Seeking black identity in a white world through rap

By Sophie Whisnant

(Photos courtesy of Alice Hudson)

Rapper and NC State student Phillip Green.

Philip Green leans back on a dirty old pull-out couch in his friend Cole Brown’s college apartment. His head bops along to the “Black Panther” soundtrack, but he’s exasperated and dehydrated after ranting about his descent from an almost mythical and deeply spiritual black Egyptian heritage.

“I’m that black dude that likes to talk about Egypt,” Green says once he catches his breath.

“Yeah but can you rap about it?” asks Brown, his words bouncing off the miscellaneous bongs and smoking vessels scattered around his apartment.

Green just laughs, sinking deeper into the couch. This is a question he’s been asked before.

Growing up in a white world

Since he was old enough to go to school in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., Green has been one of, if not the only, black people in his class. He’s channeled the teasing and loneliness he’s felt through his original rap music and has a budding career as a successful rapper in the Raleigh area.

Although he raps about racism, Green’s world is surprisingly whitewashed. His music might tell the story of someone fed up with racism and society, but to the outside world, Green seems comfortable living a white life.

Green’s rapping career is now almost 8 years old. He started off posting songs on SoundCloud that he made in his makeshift home studio under the moniker “PG-13.” A junior communications major at N.C. State University, Green performs with the popular Triangle rap group “They Came from Lemuria” in Raleigh bars once a month.

Rap was therapeutic for Green as a middle schooler at a small Quaker school in Wilmington, where no one looked like him. His skin color felt the most confining when learning about history and the accomplishments of the Europeans.

“The books we read didn’t have people that look like (me),” Green said.

It didn’t change much once he got to high school. As part of a smaller accelerated college program within a public school, Green was one of five students in New Hanover High School’s Lyceum program. The signature dreadlocks that he started growing when he was 9 made him stand out even more.

In high school, Green experienced racism in subtle and overt ways. He still remembers feeling angry and embarrassed when the topic of flying monkeys came up in class. His peers compared him to the monkeys, laughing about their similarities.

“I’m the butt of the joke,” Green said. “If there’s five people making a black joke, and you’re the only black person, I gotta laugh about it too.”

One of Green’s oldest friends and classmates, Gavin Campbell, who is white, was in the room when the monkey joke took off.

“I have heard years of people calling him an ‘Oreo,’” Campbell said, “asking why he ‘acts white.’”

What bothers Campbell the most is when others seem surprised that Green can be a well-spoken and polite black man. Throughout their friendship, Campbell said he’s noticed how, in stores, white people keep an eye on Green.

Green has felt those extra eyes on him. He has always been conscious of his skin color and what he looked like sitting across from his classmates. It didn’t get easier when he started college.

Higher education, same problems

As a freshman Green almost reflexively joined a white fraternity, but later became inactive when he found it too similar to high school. He was tired of being the only black man in the room.

Despite this, two years later, Green still lives in an almost exclusively white world. He spends Thursday nights with his girlfriend, Hannah Neely, who is white. They lovingly pass a bong back and forth while cuddling on the couch and making plans to visit their other friends, who are also all white, later that night.

Green’s closest friends are all white. After years of being the lone black person in class, he now describes white people as his “comfort zone.” Despite the hurtful joking, he said, his friends are generally well-meaning and have given him a different way to look at the world.

“Being seen by the majority of your white peers as the ‘token’ friend is an inevitability,” Campbell said. “Philip has retained his identity as a black man through his music, friendships with people from various walks of life, and through general pride in his identity which I’m extremely proud of him for maintaining.”

Even though he has friendships with people like Campbell that he values, Green still enjoys, and relies on, being able to play what he and his girlfriend call the “race card.”

“You pull it in social settings where you’re high or uncomfortable,” Neely said to Green about the card.

Green said that he’ll respond to his white friends with the phrase “Oh, it’s because I’m black?” to raise awareness about what is offensive, or to just make his friends uncomfortable and defensive for his own entertainment. It’s funny to him, his little way of getting back at his friends for the jokes they’ve made about him over the years.

But even though he talks about race with his friends, he doesn’t feel like people take his blackness seriously.

Green’s parents own an environmental restoration service. He’s always been comfortable financially and didn’t feel like he fit in with a lot of the other black kids in his high school.

“I have felt pretty lonely,” Green said, “just because, like, I’ve created this niche for myself where it’s like I’m the suburban black kid.”

Because of his socioeconomic status, he’s found it difficult to defend his race with white people.

“People don’t take my advocacy as seriously,” he said. “They don’t think my voice is as valid.”

Rapping: thinking out loud

They may not listen, but speaking up has always been important to Green. He’s passionate about his political views, like his belief that incarceration is modern-day slavery. He will discuss how the TV show “Cops” is lynching, and vent about how black men only witness the American dream through programs with white actors like “Friends.”

When Green speaks about these issues, he starts to use the rap voice he’s been honing since he was 13. He speaks deeply with a natural flow, accenting certain words and syllables to emphasize what’s important. Rap is his preferred method of communication.

Green’s rhymes have reflected his anxieties of being the only black face in a white world. On the 15-minute track “Griselda Negro,” Green raps, “‘Bro, today it ain’t about race’/ Yes it is, the wealth gap it’s a massive issue doe, yes, I notice dis,” and, “They sayin’ I’m free/ Only on the day I escape from my b-o-d-y.” These lyrics might contradict the white life Green has carved out for himself, but they voice the black side of him that he keeps hidden within his social circle. When he “spits” certain lines, he’s sharing his passion. His songs are his diary and provide an outlet that lets him live the blackness that’s missing in his daily life.

Whether rap is a coping mechanism or not, it brings Green happiness unlike anything else. If he isn’t working on a song, he’s listening to rap, either on his own or with his group of friends sharing a joint. Rap isn’t just an escape, it’s his lifestyle.

“This is what I feel the best doing,” he said.

Edited by David Fee