I wanted to hate Bennett.
A white teen who claims to be a Crip, degrades women and says the N-word freely because he thinks he's part black? Not someone I wanted to know.
We first met 17-year-old Bennett through his inappropriate texts posted on the wildly popular Tumblr page of his Kansas City rapper cousin, Mac Lethal. At one point the blog was getting 40,000 new followers a day. Now Mac has turned his cousin's messages into a novel, "Texts From Bennett." I was prepared to hate it.
But I don't. The book, released this month, is not just hilarious. It has soul. Even if it is a little crazy. I'm talking "South Park" meets "Boondocks" crazy. And when Mac stops by Barnes Noble on the Country Club Plaza on Saturday (6 to 8 p.m.) for the book signing, I'm banking the evening will be lively.
Some people only got to know Mac (born David McCleary Sheldon) as the "Pancake Rapper," when he spoofed Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now" with a fast and furiously funny video: He rapped while cooking pancakes by the stack. Mac uploaded it to YouTube two years ago, and those flapjacks changed his life to the tune of 2.4 million views in 48 hours. Now: more than 30 million.
Today he is a husband to Christina and a father to 7-month-old Rocky. On his latest album, "Postcards From Kansas City," Mac raps about building a roller coaster. I think it's safe to say he has. Life has changed. Big time.
Before this ride, he was Kansas City famous, a Scribble Jam heavyweight battle rapper with a big enough underground following to pay his bills. I've seen Mac many times over the last 10 years. He's always been incredibly smart and a bit brash. Equal parts raucous rebel and nerd. Most everyone in the local hip-hop scene knew he was going to make it; it was just a matter of when.
But an author on a book tour? No one could have known that his pancake rap would lead to calls from agents, new life for his old music and a hefty paycheck to shoot an online commercial for Heineken. The spotlight was so bright it leaked over to his Tumblr blog and bam, here he has a deal with Simon Shuster's Gallery Books.
"Texts From Bennett" makes you think twice before you dismiss every white kid listening to hip-hop and talking slang as a wannabe. There are people who say Bennett is appropriating black culture. There are moments when the book walks that fine Dave Chappelle line of "Are they laughing at me or with me?" And yes, there is some backlash over his use of the N-word. Mac gets a tweet or a blog comment here or there. Accusations of profiting off black culture have been thrown around.
But Mac says that is not his intention. The book is fiction, but it's inspired by reality. His cousin Bennett is real, living in Newark, Ohio. He is currently in jail, and no, he never did live with Mac here in Kansas City as he did in the book. Bennett, he says, represents an entire generation of white kids growing up poor and half-parented in an inner-city or trailer-park bubble, ill-educated and on a steady diet of a certain kind of hip-hop.
"Hip-hop culture has affected every single facet of life in America and around the world," says Mac, 32. "There are few people in their 30s and under that have not been influenced by it. And there is a whole generation of white people that talk and speak the language of the culture.
"It's not a costume. It's who they are. I am not sure of its importance, but we should explore it. Race is a very real thing, and you can't just say Obama is in office and racism has ended. Unfortunately, sometimes a person's race does dictate who they are going to be, and sometimes class does, too."
Mac himself is from Raytown. He grew up listening to N.W.A., Ice Cube, Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep. Early in his rap career, in his teens and 20s, he subscribed to the aggressive rap stereotypes. He went to an alternative high school (formerly Shawnee Mission's Alternative Education Program, now Shawnee Mission Horizons), where the student body was diverse.
"The characters and language in the book are inspired by friends I grew up with in high school, my cousin, people I know," he says. "I didn't flinch or think twice about writing how I wrote because it's how they talk and it's my experience."
He's not defending Bennett's language. Bennett truly doesn't know better. To Bennett, there is no difference between him and his best friend, Leshaun. He identifies more with the black people he grew up with than, say, Mac's fictional, pretentious and wealthy girlfriend, Harper. And in the book, Mac tries to teach him about the N-word and help him evolve beyond his thug aspirations, even if Bennett ends up teaching him a few things in return (like how to, eh, let's say woo the ladies).
By the time I reached the book's end, I better understood where Bennett was coming from and I wanted to see where this kooky character was going. Apparently TV execs feel the same. Mac has a development deal with a major network, but he can't disclose the details just yet. He's also doing a video series for super producer Pharrell Williams' YouTube channel, i am OTHER.
Ultimately, he wants to have a career in TV. Mac's goal isn't just to make people laugh. It's to help bring depth to the way we all look at one another. As a rapper, he has seen all kinds of prejudice. People have walked up to him after concerts and said things like, "Oh, you aren't like black rappers. You rap about more than jewelry and guns."
It makes him mad.
"All rap is not like that. There is so much more to hip-hop than that. Even the rappers who are famous for talking about bling aren't just about that. There are educated rappers; there is articulate hip-hop. No one ever talks about how layered and complex it is. There are all kinds of black people. And there are different kinds of white people, too."
He says people have to stop being so quick to snap judge. More than that, he's all about pushing authenticity.
"I'm being myself. After so many years of trying to be this and that, I'm being me," Mac says. "And it's now that I am at my most successful. I'm having a lot of fun."