If you had asked me what my favorite song was, invariably the answer would have been some song with which I associated a really positive emotional memory. Whether it’s a bunch of Metric songs I got really into on a trip to Vietnam in 2009 when I was becoming more confident as an adult, or all the many songs I fell in love with in 2005 when I joined Terrace and felt accepted for the first time, or even all the angry Eminem songs from high school, it was hard to say what songs I liked as songs and not just songs that took me back to happy times.
Music has honestly been a difficult subject for me, and one of the ways that racism has manifested for me more noticeably. I’ve come to recognize the microaggressions I was experiencing every day, but at the time, dismissing black music was a really acceptable way to dismiss the value of blackness.
In eleventh grade, I had the “brilliant” idea to make a mix CD for a class assignment. I had put a bunch of current hip hop songs on it, and I thought it was very clever. Only problem was, a girl in my class had the same idea, and she went right before me, and her entire CD was 80s music. The class loved her presentation, and stared blankly at mine. This, I’m not saying was racist, however it was a stark contrast and one that surprised me. As remains the case in 2019, hip-hop was extremely popular in 2002, but, having not experienced different groups of kids, I had no idea the strangehold that 80s music (and older music) had on my peers.
What I should have done was stick up for what I liked. But I wanted to be welcomed.
That summer, I went to France on a study abroad program, and this was now a new group of high-achieving kids to get to know. One girl (I would say “woman” but we were all 15-17), who now writes for the Economist, told me two things, one of which was true and one of which wasn’t. She said that she didn’t like hip-hop because it was misogynistic (much of it was, and is), and because it didn’t take any talent to create it.
Leaving aside the fact that every genre is misogynistic and singling out black artists is not great (a lot of white critics pull this move), this second theory came up a lot on that trip. Several people on the trip, who were huge fans of jam bands and the Dead (I hate jam bands to this day because of these kids), frequently told me directly that the music I’d brought with me was worthless and lacking in value. (You will not be surprised to hear I was the only black kid.)
I should have stuck up for what I liked. But I wanted to be welcomed.
And then there was college, where this all went into overdrive. Everyone really loved 80s music or classic rock, and the people who liked contemporary music were into emo (it was 2003, I dunno man).
I had literally never heard “Stairway to Heaven” before (it’s still bad and boring, fight me). I actually didn’t know the words to “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen is great, but the movie is bad). And hip-hop was still played at parties, but people only really got excited when it was time for Bon Jovi. I know we were in New Jersey, but literally none of us were old enough to have listened to that music when it was released.
It struck me that so much of what we listen to starts with our parents’ tastes. Based on what we play at home, any children we may have will be really into reggae. But the point is just that music has a deep connection to culture and to race, and it was clear to me, and clearer now, that black music was only valuable when people wanted to find a hook-up partner. The most common thing I heard about hip-hop was that it “wasn’t music,” not even just that it was bad, but that it didn’t rise to the level of art at all. Think about that.
At Terrace, people actually valued hip-hop and other black music. But there was an ugly strain of self-righteousness involved, like the time I was told that a song I wanted to play was “white boy hip-hop.” No one could just listen to black music, see, they had to be experts on it. They all “knew” which Wu-Tang Clan member was the best lyricist, see. My classmates either eschewed black culture or became so immersed as to try to take ownership of it. Part of this was the nature of college kids being the worst (still true, always), but there’s more to it than that.
In Korea, my first year we all found a few bars for expats. There was one bar, Old Skool, which was popular with the American soldiers stationed there (the imperalism involved is a topic for another day, so stop). And that bar and its talented DJ (who I’m still Facebook friends with; hi Jeff) really got the party going with whatever hits were popular in 2008. But Old Skool was kinda gross, and the soldiers got in a lot of fights. Which means that, yes, the one bar that actually had a lot of black people was considered the most dangerous one. So we eventually hung out at other places, and mostly listened to upbeat dance-rock (like TV on the Radio and Metric, which I still enjoy).
Since 2010 or so, I haven’t felt pressure to justify my musical choices or seen what I enjoy as less valuable, mostly because I started having my own parties. And a lot of this story here is just an extension of being a racially and culturally isolated person throughout my adolescence. But I wish I had the insight I have now, where I could have seen their dismissal as part of white supremacy and racial erasure. They know they can’t really have a good party without playing black music. This has been true for decades now. Their parents probably told them what to think about it and like all of us, they listened and learned. I hope only that the very accomplished people who told me that hip-hop didn’t require talent have grown up and grown out of these views.
But probably not.