The Rainbow of Rap – a look at Hip-Hop’s growing ethnic diversity at the top

(May 17, 2020).  In what was once considered mainly a domain for African-American men, could rap and hip-hop actually be the most diverse genre in popular music today?

With this week’s debut of NAV’s new album Good Intentions at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, it’s certainly a topic worth exploring. 

Canadian-born NAV (or Nav, whichever you prefer) achieves his second No. 1 in just over a year as Good Intentions joins his previous Bad Habits, which topped the chart back in April 2019.

Navraj Singh Goraya, aka Nav, has his second No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart this week.

Nav, whose full name is Navraj Singh Goraya, is of Punjabi descent.  His parents are both from Punjab, a northern state in India.  He is thus the first rapper of Indian heritage to reach No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. 

This is also the second-consecutive week that a Canadian has made a splash at or near the top of the Billboard album charts.  Last week, Drake’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes just missed No. 1 when it debuted in the runner-up slot behind country star Kenny Chesney’s Here and Now.

Needless to say, Drake, a mixed-race rapper whose mother is white Jewish Canadian and whose father is an African-American from Memphis, TN, has had his share of chart toppers – nine total over the past ten years.

And while Drake could arguably be considered the poster child for diversity in hip-hop over the past decade, he certainly doesn’t have the market cornered.  In just over the past three years alone – since April of 2017 – albums by the following eight hip-hop artists with diverse ethnicities have reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200: Drake, Logic, DJ Khaled, NF, Eminem, Post Malone, BROCKHAMPTON, and NAV.

From left to right: White hip-hop stars Post Malone, NF, and Logic have each had two No. 1 albums over the past three years.

With the exceptions of DJ Khaled, who is less of a rapper and more a hype-man, and the mixed-race group BROCKHAMPTON, all of those artists have had at least two No. 1 albums in that span, with Drake and Eminem each having three. 

That’s sixteen No. 1 albums by ethnically diverse hip-hop acts since April 2017, out of 51 total No. 1 hip-hop albums in that span.  It’s no surprise then – and perhaps it’s not so coincidental – that this is also the first era in its history that hip-hop has dominated all other genres in music consumption numbers in America.  

By comparison, in the previous three-plus years from January 2014 through March 2017, only four such albums topped the Billboard 200 – and three of those were from Drake!  

The other was from DJ Khaled, who is of Palestinian heritage and whose full name is Khaled Mohamed Khaled.  Again, using the strictest definitions of rap, it’s worth noting that Khaled plays the role of curator on his albums, which feature contributions from many other artists of different backgrounds. 

Still, going back even further and using a similar three-year window for comparison, the period from January 2011 through December 2013 saw only five hip-hop albums from diverse acts reaching No. 1, including two sets by Drake and one each from Eminem, the Christian rapper TobyMac, and the late rapper Mac Miller, who died in 2018.

But the sharpest contrast to today’s expanding ethnic diversity in rap is seen in hip-hop’s earlier years.  

Even when combining the nine-plus years from January 2011 to now, the 25 No. 1 albums accounted for above are still far more than the number that reached the top during an even longer window from January 2000 to December 2010. 

In that eleven-year span, the only albums representing non-black or mixed ethnicity acts at No. 1 were eight total by Beastie Boys, Eminem and Drake.  Notably, Beastie Boys had their last No. 1 in 2004, while Drake had his first in 2010.  Eminem made up the difference with six No. 1 albums between 2000 and 2010.

Eminem is the most successful white rapper in history with ten No. 1 albums. Some view him as the greatest rapper of any race, period.

One could stretch Eminem’s total to nine if you include the 8-Mile soundtrack – to which he contributed four of the 16 tracks – plus two albums by D12 – a rap collective helmed by Shady and consisting of him and five black guys from Detroit.

Hip-hop History: Here’s a list of ALL the hip-hop albums that have reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Even if the comparison between 2000-10 and 2011-20 doesn’t drive home the point of how much hip-hop has evolved over the years, racially speaking, then perhaps the pre-Eminem era of hip-hop will.

Using 1987 as a starting point, which was the first year any rap album hit the top of the Billboard 200, and counting through 1999 – the year before Eminem’s first No. 1 – the only non-black acts to reach the pinnacle were Beastie Boys and Vanilla Ice.  The Beasties had three of those while Vanilla Ice had one – To The Extreme – in 1990/91.  Notably, To The Extreme was the first album by a solo white rapper to top the Billboard chart and the only one until Eminem came along nearly a decade later.  

So that’s just four out of 43 (or 9%) hip-hop albums that topped the charts in nearly 13 years from March 1987, when the Beasties first hit, to December 1999.  That certainly pales in comparison to the sixteen (out of 51, or 31%) that have reached No. 1 in the past 37 months, when Drake’s More Life began the current diversity blitz.

By the decades (excluding soundtracks by various artists):

DecadeNo. 1 Hip-hop albumsNo. 1s by diverse acts
1980s21
1990s383
2000s656 (8 including Eminem’s D12 contributions)
2010s9524 (includes 9 by Drake)
2020s so far82
A breakdown of the expanding No. 1 diversity in hip-hop by decade. Even if you removed Drake’s numbers (his father is black), there is still more racial diversity at the top of the charts from 2010-19.

Even when going beyond the No. 1 albums, one can see examples of hip-hop’s expanding diversity. Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny’s latest album, Las que no iban a salir, enters the top ten this week at No. 7, while his previous album – the three-month-old YHLQMDLG – sits at No. 11 (after debuting at No. 2 back in March). That Bunny, who was born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio in Almirante Sur, simultaneously has two albums residing in the chart’s upper tier is news enough. But YHLQMDLG also holds the distinction of being the highest-peaking all-Spanish speaking album in the chart’s history, rap or otherwise.

So what is the reason for this recent cultural enlightenment in hip-hop?  Are we as a society simply more open-minded when it comes to who’s making our favorite hip-hop music?  Especially the younger consumers who’ve driven its enormous streaming success over the past three years?

I’d offer that it likely has more to do with how music is consumed and by what media it is introduced to those consumers.  No longer is hip-hop constrained by terrestrial radio and its old, stodgy definitions of what constitutes acceptable or legitimate rap.  In today’s world of instant access and streaming, radio programmers likely find themselves following rather than leading when it comes to breaking new artists.  Because of SoundCloud, YouTube and other popular media, consumers now decide for themselves what they like, by whom, and when they want to hear it. 

In other words, kids are no longer being told by the industry who the legitimate rappers are, they’re defining those artists on their own terms, and it’s manifesting itself by having a more diverse crop of artists finding success these days.

All of this goes to show that rap – once viewed mainly as a black man’s game – is becoming more embracing of different nationalities and races (and religions), at least when it comes to the artists who are making the music.  

As for the content and subject matter of most of these artists’ songs?  Well, that’s probably a different story to be explored in another article for another day.

But for now, current artists like Nav, NF, Logic, as well as the reluctantly hip-hop Post Malone, are proving that, as long as you’ve got some game and a strong social media following, you can make it to the top of the hip-hop heap, regardless of your color or ethnicity. 

I’m still holding out, however, for my African brothers from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa to find some success here in America.  Where is the love for Khaligraph Jones, Vector, M.anifest and Sarkodie?

Kenyan hip-hop superstar Khaligraph Jones

Again, another article for a different day. 

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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DJRob
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