The racialization of alternative and hip hop music

MONTREAL (CUP) – Martin Cesar never questioned whether he was listening to the right kind of music.

As a kid who never quite fit in, he fell in love with the rock of bands like Sonic Youth and never looked back. Relating to the alienation he heard in that music, rock became a refuge for a teenager who says he always felt like an outsider.

But a few years ago, Cesar – lead singer of Montreal-based experimental pop band Think About Life – suddenly found he didn’t fit the definition of what an indie rocker was supposed to be.

It was around that time that the genre started blowing up in popular media, and with it came images of the kids who were supposedly the only ones involved: “vintage” clothes, thick-rimmed glasses being adorned by the overwhelmingly white of the middle class. Cesar, who was born in the Seychelles off the coast of Africa, found himself suddenly “weirdly self-conscious.”

Race has never even defined me,” he says now. “I’m Creole, and that’s a long history of races and cultures mixing.”

But that stereotypical image of a white indie rocker, he says, “put my cultural standpoint into question, and whether my race is what people see more than the actual person that I am.”

We might like to think the only black and white in music comes on piano keyboards, but pop music history tells a different story. White people in North America have been eating up “black” music since the 1800s, but it’s been harder for black people to cross into white milieus; black musicians in the American South during the 1940s would sometimes get beat up just for daring to have a drink in the same “white” venue they had just played. The hostility softened further north, where Detroit-based Motown Records propelled black artists with soul sensibilities into the pop mainstream.

Chuck Berry, a black American singer, songwriter and guitarist considered by some to be the father of rock 'n' roll, pioneered a new sound that was picked up by white artists like Elvis Presley. Presley brought a love of black gospel into “white” pop music — a winning formula that some have decried as exploitative of black musicians.

Craig Morrison, an ethnomusicologist and Concordia professor, disagrees with that notion.

For him it was just all music,” argues Morrison. “So when it came out, it came out as this melting pot, Elvis-style.”

If black musicians were marginalized, it was not because of the wishes of white musicians, says Morrison. Rather, it was a product of big record companies and a mass culture that still valourized white achievements over those of minorities. Some cities were so opposed to integrating black and white, he says, that they banned rock 'n' roll altogether — a music genre he called a “black and white hybrid.”

The great coming together that had been rock 'n’ roll and soul music kind of splits apart again for many reasons, the simplest and strongest (being) the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” says Morrison, adding that the rise of the militant Black Panther Party made race relations more about opposition than harmony.

The impact, Morrison says, was black musicians’ transition towards priding themselves upon what they considered “black music” and rejecting the “whiteness” of rock.

After Jimi Hendrix, who was huge and black in rock?” Morrison points out. “You weren’t finding new rock performers that were black because it was separated.”

There is still a noticeable absence of black faces in both indie rock bands and audiences, but is the reverse true for traditionally “black” music forms?

The real truth about hip hop today is it’s post-racial,” says music journalist Morgan Steiker, who wrote a hip-hop column for Montreal weekly paper Mirror. “So you can’t say anymore, ‘Oh, it’s just a black thing.’ or ‘It’s a black thing that white folks took.’ It’s become this absolutely global culture that’s almost like a blank slate. People appropriate it for themselves.”

Though he admits he doesn’t think we should ignore that hip hop started as a way for black musicians to work around “particular social contexts,” he says it can still be hard for white kids to prove they’ve got the life experience to back up their lyrics.

There’s the self-consciousness of putting on a front and spicing up your life to have that cred,” Steiker says. Artists who are neither white nor black are more likely to find relevance in the narrative of struggle, he continues.

Hip hop was born out of revolt and rebellion. It’s a much more believable narrative to say, ‘I’m an Asian-Canadian with an immigrant background and I’m an outsider and I’m revolting against the system.’ It’s more respected than, ‘I’m a white kid from the suburbs.’”

On the flip side, Cesar says his skin colour has prompted others to question his credibility, too. His band has always worked from a “punky, DIY” ethos, he says, but reviewers didn’t seem to think he could pull it off.

When he started releasing music, Cesar says the reviews “basically concentrated on my lack of authenticity, as a black person falling into punk rock – as if it was just this new thing I was getting into, like I didn’t know what I was doing.

I found it really offensive, because it just makes me come off like I have no connection to it.”

And then there were the comparisons to TV on the Radio, a successful indie rock band boasting an almost entirely black lineup. Cesar, the only black member of Think About Life, thinks the similarities between the bands are more visual than aural.

He says he’s started to think, “a good music journalist is when you see a finished article (about our band) and it doesn’t include TV on the Radio or other bands where one of the band members is black. That’s great.”

Steiker may say that hip hop is a “blank slate,” but there’s still a lot written on the surface of indie rock. Narrow definitions of who will want to listen to the music — and ultimately take part in the communities that grow around it — could be alienating to those who don’t feel they fit the bill. What was a refuge for outsiders could end up pushing people out.

Cesar says there’s “a lot of bigotry indie rock right now,” with an emphasis on race that taints coverage of artists any darker than ecru.

It just has to do with the over-commercialism that has been happening in indie rock in the past four, five years,” he says. “We’ll get over it, but it’s a shame.”

// Madeline Coleman
The Link

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