to the role of white consumers in jettisoning black

artistic content into the mainstream. White people, by virtue of their dominant population size

and overwhelming control of mass media markets, have a greater hand in making things popular

within American society than has any other ethnic group. The white co-sign manifests itself in

multiple ways. Sometimes, such as in the case of Donald Glover’s acceptance speech, it involves

the promotion of black art in a white-dominated space in which it would not normally be

promoted. By exposing a typically middle-aged and older, typically white audience to “Bad and

Boujee,” Glover introduced Migos to a demographic entirely different than the one that had

made them nationally famous. The streaming numbers do not lie; the sharp uptick in “Bad and

Boujee” listens can be attributed to the white people who began to tune in to Migos in January of

2017 for the first time.

Other times, the white co-sign involves exposing white rap fans to rappers they haven’t

yet found. In order to assess the relationship between the white so-sign and commercial success

in the following examples, I will be using the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the music popularity

barometer I mentioned previously which ranks each ​week’s “most popular songs across all

genres, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions as measured by Nielsen Music, sales data

as compiled by Nielsen Music and streaming activity data provided by online music sources.”29

On June 13, 2013, Migos released an album titled ​Y.R.N. ​(​Young Rich Niggas​).30 On that

album was a song titled “Versace.” Nine days after the album was released, rap icon Drake

released a remix of the “Versace” (which contained the original chorus and verses rapped by

29 ​"The Hot 100."
30 ​"Migos, DJ Scream (5), Cory B (2), DJ Ray G ​– YRN (Young Rich Niggas)." ​Discogs​,
www.discogs.com/Migos-DJ-Scream-5-Cory-B-2-DJ-Ray-G-YRN-Young-Rich-Niggas/release/4655070.
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Migos).31 Following the release of this remix, both the remix and the original song went viral. Its

Drake-augmented popularity made it peak at number 99 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on

September 21, 2013.32 For the past decade, Drake has arguably been the most consistently great,

popular artist in rap music.33 His ability to rap and sing gives him an unprecedented amount of

crossover appeal between the genres of hip-hop and R&B that no artist has ever before secured.

His expansive fanbase is a healthy mix of all races, and by virtue of his immense popularity he

has more white fans than many rappers have total fans; that he is biracial himself (born to a white

mother and a black father) only fortifies his white fanbase.

Before Drake remixed “Versace,” Migos was not a household name. They were

semi-popular in Atlanta, the South, and black communities nationwide off the strength of a few

mixtapes, but they had not made any music that found its way onto the national stage. Enter

Drake, whose remix saturated mainstream airwaves and introduced the entire nation to the

Atlanta rap trio. Since then, Migos have made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart 30 times,34 and

their acclaim has skyrocketed both nationally and internationally. They are now widely regarded

as the world’s number 1 rap group.35 One can argue that they would have broken through to the

mainstream eventually even had they not teamed up with Drake. But what’s certain is that

Migos’s pre-“Versace,” overwhelmingly black fanbase was not the primary reason they became

31 ​Smith, Trevor. "Migos - Versace (Remix) Feat. Drake." ​HotNewHipHop​, 22 June 2013,
www.hotnewhiphop.com/migos-versace-song.1438066.html.

32 ​"Versace." ​Billboard​, www.billboard.com/music/migos/chart-history/hot-100/song/786051.
33 ​Pierre, Alphonse. "With “God’s Plan,” Drake Proved He’s Still Easily the Most Popular Rapper
in the Game." ​Complex​, 25 Jan. 2018, www.complex.com/music/2018/01/
drake-gods-plan-streaming-records-most-popular-rapper.

34 ​"Migos Chart History." ​Billboard​, www.billboard.com/music/migos/chart-history/hot-100.
35 ​Moore, Sam. "Migos – Everything You Need to Know about the Number One Hip-Hop Group in the World."
​NME​, 10 Jan. 2017, www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/who-are-migos-1941405.
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nationally known; it was the influx of Drake’s white listeners, who, prior to Drake’s “Versace”

remix, did not know who Migos was and who eagerly consumed “Versace” as soon as they

found out, pushing the song nationwide.

Specifically with regards to trap music, trap rappers do not necessarily need to receive a

white co-sign to garner notoriety. Many trap rappers have achieved commercial success and

amassed loyal followings in pockets throughout the country without crossing over into the

mainstream and being heavily consumed by white Americans. Jeezy is a great example of a trap

artist who has encountered this type of success. As I mentioned in the trap music section of the

literature review, Jeezy is a rapper from Atlanta who (alongside fellow Atlanta rapper T.I.)

pushed trap into the mainstream spotlight. A trap fixture throughout the 2000s, Jeezy became

famous for his trademark gravelly voice, his lyrical content centered on life in the trap, and his

affinity for rapping over high-octane, 808-heavy, horn-laden beats concocted by esteemed trap

producers such as Shawty Red. He experienced a respectable amount of commercial success, and

still does today; he has appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart 25 times in his career.36 It is

important to note, though, that the majority of these Hot 100 appearances occurred during the

early stages of his career, during which trap was new, unexplored, and dominated by only a

handful of rappers. He, along with T.I. and Gucci Mane, were the genre’s stalwarts. Over time,

the landscape of trap music began to change, and the shifting of the old guard rendered Jeezy’s

brand of trap music outdated. Autotune-laced vocals, undercutting melodies, and synthetic

production came to replace the traditional trap sound as the new face of the genre. Instead of

36 "Jeezy Chart History." ​Billboard​, www.billboard.com/music/jeezy/chart-history/hot-100/.

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embracing that shift, as did T.I., Gucci Mane, and countless other trap artists, Jeezy chose not to

abandon the trap style he pioneered.

Jeezy’s commitment to uniformity and willingness to pass the torch to the new crop of

trap artists instead of hurriedly reinventing his style allowed him to gracefully depart from the

forefront of trap music, but this occurred before he had a chance to capture a white audience’s

attention. For that reason he never got a white co-sign. To this day he exists on the periphery of

trap music, every so often releasing records which embody the original trap sound; his most

recent album, titled ​Pressure​, which he released in December of 2017, is a testament to his

stylistic consistency.37 He is not known worldwide, or even nationwide. However, he has

sustained commercial success for the entirety of his career, and his name will always hold weight

in black communities across the nation, especially those in the South, if not for his extensive

body of work and contributions to rap culture, then for his 2009 tribute to Barack Obama titled

“My President,” which peaked at number 53 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.38 And yet, it’s fairly

certain that the notoriety he and other trap rappers achieve predominantly on the strength of

communities of color can never reach the apex they might reach with the help of a white co-sign.

The white co-sign is powerful enough to be the difference between an artist launching a

respectable career and an artist becoming a national and/or international household name. This is

all to say that, regardless of ​why ​white people enjoy trap music, which I plan on further

investigating soon, ​that ​they enjoy it is significant in and of itself.

In my introduction, I noted that I was unsure if it matters whether a listener understands

every reference, euphemism, or utterance of vernacular present in a trap song. Further, I am

37 "Young Jeezy - Pressure." ​Discogs​, www.discogs.com/Young-Jeezy-Pressure/release/11269832.


38 "Jeezy Chart History."
17
unsure if it matters whether a rapper’s lyrical content is truthful. These both relate to

authenticity, a hot-button issue in the rap world, both on the side of the consumer and the creator.

Travis Scott is a perfect example of why the legitimacy of a rapper’s lyrical content is not always

relevant to listeners’ enjoyment.

Trap music’s resident autotune aficionado, Travis Scott has risen to rap prominence over

the past few years, propelled by his 2013 breakout mixtape titled ​Owl Pharaoh​.​ ​A few years ago,

he released ​Rodeo​, his major-label debut, which peaked at number 3 on the Billboard 200, a

music popularity barometer akin to the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but for albums instead of songs.
39
Travis’s sometimes brooding, sometimes energetic melodies have proven to pair well with his

subject matter of choice, drug use; his most commercially successful solo song to date,

“Antidote” (which peaked at number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 201540),

contains a hook which both subtly and directly highlights his affinity for self-medication:

“Don’t you open up that window // don’t you let out that antidote // poppin’ pills

is all we know”41

However, Travis’s lifestyle is considerably more sober than his music suggests. In a 2015

interview with Billboard, his interviewer mentioned that ​Rodeo​, which had recently dropped,

talks a lot about drinking and drug use. The interviewer went on to ask if Travis was a heavy user

of either. Travis responded “it stresses me out because people think I’m on a lot of drugs, which

fucking pisses me off. I’m not at all. I barely drink alcohol and I smoke weed kind of. But I don’t

39 Hyman, Dan. "Travis Scott Dishes on 'Stepdad' Kanye West and Being Misunderstood: 'People Think I'm a Douchebag.'" ​Billboard​, 7

Sept. 2015, www.billboard.com/articles/news/magazine-feature/
6700345/travis-scott-rodeo-rihanna-kanye-west-justin-bieber.

40 ​"Travis Scott Chart History." Billboard. ​https://www.billboard.com/music/travis-scott/chart-history​.

41 "Travis Scott - Antidote Lyrics." ​Genius​, genius.com/Travis-scott-antidote-lyrics.

18
do coke or any of that crazy-ass shit.”42 And yet, despite this outright admission of inauthenticity,

Travis has only become more popular; he has reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart 18 times since

that interview (compared to reaching it only twice before the interview).43 He has become one of

the rap game’s most popular crooners while delivering lines such as:

“Woke up cocaine all in my hair thought it was lice”44

“I’m so loaded off the pills so don’t ever try me”45

“Crushed xans in my soda, riding ‘round the city with my eyes closed”46

It’s abundantly clear that Travis’s fans don’t care that he’s not always honest when he

raps. His autotune-infused singing voice mixed with his adeptness at conjuring catchy hooks and

flows give him one of rap’s most captivating sounds. His success indicates a rapper’s

authenticity (or lack thereof) does not necessarily steer listeners’ enjoyment in either direction.

This especially holds true for trap music. We can reasonably assume that most trap rappers,

whose lyrical content is typically littered with references to drug use, drug distribution, drug

manufacturing, sexual prowess, wealth, material possessions, and committing acts of violence,

are not always telling us the complete truth in their songs. However, if the final product is

sonically appealing, lyrical veracity tends to be viewed as insignificant. I believe this will be

important later when I assess interview responses.


42 Hyman, Dan. "Travis Scott Dishes on 'Stepdad' Kanye West and Being Misunderstood: 'People Think I'm a Douchebag.'"
43 ​"Travis Scott Chart History."

44 "Migos - Kelly Price Lyrics." ​Genius​, genius.com/Migos-kelly-price-lyrics.


45 Lyons, Patrick. "All the Drug References on Travis Scott's 'Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight.'"
​HotNewHipHop​, 9 Sept. 2016, www.hotnewhiphop.com/
all-the-drug-references-on-travis-scotts-birds-in-the-trap-sing-mcknight-news.23982.html.


46 Lyons, Patrick. "All the Drug References on Travis Scott's 'Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight.'"
19
METHODOLOGY

For my thesis I plan on conducting interviews to uncover why people enjoy listening to

trap music. Based on the literature I examined, I hypothesize white fans of trap music enjoy it for

the same (or similar) reasons their predecessors enjoyed blackface minstrel shows (not including

the blatant anti-black sentiment) and jazz music; it allows them to experience blackness from the

safety of their own skin and/or its lyrical content and musical arrangement make it pleasing to

hear. I also hypothesize black people enjoy trap music for the same reasons their predecessors

enjoyed jazz music; it is an art form deeply rooted in black culture, candid about the black

struggle, and infused with declarations of black pride and success. I will compare the answers I

receive across racial lines so that I may observe the differences between white and black

responses.

In order to probe those hypotheses I plan to interview twenty undergraduate students who

attend the University of Chicago and enjoy trap music, ten of whom are white Americans and ten

of whom are black Americans. When I say “white American” I am referring to students who

identify as white, were born to at least one white parent, and whose families have lived in

America for at least the past three generations. When I say “black American” I am referring to

students who identify as black, were born to at least one black parent, and whose families have

lived in America for at least the past three generations; from here I will often refer to them as

“white” students and “black” students, respectively. I made the interview sample size ten of each

race so that I can hopefully interview students whose hometowns account for all regions of the

United States into which rap culture can be divided: the West Coast, the East Coast, the South,

the Midwest, and the rest of the United States; the number ten also allows me to account for
20
regional outliers such as Florida, whose rap culture developed independently of, and is markedly

different than, the rap culture of the region it inhabits.

I chose to interview students attending the University of Chicago because its students

come from so many different places within the United States that their embrace of trap music

probably occurred within different circumstances; students from Atlanta, the birthplace of trap

music and a city where trap music saturates the airwaves and the culture, may have had a

fundamentally different experience discovering, and appreciation for, trap music than do people

from Seattle, whose music scene has never been dominated by rap and has never produced any

(notable) trap rappers. I believe the discrepancy in trap music’s popularity and prominence

across regions will be no small factor in determining the reasons why people enjoy listening to it.

In order to determine which students enjoy trap music I will create flyers on which I will

have typed the following: “If you are an undergraduate University of Chicago student who

identifies as white American or black American, enjoys listening to trap music, and would like to

be interviewed about your experience with trap music, please text (my phone number). Make

sure to include your race (white American or black American), your hometown, and your home

state in the text.” There are many places on campus I plan on posting the flyers, including the

Logan Center for the Arts, the Regenstein Library, the Ratner Athletic Center, Reynolds Club,

and various classrooms and cafes throughout campus in and around which bulletin boards for

posting flyers are present. First I will ask each respondent whether they have at least one parent

whose race matches theirs and if their family has lived in the United States for at least the past

three generations. I will organize the students who respond “yes” to both questions into

categories based on their race and the region in which their hometown is located and assign each
21
respondent a different number. When I have received enough responses to satisfy my sample size

I will use a random number generator to choose ten white students and ten black students. In

order to do this I will go category by category so that I can create as equally distributed and

regionally diverse a random sample as possible.

During the interview I will ask the respondents questions about the extent of their

knowledge of trap culture, how and when they began listening to trap music, what the music

scene in their hometown is like, whom their favorite trap artists are, and what their favorite trap

songs are, among other questions. I also plan on playing for my interviewees a famous trap song,

“Versace” by Migos, so that they can identify exactly which parts of the song they enjoy. I

choose this song because it is the marriage of the structural components that constitute a

quintessential trap song: a repetitive hook, an infectious beat, high-energy vocals, and frenetic

rhyme schemes throughout. Ideally, their answers will reflect what they generally feel to be the

most compelling aspect(s) of the music. By playing “Versace” I hope to push the respondents to

indicate why​ ​it sounds good to them. The data I collect from the interviews should not only show

commonalities between my white respondents’ relationships with trap music and their

predecessors’ relationships with blackface minstrelsy and jazz, but also illuminate general beliefs

about trap music’s sound, which will be discussed in later sections of my thesis.

One possible limitation is that the white students I interview may interpret my research

question as one designed to ridicule or discredit their enjoyment of trap music, which is not my

intention, as I do not wish to deride their musical preferences in any regard. As a result, they may

answer my questions in a way as to not align themselves and their views with those of the white

people who frequented blackface minstrel shows in the late-nineteenth century and co-opted jazz
22
music in the early-twentieth century. The remedy to this would be to give them only as much

information about my thesis as necessary; if I inform them of my research question without

revealing my plan to compare their responses to those of blackface minstrel show spectators and

jitterbugs, then I believe I will receive less veiled answers. Also it will be important to keep the

interview as informal as possible as to not seem as if I am dissecting their answers.

Another limitation is that I am unsure if I will receive twenty respondents whose

hometowns satisfy the regional diversity I seek; ten white respondents all from the Northeast

corridor would not adequately represent rap’s regional divisions. I aim to conduct twenty

interviews, but if too few people respond to the flyer, then I will interview fewer than twenty

people while maintaining the 1:1 race ratio of the respondents.

DATA

Survey and Interview Analysis

Sixteen survey responses have been collected. Twenty-one students inquired, thirteen

who identified as black American and eight who identified as white American, so I used a

random number generator to determine which eight of the thirteen black respondents I would

interview. Of the eight black respondents, two indicated they lived in the Midwest, three on the

East Coast, two in the South, and one on the West Coast. Of the eight white respondents, five

indicated they lived on the East Coast, one in the South, and two on the West Coast.

There was noticeable variance in the genres the respondents claimed constituted the

music scenes of their respective hometowns, but one thing was consistent: rap music was not an

integral part of almost all of them. Only two respondents were regularly exposed to rap music at
23
an early age, and one of those respondents attributed this exposure not to their hometown’s

music scene but to the preference of their parents. The remaining fifteen lived in places in which

rap had not broken through the mold of the music scene. My efforts to establish regional

diversity in the respondent pool were fruitless, as trap music’s establishment in different regions

appeared to influence only one of the respondents, and none from the region which gave birth to

the music itself.

Students described living in places whose musical communities were “very focused on

pop music” and tended to play “a lot of country music/rock.”

“​The music scene is okay if you’re into indie or alt rock. Just picture yourself in a craft
brewery. The music that’s playing in your imagination is the music that’s popular in the
state.”

If a genre as multifaceted as rap was not pervasive enough to infiltrate the music scene in

hometowns across the nation, then surely its more debaucherous offspring has not had nearly as

much time to accomplish the same. Trap was only in its formative stages during the mid-2000s

and did not reach mainstream popularity until Gucci Mane’s “My Kitchen” in 2007, which very

well may account for its absence in commercial music rotations at a time at which current

college students such as myself were just starting to navigate the music world with considerable

agency.

Describing where they grew up, none of the respondents indicated they lived in or even

near what we now know as the trap. As a result of growing up not listening to trap music and

also not being exposed to the trap itself, it is understandable that only one of the respondents was

familiar with the trap and the cultural significance it holds.

“I’ve been listening to trap music since high school and I still don’t really know what the
trap is. I get bits and pieces from the songs but I’m not too sure what any of it means.
When I started listening to trap I just assumed they called it that because it was catchy.”
24

At any length, trap music exploded in the 2010s, methodically working its way into

mainstream pop culture and joining rap proper as a form of veritable commercial black

expression, though its departure from the tenets of other genres took some students a while to

come around to it.

“The thing with trap is that it’s completely antithetical to the music I grew up on, not just
thematically but musically. I grew up on, essentially, music as a (white) devotional form.
Trap, with its braggadocio, (usual) masculinity, and hi-hat syncopation, is more like
music as a sport: you come to watch these people be good at what they do, and it inspires
an aspirational drive in you. For me, growing up, that was the barrier to entry.”

For other students, trap music was initially difficult to enjoy because its

intellectually-sparse lyrical style was not as impressive as the other styles of rap to which they

listened, making trap music somewhat of an acquired taste.

“It took a minute. I was listening to a lot of stuff like Danny Brown/Pro Era/Flatbush
Zombies, so the transition to a more aesthetically oriented subgenre wasn’t super natural.
I had to start appreciating the music for what it was and stop trying to push my
expectations of Joey Bada$$-esque quadruple entendres on to it.”

Not coincidentally, the only respondent who liked trap music right away was the one who

was familiar with the the trap and its cultural significance before trap music became popular.

Some respondents began to develop an interest in trap culture after being exposed to the music,

an interest that was not necessarily grounded in the music itself.

“I think it was more of a fascination with a world/culture completely foreign to me. I was
listening to and enjoying this music that comes from a place that I couldn’t relate to at all,
and it drew me in.”

Conversely, other respondents expressed that their enjoyment of trap music did not, in

fact, pique their interest in the culture from which it came.

“I mean there have definitely been times when I’ve [researched] what certain lyrics mean
in a trap context but other than that I haven’t really been interested.”
25
In the introduction I conjectured why one might enjoy listening to trap music despite

presumably being unfamiliar with the euphemisms and references used throughout the song, let

alone the overarching culture which typically presents itself to far more black and brown people

than white people. I had a sneaking suspicion that one’s familiarity with the music, slang, and

culture does not necessarily have any bearing on whether they enjoy the music. The following

section confirms that suspicion.

Listening Analysis

For each respondent I played Migos’s hit song, “Versace.” I asked each respondent to tell

me what exactly it was about the song that made it compelling to hear. My first hypothesis,

which I stated in my methodology section, was that white people enjoy trap music for reasons

similar as to why their predecessors enjoyed blackface minstrel shows - it allows them to

experience blackness from the safety of their own skin - and jazz - because its lyrical content

and/or structural arrangement make it sonically pleasing. My second hypothesis was that black

people enjoy trap music for the same reasons their predecessors enjoyed jazz music; it is an art

form deeply rooted in black culture, candid about the black struggle, and infused with

declarations of black pride and success. The results of the listening analysis support that my

white listener hypothesis was somewhat accurate, while my black listener hypothesis was

perhaps too gratuitous.

All sixteen respondents noted that the hook (which, by the way, consists exclusively of

Migos’s lead member Quavo repeating the word “Versace” with varying inflections) makes the

song appealing; words such as “catchy,” “fun,” “engaging,” and “psychedelic” were used to

describe the song’s now-iconic refrain. Many included additional reasons as to why they liked
26
the song. Some respondents claimed the Migos’s adlibs throughout the song were integral to

their enjoyment.

“The adlibs are like the glue of this song. A lot of trap songs, really. There’s so much
empty space at the end of every line that you gotta put some vocals there. Migos fill in
those dead spots perfectly. ‘WOO!’ ‘SHINE!’ ‘SKRT!’ ‘VERSACE!’ It keeps the energy
way up.”

Others pinpointed the song’s production as its most magnetic feature.

“Who cares that they aren’t really saying anything? The song is catchy, has a great
bounce, and keeps moving. It doesn’t stagnate. S/o Zaytoven for that. When you get a
producer like that who can make a track with energy and rappers who can match that
energy and pull it forward, you get good, clean, trap fun and ‘Versace’ is that.”

And still others opted for a more analytical approach, delving into ​why ​the song’s

unadorned hook is so mesmerizing.

“It’s so fun to say the names of fashion labels, and Versace in particular has a “-ch”
sound in it that gives its repetition a unique percussive quality.”

Every reason given by every respondent dealt with the song’s sound, whether it was the

sticky hook, the animated adlibs, the lively production, or the striking nature of the vocals. I did

not receive a single response from a black student whose enjoyment of the song was related to

how the Migos portrayed black culture, black success, or black wealth. Nor did I receive a single

response from a white student whose enjoyment of the song was related to how they felt the song

allowed them to engage with blackness from a safe distance. None of the respondents’

enjoyment was derived from an appreciation for trap culture or the quality of the lyrics. Yet, each

respondent expressed that they very much enjoyed the song. It seems as if a song’s aural appeal

alone is much more powerful than for which I previously gave it credit. And to my point about

authenticity, no respondents inquired about whether the Migos’s many boasts could be

substantiated by evidence; the existence of Quavo’s silk Versace underwear, Offset’s Ferragamo
27
handcuffs, and Takeoff’s Maserati went unchecked.47 The truthfulness of the lyrical content is

simply unimportant in such an enthralling song, as would be the case for the overwhelming

majority of trap songs.

“If I’m [partying], I’m not trying to hear J. Cole talk about “​No such thing as a life that’s
better than yours​.” I’m not trying to ponder life in the club. But hearing “Versace” come
on and everybody is able to simultaneously [party] and yell out adlibs? It’s catchy, it’s
fun, and the lyrics still make sense.”

CONCLUSION

Until I conducted these interviews I had never discussed at length with anybody their

views about trap music. In my experience as a listener, I have always felt a connection with trap

rappers, despite the fact that the neighborhoods in which they grew up, the subjects about which

they rap, and the lifestyles they live are mostly foreign to me. The connection I felt, then, was

one of cultural pride. The ideas of making something out of nothing, rising from the bottom to be

successful, acquiring wealth as a black person in a white-dominated society, and existing as an

unapologetically black body in white spaces are all things I admire, even though I can’t

completely relate to all of them.

My appreciation for trap music has always been, on the surface, an appreciation for the

catchy hooks, engaging rhyme schemes, and beguiling beats. Yet, at a deeper level, my

appreciation has been fueled by a working knowledge of, and interest in, trap culture, and a

respect for black artists who have emerged from unfavorable socioeconomic circumstances to

secure financial stability for themselves and their people. In operating under the assumption that

all, or at least most, black people knew about trap culture and felt similarly to me about trap

47 "Migos - Versace Lyrics." ​Genius​, genius.com/Migos-versace-lyrics.

28
music, thereby extrapolating my own feelings about trap music onto other black listeners, I set a

rickety precedent on which one of my hypotheses stood. There are many black people in

America whose understandings of trap culture are just as cursory, or nonexistent, as those of

white people. There are many black people in America whose enjoyment of trap music is based

solely on what the music sounds like, and not based on them catching every reference and

euphemism thrown at them. All of the black students I interviewed enjoy trap music, but not

because of their ties to the trap, their fondness for trap culture, or a subsurface desire to see black

people succeed (which they very well may feel, just not for this specific instance). They enjoy it

because it sounds good.

With regards to white trap listeners, it appears that they enjoy trap for the same reason: it

sounds good. I was eager to compare white attitudes toward trap to white attitudes toward jazz

and blackface minstrelsy, but I realize less of a parallel exists between the former and the two

latter than I previously believed. ​Trap music exists in a vastly different social context than did

jazz and blackface minstrel shows. Blackface minstrelsy was once the nation’s most popular

form of entertainment; now, instances of blackface in the United States are virtually unanimously

regarded as repugnant. Race relations in the United States are nowhere near ideal for its

nonwhite citizens, but they have progressed a considerable amount from a time during which

black people could be a white person’s property.

In the current-day United States, white people no longer have to couch their interest in

black culture in offensive caricature. Black culture is on full display in just about all facets of

American life. Because the United States is a less oppressive place for black Americans now

than it was in the 1800s, white Americans do not have to hide their fascination with black culture
29
nearly as much as they did then. For these reasons, I believe white people don’t need to use trap

music to engage with black culture like they needed blackface minstrelsy to do so centuries ago.

It’s far more acceptable to partake in (what they perceive to be) blackness now. That’s not to say

that absolutely no white people use trap music as a way to experience blackness from the

security of whiteness, but I would think considerably fewer do now than did with blackface

minstrelsy.

In the early-twentieth century, jitterbugs had to sneak out of their houses to reconvene at

jazz clubs to dance, and could only engage with the music and the culture enveloping it if they

did so subversively. Today, white kids can listen to trap music with as little effort as it takes to

open Spotify or Apple Music on their phones. Jazz was more important to black people than trap

is to black people now, and renowned jazz musician Duke Ellington illuminates that importance:

“The music of my race is something more than the “American idiom.” It is the result of
our transplantation to American soil, and was our reaction in the plantation days to the
tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music, and what we
know as “jazz” is something more than just dance music.”48

Jazz embodied the collective, soul-crushing struggle of an entire people, and

opportunities to hear and dance to it were monumentally important to the morale of the black

community. Trap does not occupy that same space in the black community today. Perhaps the

influence on the black community of rap at its politico-centric height could be compared to that

of jazz, but trap in its current state certainly cannot. Because trap is more accessible, more

socially acceptable, and less integral to the black experience now than was jazz in the early

twentieth century, white listeners cannot embrace trap from the same angles of rebellion and

black curiosity from which they embraced jazz, or at least not from angles of the same steepness.

48 "Syncopated Synergy: Dance, Embodiment, and the Call of the Jitterbug." In ​Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture.
30
It would be foolish to think that absolutely no white people listen to trap for those reasons, but it

can be reasonably assumed that the majority of white trap fans do not.

If the results of the listening portion of my interviews have taught me anything, it is that

black people and white people often enjoy trap music for the same reason: it simply sounds

good. Surely there are black listeners who enjoy it for reasons related to black cultural pride,

surely there are white people who enjoy it because rapping along to the word “nigga” in songs is

exhilarating, and surely there exist myriad other reasons as to why trap music appeals to both

parties. But a base level, people listen to the music they like because it pleases them. I believe

the mass majority of people in the United States who are fans of trap music, white and black,

listen to it because it is entertaining and sonically pleasing. Perhaps there’s not much more to it

than that.
31
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