by Guest Contributor Kelvin
As a kid growing up in Nigeria, I was exposed to a lot of music by my parents. I grew up listening to artists such as Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, Sting, Phil Collins, Fela Kuti, and Candi Staton. Back then, music was just that – music.
There were no artificial limitations on what you could and couldn’t listen to. That was when I was a kid in the 1980’s. Now, I’m an adult in my mid twenties living in the United States and my perspective on music has been challenged. I’ve come to understand that there are certain genres of music that black people are supposed to listen to and other genres they aren’t supposed to listen to.
When I say supposed, I’m not saying that someone is going to put a gun to your head because you listen to Foo Fighters. Rather, there is a societal expectation that if you are black, your choice in music should be hip hop, R&B, and Jazz. Black folks who listen to anything outside of the scared 3 genres are looked at as weird, acting white, fake, white wannabes so on and so forth. This new perspective leads me to ask this question: can taste in music be attributed to a person’s race?
I did my undergrad at a very popular HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in Washington D.C where hip hop was the usual fare. I was usually the odd one out of the bunch. I would be the dude rocking out to Coldplay, Kaskade, or Radiohead and I always noticed that people looked at me funny when they heard what I was listening to. I was actually once approached by a friend who advised me to not play my ‘white music’ while I was on campus. I understand that hip hop is the dominant musical art form in urban areas but I can’t understand why a person would judge someone else who is interested in something different.
Ironically, I found that some of the folks who held this type of mindset were closet alt-music listeners.
The funniest case was a female co-worker of mine at my school job who used to tease me all the time because my music collection consisted of bands such as Deftones, Avenged Sevenfold, Bad Brains, and DJ Tiesto. She always used to tell me that I was meant to be a white person. Later on I found out that she also listened to alternative music albeit only in the privacy of her house. Imagine my amazement when I found a copy of the Coldplay album “Parachutes” in her bag. I asked her about it but she never gave me a straight answer and I never really pressed her for one. These incidents in addition to others got me thinking; what does taste in music have to do with race? I still have not figured that one out.
I’ll be the first to say that I’m not in love with 99% of the commercial hip hop songs out nowadays. I listen to only a few hip hop acts such as Missy Elliot, Timbaland, Jurassic 5, The Roots, and De La Soul. I’m just not interested in the “gangsta” message that seems to be so popular with some of the current crop of commercial hip hop acts. I’m a huge consumer of Electronica, dance, Rock, and Alternative music. I’m that guy on the dance floor dancing to Kaskade’s remix of Britney Spears’ “Gimme More”. That’s what I like because it sounds good to me. I believe that music is very subjective and each person will like what they like. My taste in music is purely auditory and emotional. There are certain songs that have the ability to uplift me when I’m down or to relax me when I’m tense. When I feel like being a bad ass, I’ll listen to “Bodies” by Drowning Pool and when I want to just chill, I’ll listen to “Surrender” by Kaskade. When I’m sad and I listen to “Steppin Out” by Kaskade, I get happy. Why do these songs have that effect on me? I really can’t answer that with words. I just get that vibe that can only come from something you really like. These songs speak to my mind and my ears but not my skin pigment.
Music has nothing to do with skin color and it never will to me.
The injection of race into music preference is a purely human addition which corresponds with other things in this world which humans use race as a point of reference for. My music preference cannot determine the authenticity of my ‘blackness’. My music taste is not who I am in totality but rather I see it as a part of what makes me who I am.
In the end though, I found that this issue of music taste and race is just another facet of the long running cultural conditioning that takes place in this country. The perceptions formed by people due to this cultural conditioning that people go through helps feed most of the stereotypes that exists in society. The stereotype that Blacks listen to only hip-hop and Whites listen to only Rock music is just one of the many stereotypes out there. This stereotypical view is held by quite a number of people spanning the racial gamut in America. The funny reactions to my music tastes have not been limited to just black people. I also get it from White folks as well. I was called “a different type of black guy” once at a Mute Math concert in D.C. I might have been the only black person at the concert. I remember an Imogen Heap concert I attended a little while back. She was performing a song titled “Hide & Seek” and I began to sing along because I really liked the song. A white lady next to me at the concert remarked that she did not know black people liked that type of music.
In my opinion, linking race to musical preference is not very helpful as it just creates needless divisions. Just as many in this country strive for diversity in the workplace and in schools, we should embrace diversity when it comes to music as well because it has some positives to it. By embracing this diversity, a less hostile atmosphere can be created for Black folks who listen to stuff like rock, punk, and house where they won’t feel weird or have to form their own special groups based on exclusions. By embracing this diversity, we can learn from the styles of different genres and infuse those learned styles to create innovative forms of expressions. I was so ecstatic when I heard “Stronger” by Kanye West because not only was it a fantastic song but Kanye West collaborated with Daft Punk, one of the biggest names in Electronica/House music to remake what was already a classic titled “Better, Stronger, Faster.” This open minded collaboration produced one of the biggest songs of 2007. And he’s not the only one. Jay-Z (hip-Hop) has collaborated with Linkin Park (Nu-Metal), Cee-Lo is one half of the duo that makes up Gnarls Barkley, Beyonce and Kelly Rowland tipped dance music DJ Freemason to produce dance remixes of some of their singles after the unexpected successes of “Déjà vu (Freemason Dance mix)” by Beyonce and “Work (Freemason Dance Mix)” by Kelly Rowland on the Dance Music charts.
Filmmakers have also taken note of this issue and have been exploring it in depth. There are two note-worthy documentaries about African Americans in other non-traditional genres. “Afro-Punk” is a documentary that looks at Blacks in the punk music scene and “Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker” looks at blacks in the Rock music scene.
I hope that as we continue to move forward in our attempt to battle negative racial perceptions in this Country, the issue of race and musical preference dies a very quick death.
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