NPR sort of hates “black music”

by Guest Contributor Kelvin


Last Monday, I was in the middle of my daily ritual of checking on my favorite online newspapers and blogs, when I happened upon a blog post on Slate.com written by Jody Rosen. The title of the post is “The DORF Matrix: Towards a Theory of NPR’s Taste in Black Music”. The author attempts to provide either a social commentary or critique on the selections in NPR’s All Songs ConsideredBest Music of 2009 (So far)”.

Rosen argues that music of black origin usually selected by NPR: (1) tend to be either from obscure or dead artistes black people don’t listen to (2) are restricted based on genre, and (3) heavily influenced by the majority white and male (with beards and guitars) NPR audience.

In the weeks since the publication of the All Songs Considered list, I have been puzzling over NPR’s musical coverage—in particular, its approach to black music. I wondered: Could NPR’s musical taste be as lily-white as the “The Best Music of 2009 (So Far)” list? After scouring NPR’s Web site and studying its broadcasts—All Things Considered profiles, Fresh Air interviews, even the music interludes played between segments on NPR’s marquee programs—I can report that the answer is no. It’s not that NPR doesn’t like black music. It merely maintains a strict preference for black music that few actual living African-Americans listen to.

Now, I don’t have any particular issues with the writers description of the “Best Music of 2009 (So far)”, which is voted on by NPR listeners. If you look at the list itself, it’s pretty lily white and tends to hipster indie tastes. But that’s a topic for another day. My problem with the article is based on a framework defined by Rosen in his article called the DORF Matrix.  Rosen describes DORF as “an acronym for Dead Old Retro Foreign”.

Dead: artists who have shuffled off this mortal coil. There was a significant spike in this category this summer with the passing of Michael Jackson. In general, though, NPR prefers its dead black musicians decades dead. Bonus points are awarded to performers present at the 1963 March on Washington, and to Bobby Short.

Old: musicians of advanced years. Crusty soul-belters on the comeback trail, gray-bearded jazzers, Motown legends, defunct rap groups.

Retro: musicians, young or old, performing in styles two or more decades out of fashion. Sixties soul revivalists; old school rappers who “[stick] with the puns, jokes and silly one-upsmanship that once defined hip-hop …Thank goodness“; Lenny Kravitz.

Foreign: black folks who live in far-flung places. And/or the children of Bob Marley.

Essentially, the music of black origin played on most NPR shows don’t really appeal to more black folks because the music is from an artist that’s either dead, old or foreign. In my opinion, the author based the framework on a myopic vision of what black people in America really like and what constitutes true music of black origin. I could not help but feel that the author believes that the only way to have true representation of music with black origins is to have your traditional rap, hip hop and/or R&B included in any considerations at all times. This is a false premise because black people in America are as diverse as ever and it has become increasingly difficult to pinpoint what black people like.

In my opinion, the biggest flaw with this framework described by Jody Rosen is the idea that “few actual living African-Americans listen to” this kind of music. Even if it was truly the case the majority of music of black origin featured on NPR came from dead, old, obscure, foreign musicians, so what?

Does Rosen truly believe black people don’t possess musical tastes that fall far outside radio Top 40 music? Speaking as a regular listener , I think NPR tries to widen the horizon of their listeners by playing music rarely heard on your average urban or pop radio station. How many Clear Channel owned urban stations do you think would play “Speak Your Heart” by Lizz Wright or “They Say Vision” by Res in heavy rotation? Not too many.  These artists are not categorized as belonging to the rap or hip hop genre, but so what? Not all black artists perform in those styles, and not all black listeners automatically gravitate to those genres because of our skin color.

There is an incredible amount of diversity within the black community  and the inability of people to grasp this diversity in the year 2009 is simply amazing to me. Just in recent years, the number of black artists creating music in genres that aren’t readily identifiable with black has been on the rise. Artists like Santigold who had a smash hit with her 2008 album “Santogold” come to mind. There were reports of retailers having difficulties tagging her album with an appropriate genre.  In the end, some retailers just put her album in the hip hop section because; you know she’s black so therefore she has to be a rapper.  As musical artists evolve in their craft, I believe that the listening audience should also be given the chance to evolve with the music.

I think that it’s high time the idea that black listeners only relate to rap, hip hop and R&B should go out with 2009.