Alibi V.17 No.27 • July 3-9, 2008 

Thin Line

What's My Name?

The New York Times is naming names—at least, if you're an African-American rapper.

In an article that appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review last week, Chris Faraone notes the Times almost never reveals the birth names of rock icons like Alice Cooper or Elton John but rarely forgets to mention the birth names of rappers like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and RZA.

So what's the dilly, yo? In the article, Times Culture Editor Sam Sifton says the logic behind this choice has to do with his paper's use of honorifics like Mr. and Ms. As he explains, it makes more sense to refer to Jay-Z as Mr. Carter (whose first name is Shawn) than it does to call him Mr. Z.

Calling someone Mr. Z sounds a little silly, but, as Faraone says, so does referring to Marilyn Manson as "Mr. Manson," which the Times has done in the past.

Sifton also says there's a difference between artists who take a stage name, like Tony Bennett (aka Anthony Dominick Benedetto), and performers who adopt an alias, like rapper Bun B (aka Bernard Freeman).

When I first read his excuse, I thought the only difference between what Sifton calls a stage name and what he deems an alias is the skin color of the musician.

But things are a little more complicated than that. According to the article, African-American R&B artists Alicia Keys and Erykah Badu typically don’t have their birth names mentioned in the Times. So does the paper simply have a "rappers-only" policy with regard to name dropping? Not when it comes to caucasian Eminem, whose birth name isn't mentioned in at least one article, according to Faraone.

Consistency is one of the hardest things for any paper to achieve, so the Times should be cut some slack for not referring to their subjects in the exact same way all the time. The paper also deserves some kudos for covering hip-hop and not ignoring a genre that too often is marginalized in the culture coverage of major dailies, including our own Albuquerque Journal.

But subtle racism rears its head when many African-American artists’ given names are repeatedly used, while white musicians' birth names are left unprinted. If African-American rappers like Diddy change their names, they're doing the exact same thing as white rock stars like Sid Vicious, and there's no reason to treat one differently than the other. By letting white musicians' names go unamended, it makes it seem as though they’re more legitimate than their African-American counterparts.

Fortunately, there's a simple solution to this quandary: Ask the artists. If Snoop Dogg doesn't mind being called Cordozar Broadus Jr., go for it. If Manson is all for mentioning that his parents named him Brian Warner, print it. But musicians with modified monikers should have the final say.