I. Portrait of the Author as a Young Punk
I was born around hip hop, but my life as a music fan didn’t start until the summer of 1991. My parents were young when they had me, so it’s not an exaggeration when I say I’ve been listening to hip hop since the womb. The sounds of Schooly D, Boogie Down Productions and the Juice Crew pushed through the speakers and through the air, past the weed clouds floating throughout my mother’s apartment. People tell stories all the time about how their parents bounced them on the knee listening to the Beatles or Neil Young; I grew up wiggling my arms to “Sucker MCs” and standing on my tiptoes while my mother let me pretend I was a DJ and scratch up her LL Cool J records on a dusty thrift-store turntable. And as with many things you grow up with (aside from genuinely fascinating “golden era” rappers like Rakim or Kool G. Rap), rap started to feel rote to me; it felt like “my parents’ music,” an odd feeling to have in the late-’80s, where hip hop had just entered the mainstream as America’s New Rebel Culture.
Imagine a kid who had never paid attention to guitar music flipping the channel to MTV and hearing the beginning of Nirvana’s breakthrough single — those four sloppy, imprecise chords that always, especially upon first listen, sounded like they were leading to something gloriously cacophonous. The cacophony was not a fake-out. The chorus explodes and Cobain sounds like he was about to shred his throat completely. Here we are now, entertain us. There’s a guitar solo, which is really just essentially the guitar bellowing Cobain’s sentiments. A denial. A denial. A denial. Nirvana was my gateway to a completely different world than the one I had known, and there was no way for me to turn back.
“When I listened to rock music as a kid, it often felt like I was sneaking past the guards of racial barriers and into a cool party I wasn’t invited to. But I didn’t want to feel that way.”
There was no individual precedent for my love of alternative and punk culture. My family and neighborhood friends all exclusively listened to contemporary rap and R&B, the former not truly capturing my imagination until a year later (Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” was the rap equivalent of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in terms of opening my eyes to a new world). R&B still doesn’t appeal to me. There’s a sense of defiance that comes with liking something you’re not “supposed” to like; in a way, I knew I was sabotaging the uniform order among black kids my age. But mostly, it felt like something I could claim for my own, a part of American culture that wasn’t handed down to me or illustrated in history books. It wasn’t my parents’ music. It was something that was happening right now, and regardless of the color lines placed between it and me, it was something that I was a part of.
When you’re young, you emulate people you think are cool (particularly, people who look like you), and this game of pretend ultimately shapes your aesthetic and values, if you find a shape that fits. I was told I was a peculiar kid. I was introverted and unpopular. With my flat feet, nasal voice, and the crisp pronunciation I learned from watching teen movies on TV, the teasing was almost understandable. I pored over skateboarding catalogs and begged my mother for Alien Workshop hoodies. I naturally gravitated toward the outsider mentality of alternative culture. Most children tend to find role models pretty close to their own image, but I wasn’t afforded that privilege, since only white people seemed to do the things I wanted to do. I liked skateboarding but hadn’t yet heard of Kareem Campbell, so I obsessively studied Ed Templeton videos. Though I liked the simple-but-effective jokes and fish-out-of-water theme of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I greatly preferred the whip-smart dialogue of Cheers. I used to think about how almost all the artists I liked seemed to be white, and this fact was most glaring when it came to music.
Encountering a black musician who was into the same things as me always involved some sort of complication. I thought Living Colour were corny. I was turned off by Bad Brains after I learned about H.R.’s vehement homophobia. And though I’ve been living in a middle-class suburb of Seattle for almost 15 years now, back then I lived in a housing project in High Point, North Carolina, so there were no cool record stores around for me to find more obscure black alternative and punk artists like beloved Gories frontman Mick Collins. This was in the early-’90s, before virtually everyone (especially people whose parents signed Section 8 contracts before moving into apartments) had Internet access, so all of my alternative culture came through MTV. So why shouldn’t I have adopted Cobain, MTV’s poster boy, as a role model? His music was the soundtrack to my life, his taste put me on to the Velvet Underground, Beat Happening and the Raincoats, and he was an avid feminist who completely divorced himself from the alpha male mentality. He loved Thurston Moore, I loved Thurston Moore. There were few things in my life that made more sense.
One day in gym class, sitting on the bleachers adjacent to the football field, the popular kids in class came to sit next to me as we waited for everyone to suit up. Among hushed whispers, one of them turned around and asked me who my favorite musicians were. I rattled off Nirvana, the Ramones, and a host of third-tier grunge bands whose names I’m now far too embarrassed to mention publicly. (I’m fairly sure I also talked about how much I wanted to move to Seattle because of grunge; how I actually ended up here was by happenstance.) My intrepid interviewer smiled and mouthed “I told you so” to his friends, who reacted with a small eruption of snide giggles.
When I listened to rock music as a kid, it often felt like I was sneaking past the guards of racial barriers and into a cool party I wasn’t invited to. But I didn’t want to feel that way. I just wanted to enjoy the music just like everybody else.
II. The Adebimpe Test
Generally, the first band that comes to mind when discussing black indie rockers is TV on the Radio. But let’s talk about what that means: Aside from the band’s racial makeup, there’s the notion that they meld art-rock with traditionally “black” elements of music: R&B-indebted crooning, polyrhythms, full-on funk. “The Wrong Way”, the opening track from their full-length debut, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, touches on a resolutely black experience forged within the confines of a mostly white genre: “Woke up in a magic n*gger movie,” sings Kyp Malone. Ironically enough, the band themselves exist as a thinking man’s alternative to the “magic n*gger” trope. A group prominently staffed with black dudes enters the blindingly white world of indie-rock and enlightens its fans by casually dismissing the absurd notion that African-American men playing guitars is unprecedented and peculiar.
In 2006, I ran into an ex-girlfriend’s friend at a TV on the Radio show in downtown Seattle. This was awkward enough on its own — I had no interest in talking to my ex’s friend in the first place. Then came the actual conversation:
Ex’s Friend: Oh, hey man! How are you? I kinda thought you’d be here!
Me: I’m doing OK, I guess. Yeah, I couldn’t miss this show. TV on the Radio are so great.
Ex’s Friend: I figured you would love these guys.
Me: Why’s that?
Ex’s Friend: Well, because you’re black and you like indie music.
It wasn’t malicious, but it prompted me to do some serious thinking about stereotypes. Forget that I really liked TV on the Radio, that they actually were one of my favorite bands, and that Young Liars is still my favorite-ever EP. Why would anyone assume that just because someone falls under the category of Black People Who Enjoy Noisy and/or Weird Guitar Music, they are a TV on the Radio fan? Is every white hip-hop fan required to own a copy of The Marshall Mathers LP? Does every gender studies major have a framed poster of Kathleen Hanna on their wall?
The black kids of my generation and the ones before it were raised with the notion that it’s essential to hold onto one’s “blackness,” and that venturing outside of those boundaries meant you were trying to assimilate to white society, to “be more like one of them.” But essentially every African-American child growing up has an intimate knowledge of some version of the black experience, and the way we dress or the music we listen to still won’t hide the color of our skin. I never saw my interest in alternative culture as a way to obfuscate my racial identity. Aside from the annoyance of being typecast as a fan of a band purely based on superficial concerns, that conversation overlooked the one substantial reason why there are a lot of black people who relate to TV on the Radio’s music: They are a band primarily consisting of African-American men who often explore what it means to be African-American. For a generation of alternative music fans made to believe we were betraying “what it means” to be black, a band had finally come along that made that very idea a theme in its music.
But as TV on the Radio started to grow in notoriety, it still created a schism in my initial attraction to rock music; here was a band that was, for all intents and purposes, “socially acceptable” for black people to like. This falls into my earlier point about young children emulating people who look like them. I imagine if the band were around when I was younger — with their overtures to shoegaze, incisive and smart lyrics, steadfast commitment to experimentalism, and Kyp Malone’s beard — they probably would have been my favorite band throughout my entire childhood. At the very least, I wouldn’t have felt like such an outsider for loving alternative music.
But maybe if I were still that kid skateboarding around the projects, I would have pretended not to like TV on the Radio on general principle. But I am an adult, and it had long been established in my mind that guitars trigger an aural satisfaction that I couldn’t find in any other type of music. If you took away the social element, you are still left with a catalog of remarkable songs.
III. Title Track
A few months after that TV on the Radio conversation, I went to the same venue to see Joanna Newsom, who was touring behind Ys at the time. When I got there, it felt like one of those dreams where you’re walking around the hallways of your high school completely nude. I was being hit with every other person’s best speculative glance, just like the ones I was given as a kid. One girl audibly opined, “I had no idea black people liked Joanna Newsom.” A hushed reverence fell on the crowd while Bill Callahan opened with a solo set, and then broke as people cheered wildly when he played favorites like “River Guard” and “Let Me See the Colts”. When I yelled along in approval, I received a few more weird looks. I stood in uncomfortable silence for the remainder of the night.
As I stood and watched all 10 minutes of Newsom’s “Sawdust and Diamonds”, I felt embarrassed to be there, and a little ashamed that I felt embarrassed. Now I was an outsider among the outsiders, simply because of my skin color. For a while, I thought I’d eventually be accepted among indie kids because they were a group in part defined by dissent, but I found their club was also one based on exclusion.
There are a multitude of uncomfortable situations to deal with: being looked at like a dartboard after someone’s fifth drink in a dimly lit dive, New York Times think-pieces on “blipsters” (as if “hipster” were invented as a white-specific term). And let’s not forget the friendly condescension: “You like this kind of music? That is so cool!” they say, as if they’ve seen some sort of unicorn. All of these are (mostly) subconscious forms of cultural gate-keeping, a “separate but equal” doctrine for the iPod generation. As a genre historically panned for its straight white maleness, indie rock fans of color are hardly ever quietly and begrudgingly tolerated in the same way as women and homosexuals; whether positively or negatively, people are far more demonstrative about how peculiar they think it is.
Indie rock seems to be a strain of music that has always walked hand-in-hand with whiteness. In its various guises — college, indie, alternative, and even punk rock itself — the music has traditionally been known for its sloppily-strummed guitars and loosey-goosey drums, a far cry from the tight rhythms associated with “black” music. Rhythm is a musical element often held most valuable to music fans of color; I specifically remember playing a Built to Spill song for a group of black and Latino friends, who confusedly asked: “How are you supposed to dance to this?” The query was followed by their best imitations of how white people dance.
If I had to pick a theme song for the early years of my show-going existence, it would be “The Only Black Guy at the Indie-Rock Show” by the Cocker Spaniels. A home-recorded tune that sounds like a teenage John Darnielle fronting Guided by Voices, it’s a charming-yet-ultimately kind of sad take on the alienation that exists when someone deviates from the cultural norm. Frontman Sean Padilla sings of being told the Jay-Z concert is down the street, name-drops Pavement, and is asked if he’s in a gang. Like the best moments of Chappelle’s Show or most anything Stephen Colbert has been involved with over the past decade, “The Only Black Guy at the Indie-Rock Show” is great because it’s shrewd social commentary disguised as comedy. (For a far more depressing equivalent, check out the Dears’ “Whites Only Party,” from their 2006 album Gang of Losers.)
IV. Stuff White (and Black) People Like
The closing lyric of “The Only Black Guy at the Indie-Rock Show” goes, “I wonder if white folks who like Jay-Z often feel as alienated as me,” which opens a conundrum. Somewhere between the Beastie Boys and Eminem, hip hop became one of the most popular art forms on earth, one socially acceptable for white people to like. Whereas American society quickly co-opted and overtook rock‘n’roll, crafting it into its own (white) image, hip hop remained in the category of “black” music and ultimately became the easiest way to stick it to the Baby Boomer Establishment. Soon, African-Americans were recognized as the arbiters of cool — finally recognized for our contributions to American popular culture, dating back almost an entire century — and whiteness became a synonym for squareness.
The reason why the Stuff White People Like humor genre has so many holes in it is because the vast majority of the things lampooned are not white-specific, they’re creature comforts of the middle class. But the lines between race and class are getting blurrier and blurrier by the day, and there are quite a few people of color being born into comfortable financial situations who will likely never know what it’s like to be poor. Thus, memes like White Person Bingo end up portraying a common theme in popular culture: class stereotyping poorly and tastelessly masquerading as race stereotyping. This is hugely problematic because it implies people of color are exempt from liking or owning things that are associated with the middle class. Sometimes the people who make these jokes don’t realize there’s a not-so-fine line between craft beer and malt liquor, and it’s not a line of color.
There is the implicit notion that indie rock is generally linked to the “highbrow middle class” end of American culture. (If your Average American Joe drew a line that connected NPR, indie rock, and white people, that line would be straight as an arrow.) Critics and fans suggest it’s an auteur’s medium, while areas of art chiefly practiced by people of color are most often celebrated for their immediacy and accessibility. (In layman’s terms, the most acclaimed works by POC are things you don’t have to think hard about.) This line was less defined in 2012 (Channel Orange and goodkid, M.A.A.D. city, for instance), but the topic of race and class frequently come up when an artist of color creates something widely considered “highfalutin’” or “artistic.” And then critics fall out of their seats to praise genres of music they generally don’t care about, they pretend the entire world has changed because a person of color has created a challenging piece of art. “These artists are moving beyond the artistic vocabulary of the environment,” they’re likely to say.
But what about those kids of color born into the middle class? It’s likely that they’re going to be turned onto the culture all on their own, without the cooler older siblings who passes down their Pixies records. Also, what about the kids of color born into poverty, ones who take solace in skateboarding and punk? Couldn’t we safely assume the vast majority of people who regularly read this website have Screaming Females (or at least Screaming Trees) listed after Schoolboy Q in their iTunes libraries?
There are endless stories about kids from the suburbs being enthralled by hip-hop; why can’t it work as a means of escapism the other way around? Perhaps there will be no surprise when a person of color says they like indie rock, no talk of the gentle subversion of tradition or stereotypes. As the lines between race and class slowly erode, as boundaries between genres are being broken down and our individual tastes become more and more cosmopolitan, it’s time to destroy those neat color-coded boxes society has placed us in. Of all the things dividing races already extant in America, there’s no reason why music should be included.