Questioning the “History” of Rap: Critical Thoughts on the Fallon-Timberlake Duo


Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed last night, I noticed a few people had posted a link to Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s latest edition to their video series, the “History of Rap”. This is the sixth one. Last time I checked, they’d done two. Obviously I have not been keeping close tabs on this late-night TV skit. In essence, Fallon and Timberlake perform a fast-paced 5-ish-minute mash-up of hip-hop songs (instrumentals provided by the Roots, one of the most notable and groundbreaking hip-hop groups of all time, who now hold a residency on the Tonight Show) that span the last three decades of hip-hop and rap. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake are talented and have pretty remarkable stage presence. We also know that Fallon has a love of hip-hop and a penchant for doing impressions and engaging in frequent lip-sync battles with celebrities; and that Timberlake has a long history of pulling hip-hop influences into his dress, dance, and speech/vocals.

On the surface, watching this “rap duo” perform a medley of hip-hop classics is impressive. Fallon and Timberlake perform well together and they are vocally talented — they can spit words quickly, change pitch fluidly, and again, have an entertaining stage presence. This is not what I take issue with.

When I saw the History of Rap Part I video a few years ago, I was very into mash-ups at the time and Fallon was the new Tonight Show host. They opened with “Rapper’s Delight“, did some Biggie, Missy, LL Cool J, Kanye (Soulja Boy…ok…?), and ended with “Empire State of Mind”. Even though it was two white dudes covering songs originally rapped by Black hip-hop artists, and I knew that could/might/should be problematic, I still dug it. Shortly after, however, they came out with Part II. I was excited to see what songs they’d selected for this next round. But immediately after screening the second rendition, I was unsure about it; unsure about this whole venture. I remember thinking to myself, “Those were the songs they selected to give an overview of the history of rap?!” and, “The fact that two white guys are rapping, while ?uestlove and The Roots play the instrumentals on the side of the stage, out of the camera’s view, is bothering me.” At the time, I was enrolled in Chris Emdin’s “History of Hip-Hop/Hip-Hop in Education” course, where we traced hip-hop back to its deepest roots–from Africa to the Caribbean; from the Antebellum south up to the “free,” but stratified north; from the 1970s to the 2000s. My hip-hop knowledge prior to the course was good, but I learned so much more about the contextual layers and nuances of hip-hop and rap in Emdin’s class, leaving me entirely unfulfilled and rather annoyed by Fallon and Timberlake’s second video.

And that was it. I didn’t write about it then, I’m not sure why. And I haven’t watched or come across another History of Rap video since…until last night.

This morning, I saw that a few more people had posted the link to Part 6. They were excited about the addition to the series, celebrating the talents and awesomeness of this rap collaboration. But then I saw that a colleague (and brilliant scholar) at UGA, Dr. Bettina Love, had also posted the link to the video and her accompanying comment caught my eye. She writes,

We can’t have shit. They are calling this history. To them, Hip Hop started when they picked it up. It started when they co-opted it. They won’t talk about its real roots, Africa. They won’t talk about its power to educate. This is not the history of Hip Hop, this is the history of rap meeting cultural appropriation, commercialism, and the white gaze.

‘It ain’t about keeping it real, it’s about keeping it right’ – DJ Kool Herc (in Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture, by Greg Tate)

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Bettina’s comment stirred something in me, reminded me of how I felt after my first few encounters with this series, something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. The intersections between popular culture and social justice are where the sparks fly for me, I’m realizing that more and more recently. I needed to write on this. Now.

I spent the summer thinking and writing about school discourse and the discursive practices of young women, exploring how girls’ identities seem to be impacted by dominant ideas of perfection that have seamlessly become normative practices in a particular school space. Language is powerful; it is political.  By simply calling this series of videos the History of Rap, everyone from Fallon to Timberlake, to the producers of the Tonight Show, the executives at NBC, even The Roots, are contributing to the co-optation of a culture, a people, an ancestry, and a a musical genre that emerged to cope with and simultaneously combat inequalities and injustices.

Hip-hop is about so much more than just the music, especially the mainstream and commercialized songs (which are the only songs that Fallon and Timberlake sample). It is in the title of the video series, the song choices, and moments like in Part 6 when Fallon goes ‘off-script’ after rapping the chorus from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and launches into the opening of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” breaking away from center stage and getting close to a side stage camera as he is about to introduce himself as a “crazy mother*cker named Ice Cube” (all part of the skit, of course). The music stops and Timberlake grabs Fallon’s arm and pulls him back to center stage where he motions for Fallon to take a moment to cool down. While there is an uproar of audience cheers and laughter, a more critical take on this moment is how Fallon and Timberlake use these songs–about fighting dominant discourses and powers that oppress Black people in the U.S.–as a backdrop for their performance, silencing the messages of a historically oppressed people.

After a moment, Timberlake gets fake-serious, speaking to Fallon in a slightly patronizing tone, he says, “Jimmy, we’ve been through this before. You are not straight outta Compton…You are straight outta Upstate New York!” In this moment, Timberlake takes on a weird ‘hyper-white’ role, sobering up to only indirectly acknowledge that they are, in fact, not Black, and don’t possess the street knowledge or any other cultural roots that bind them to this movement or genre. Fallon nods his head dimly and says, “I know…” to which Timberlake responds, “Let’s talk about something else…[pause]…Let’s talk about sex, ba-by” launching into Salt-N-Pepa, and another 4 minutes of rapping…

I’m not saying don’t watch. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy. But I am asking that when you do screen this clip or others like it, to ask more questions, to not take things at face value. To interrogate the language and messages used.

I will leave you with these thoughts from hip-hop scholar, Tricia Rose, who reinforces the sentiments of DJ Kool Herc and Dr. Love, and reminds us of the history that is not, and will never, be addressed in Fallon and Timberlake’s ‘anthology’. Rose writes,

…I remember when hip hop was a locally inspired explosion of exuberance and political energy tethered to the idea of rehabilitating community. It wasn’t ideal by any means: Carrying many of the seeds of destruction that were part of society itself, it had its gangsters, hustlers, misogynists, and opportunists; it suffered from the hallmarks of social neglect and disregard; it expressed anger and outrage in sometimes problematic ways. But there was a love of community, a drive toward respect and mutuality that served as a steady heartbeat for hip hop and the young people who brought it into existence. These inspirational energies kept hip hop alive as a force for creativity and love, affirmation and resistance (in The Hip Hop Wars).