4 Reasons to Watch VH1’s The Tanning of America

Joycelyn A. Wilson

Next week VH1 is set to air The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop, a four-part documentary series based on Steve Stoute’s similarly titled book, The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. It was a fascinating read and remix of hip-hop’s history and impact, and I turned the last page wanting to know more about how the “tanning” effect—as Stoute describes it—is mapped to spaces outside the commercial industry. I’m hoping that’s where the TV version of Tanning ventures.

Here are four more reasons to set your DVR, starting Monday:

To find out what “tanning” is. African-American culture is ingrained in our nation’s identity. Ways of talking, styles of dress, intellectual perspectives and other “norms of cool” get tossed into a goody bag of tools that continue to shift music-industry standards and the socio-political landscape.


Tanning isn’t “selling out” or “assimilation.” In fact, it’s better understood as assimilation in reverse. To sell out is to promote inauthenticity in one’s identity in order to gain some sense of power, fame or money. To forget where ya came from, as my “mudear” would say. Here, I’m thinking of Vanilla Ice, who tried to boast about growing up in the hood as a way to identify with black rappers—but who was later called out for it and hung over a hotel balcony—in contrast with the rap community’s acceptance of other white rappers like the Beastie Boys and Eminem, who figured out how to be their authentic selves within the genre.

Tanning is a psychological shift—an energetic force, according to Stoute, that “went beyond musical boundaries and into the psyche of young America, blurring cultural and demographic lines so permanently that it laid the foundation for a transformation.”

To get a history of hip-hop culture and its global impact. The last VH1 documentary series on hip-hop’s viral effect aired in October 2004. That was a decade ago, and a lot has changed since then. Among a litany of events, a black president was elected following an economic crisis reminiscent of the times that sparked hip-hop culture; old-school hip-hoppers are collaborating more with new-school hip-hoppers; love and hip-hop is a reality among many couples, and a nonreality show for others; Atlanta has emerged as a hot spot for hip-hop’s entertainment industry; Kendrick Lamar brought back concept albums; and Outkast, whom I like to call hip-hop’s Wonder Twins, will soon restore some of the lyricism that has gotten lost amid the fray of the commercial industry. I hope the documentary puts all of this in perspective for youths who know little about hip-hop’s history.

To understand the distinctions and similarities of hip-hop culture, the hip-hop industry and the hip-hop movement. Hip-hop is turning into one of those terms that mean so much but are understood very little. It’s all at once an adjective, a noun and a verb. I hope viewers get a better understanding of what hip-hop is and what it isn’t.


For example, hip-hop culture is a community of practice that utilizes at least four expressive elements—deejaying, emceeing, breaking and graffiti—as a means for achieving knowledge of self. Consumers purchase hip-hop a) because it’s fun and b) for the sense of “swagger” associated with it. So industries bent on profit margins will use these elements to market and advertise their products—sometimes by any means necessary. That is the hip-hop industry.

Then there is the hip-hop movement, which takes more of an organic approach to the ways in which these elements influence the socio-political economy of the nation and beyond. I’m thinking HipHopEd here and the other collectives that intersect hip-hop with youth development. Although Stoute’s book focuses more on the tanning of the hip-hop industry, I hope the documentary series leans in on how the tanning effect has shifted the micro effects of racism and poverty in black and brown communities.


To recognize that there is more work to do. There is no argument that hip-hop as culture, industry and movement is here to stay. It is in its fourth decade and arguably a young aesthetic. The documentary will include commentary from the usual suspects, including Pharrell Williams, Shawn Carter, Sean Combs, Russell Simmons, Mona Scott Young and Stoute himself. However, in our attempt to hold them accountable for hip-hop’s current state, let’s focus on what is good about hip-hop and remember that with “tanning” comes a responsibility to maximize hip-hop’s potential in our daily lives, our communities and the youths who are on the receiving end of its true power.

Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a director of the Four-Four Beat Project. She is an Emmy-nominated documentary film producer and Hiphop Archive alumnus fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter.


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Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor in the educational foundations program at Virginia Tech and director of the Four-Four Beat Project. Follow her on Twitter.

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