I am black, an East African immigrant daughter, a queer girl who loves music. Most often, I have loved rock music. My teens and twenties were outlined by indie folk, folk rock, pop rock, and baroque pop. Music that plays underneath soft dreams; the kind of albums that are sources of warm light and fuzzy noise.
Recently, I went to a show in Brooklyn. It was somewhere between Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Out of the subway, a bunch of white people were walking in the same direction, on their way to listen to the same music. My turtleneck, jeans, and Adidas were Brooklyn enough. My hair was natural, but my curls were limp after heat damage—a black girl’s nightmare. I was not bringing it to this indie show. The venue was a newly opened warehouse, like a boarded-up cathedral after nightfall, or a hangar for old WWII planes, lit up by stage lights and twinkling smart phones.
I went to this show with my friend Carrie, who was white and into the same indie folk rock. Soon, we were heady with a mixture of lukewarm beer and strobing lights. Glancing around, I realized I didn’t need to worry about my heat-damaged hair: it was still blacker and fuller than most heads there, and no one in that crowd could tell the difference. There were no black people there. Typical. No, wait—there were a few. One black guy with dreads and a leather jacket, one band of multicultural teenagers who were already too cool for my nerdy black butt.
The opening act had a voice as round and clear as a mason jar. Julia Jacklin, a beautiful blonde who spoke with an Australian accent and sang like a storyteller, her voice a warm liquid. This was the kind of rock I loved.
I felt suddenly hyperaware, off-kilter, with the mix of strummed electric guitars and an eerie glow lighting up white skin everywhere. Soon, I was looking at her singing, sprinkling out her prettiness, her blonde hair, swirling her fairy dust. She was an effortless, enviable, recognizable figure. She existed far away from me.
What would my East African parents think if they saw me there? But they wouldn’t, because they are far away, and do not know what their kids do anymore. They might wonder why I thought to go there, to listen to this girl’s melodies and intimacies. My fierce black power sister and my black friends would think I was quirky. They’d sigh, wonder what I did with my blackness. Where it lay, the way it came out of me. All the white people here, all the cool white hipsters in Brooklyn, I imagined they found me invisible.
It was a weird night. In an inchoate burst, I felt bitter, lonely, jealous, shamed. I was African and black and proud, but I felt guilty at not being African enough, not being black enough, loving white music too often.
I wonder if the other POC in that warehouse hangar were thinking the same things. If they felt exposed, or alien. If they thought about their parents, or their parents’ parents, from somewhere else, so far away from that place and the people surrounding them.
The whole space and vibe, even Jacklin’s clear honeyed voice, began to feel so white. Defaulted, entrenched in whiteness. And yet, the songs were still spiritual to me, their acoustic chants like a prayer. I’d always loved music with guitar, drums, and a damn good voice; I followed its threads eagerly and with a full heart. Why did I experience this feeling of not belonging (by my design, by theirs, by both)? All of us different kids of color, all the white kids at that show, we did not assume the same things about belonging.
In eighth grade, I transferred from my predominantly black public school to a predominantly white private school. At my Baltimore school I was beginning to learn the intricacies and individualities of middle school Baltimore black kids. I was a nerd but my skin was black, even if my coat smelled like onions from East African cooking. The cool black girls and my Vietnamese best guy friend taught me about Destiny’s Child, Ashanti, and Brandy. But just as I was learning my youthful blackness, I had to shift abruptly from Ebonics to pearls.
At the terrible age of fourteen, I was deeply self-conscious as I began attending my new school. Girls with bouncy ponytails, hot pink tennis shoes, skin browned from tanning beds and afternoons at lacrosse practice—they were everywhere. Desperately, I tried to fit in at first, to belong with the popular and the fair-skinned, but I knew I was never going to be cool, or preppy, or peppy, and I was not going to be white. Eventually, I got used to this mostly white space. There were things about this school that were beautiful, like my friends, who also loved Japanese manga, AP Biology, and thought our brief underground newsletter was radical. The campus’s green hills like waves, the small classrooms where we discussed Dostoevsky and Toni Morrison, the algae-filled lake on the edge of campus.
Most of the people around me were white, from my nerdy best friends to the weed-smoking hipsters to the SUV-driving athletes. The preps liked mainstream pop, Fergie and the beginnings of Rihanna, or the rap and hip hop they played at their parties, where very few black people were present.
I began to really love music, with an adolescent’s sophistication, in high school. I was a lonely, dreamy, occasionally silly girl. The bands I began to love then—an enduring love—featured sounds and a vulnerable honesty that were new to me. Music was my own space to exist in, to be soothed in electric fuzz, sweet shoe gazing drones, a bristling low-fi aesthetic, a sensitive lyricism, an acoustic ethos.
Internally, I churned with rebellious ideas and desires, with low-key queerness, and sought non-conforming musical spaces to validate my distressing inability to conform. Music from different spheres helped me transcend the preps, the guilt from my strict East African parents, the feeling that I was not quite good enough at blackness and African-ness. If music was a rebellion from the preps at school and the Africans at home, one wonders, why did I flee to this music? Romantic troubadours, travelers about to carry their instruments off onto the road out west.
White skin was an inextricable aspect of the music I obsessed over in high school, all the albums I kept in a leopard-printed CD case. Indie rock played over the scenes of my favorite movies and TV shows, over the romantic dewy white New York City scenes of Felicity, the grunge noir of Veronica Mars, the neon dreams of Sofia Coppola films.
There was Death Cab for Cutie, The Shins, Ben Folds, Ben Kweller. Jimmy Eat World, The Strokes, Coldplay, The Killers, 1980s U2… My favorite soft Swedish band The Perishers, which defined my sixteenth year. At age seventeen, I memorized Keane’s Hopes and Fears and dreamt of “somewhere only we know.” My one friend was the first musical snob I ever met, and I adored her. She burned me CDs, introducing me to Kasabian, Of Montreal, Joshua Radin, The Smashing Pumpkins, Arcade Fire. The soundtrack to Garden State. Of course, also the classics—The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Queen. Mythic rock-n-roll, a history of this country before my parents landed on its shores.
The best way to listen to those albums was in early evening, the whole family downstairs, CD in my lavender mini stereo pressed to play. Laying on the bed with eyes closed, careening above trees, amongst clouds like Aladdin, thinking of the future (future future future!).
My private school played Bright Eyes‘s “First Day of My Life” every second Wednesday of December, at the end of morning assembly. Every time, I nearly cried at Conor Oberst’s lilt: “This is the first day of my life / Swear I was born right in the doorway.” Bright Eyes was somehow untouched yet ripened, rough and sweet, disarming, like he could sing me a song about a lemon and I’d still feel electric shocks. My renegade theater teacher, Grover, played us Death Cab for Cutie; my sweet, hip English teacher lent me Z by My Morning Jacket.
At age seventeen, I went to my first rock show, a Canadian band in a small, packed underground spot in downtown Baltimore. It was on a school theater trip with Grover. The air got warm and musky, people pushed in close in the darkness, and I craned my neck to see the stage lights illuminating the sweat and wrinkles on the guitarist’s black t-shirt. The bass vibrated in our bones like our loud East African weddings, but with different sounds and white strangers.
I was like an excited child, taking in the music of my very first concert. Through the stage light haze, it was clear that even there I did not blend in; I stood out. But that after years at a predominantly white private school, I was familiar with white spaces—an old pro. I ignored whiteness, rolled my eyes at it, existed next to it. And so at that show, I made myself feel that it was just me and the music. Years later, in Brooklyn, I realized this familiarity masked my lingering discomfort, my secret desire for white ease and the white rock aesthetic.
I also listened to Lauryn Hill and Black Star on repeat, yet those were the exceptions to the white music rules. And, if not loving East African music made me a bad immigrant child, then not loving enough hip-hop made me a bad black kid. My brother, at age fourteen, made me aware of OutKast, and the rapper Kanye West. Did my brother get handed down a gene that allowed him to revel in black music better than I did? My older sister was blacker then me, too; her music was all R&B and neo-soul, Zap Mama and India Arie. She caught me jamming to Hard-Fi one day and looked confused. “You’re black, you know?” she said. My heart sank. My black credit was questionable. Unfair, I thought. Unfair that my big sister’s offhand remark filled me with shame, that she saw something wrong with the picture of me. Unfair that nothing was neutral, and these many expectations were something I couldn’t escape.
At my family’s townhouse in Baltimore, there was no excessive horseplay or attempts at American-styled rebellion. A sharp eye watched over us at all times, and my parents had sharp tongues and ears, too. My siblings and I were always top students, and yet, we moaned, our parents did not let us do anything. My parents loved us to death, but they did not have the same sensibilities as us. As a teenager with dial-up Internet, and strict-as-hell parents, my entertainment—my salvation—were John Hughes films on VHS, medieval fantasy novels, and rock music.
My parents fled a bitter civil war for America. They left everything, precious things like bickering families, familiar dusty streets, people with skin glowing black-brown like them—yet they did bring along their people’s music to America. “Listen! Listen to your people’s music!” Dad often barked. Our traditional songs blended African banjos, electric guitars, and melodic Arabic sounds in endless circles.
My dad was perpetually annoyed at our Americanization, our dismissal of East African music. Our people’s music was melodic, rhythmic, calling for our country, for old loves, for a golden, purer life. Dad played our music all day long at home, warm and jazzy notes from the Red Sea, sometimes like siren calls, Mom dancing as she walked through, shake, shake.
I was tired of it, of our people’s echoing warbles, mystic jazz notes, aleeheeehsss and eeeehsss. It was a massive guilt trip. Our parents saw our hearts were invested in the American zeitgeist. We sold our East African pride down the river. We never really knew our country’s sounds, its shades, its flowers in bloom.
I used to think, idealistically, that I might be able to soar above (or at least sneak past) the expectations and complexities of race. But being a black African girl who adores so much white music, I can’t pretend there isn’t a pause, a beat, between the whiteness of the music I love and me. I have loved music by so many white people, to the accidental (or purposeful) exclusion of others, and felt a guilt and unease deep down, even as I listened with glee. I was an escape artist, I was a fool, I was a sellout—an Oreo, as one hapless college classmate would joke.
Ten years later, after high school, college, graduate school, I was living in New York City. I had arrived firmly in the future and it was more melancholic than expected. I still loved my singer-songwriters, and now went to shows all the time. I listened to Sufjan Stevens, who reminded me of the romance of Call Me by Your Name and walks outside in the Manhattan winter. But the unspoken understanding that these musical spaces I occupied were largely white began to bother me. Even if I had held them up as nonconforming, unpolished, or authentic, they were still white spaces; these artists still communicated white privilege through how their artistry and authenticity were imbibed, and through who was naturally included and welcomed.
Maybe this unease was all a chip on my shoulder, a historical artifact, my own self-consciousness. Maybe it was all imagined hang-ups. But even the most basic of sounds have connotations and history: The chira-wata, the one-stringed twang that begins our East African ballads, means pride, sun, homesickness. I felt that “indie rock,” whatever that label stood for, was made up of singular guitar riffs and drum kicks that flashed to a white aesthetic in the mind. In this way, their sounds were synonymous with whiteness first. These sounds went along with the gentrified coffee shops, the commodified atmospheres of exposed brick and wooden communal tables, expensive cold brew and distressed high-rise jeans.
For lot of us PoC kids who love indie rock, our love of the music exists in the blur between our own musical inclinations, our heart’s true desires, and a lifelong, inescapable, pervasive idealization of whiteness settled on everything around us. We are the lone blackness in a white crowd, the few amongst so many. In the music halls of Brooklyn, I felt it even more keenly. Was it Baldwin who mused on searching amongst the white hipster towers for an image of ourselves? Hunting amongst the towers of the white poets and artists we love and hold up, and seeing ourselves as interlopers, as not a part of the great equation? And yet, I still loved Conor Oberst with every fiber of my being.
Being thirty and (barely) grown up now, my world has slowly become less naïve and less washed in whiteness. My curiosity about my black self has grown. It’s become larger, curlier and kinkier, like my grown-out natural hair. My tastes are more diverse. Excuse that irritating word, diversity. Hey, I even have more black friends (and I can’t count them on one hand)! I want to yell it from the rooftops. I know I can like black things as much as all the white music I love. I know it… I think.
Part of me has listened to music by black people with a sense of guilt and obligation—like, I should listen to this; this is good for me. Strange arithmetic about what I should love, to prove that I am down. What can I say? How can I defend my blackness? There is no defense, other than, I think, to say that a black soundtrack did not initially fit the dreams in my head.
It was still a long road to unlearn the most subtle, implicit biases I held against music by people of my own skin color. At the root of the thing, underneath the soil, it was there—the shame—and yet also, the untapped ability to see true beauty in black artists’ indie rock, art rock, R&B, neo-soul. It took me years to be able to see, truly, that black people can do anything. Hip-hop, rap, soul, folk and the blues, acoustic guitar rock. To recognize that they are also the bards and troubadours who can light up my imagination and heart. As much as I sought out soothing vibes, cathartic riffs, and alternative spaces in indie rock that validated my weirdness, my anxieties, my queerness, and my floating identity, might I not find soothing, trippy sounds and acceptance from PoC artists, too?
In this way, I began to hear the waves of new musical bays. Childish Gambino‘s moody hip-hop and black hipster existentialism turned electronic funk turned “This Is America.” Noname’s mixtape Telefone sank its sparkly teeth into me, making me nostalgic for her stories, her jangly soft beats dropping over me like lemon drops. SZA’s music was beautiful and enviable, indie R&B. Those wild, vulnerable boy rappers in Brockhampton. Hell, if I said I cared about seminal musical history, then how about Prince? His lessons in funky neon coolness and glam vibes? Do I sound like I’m trying to be down?
Nothing was truly solved, but I felt less neglectful, less narrow, more black—and happy about it. Even my mystic East African music fit in here, somewhere. These were the artists of color making flourishing, grungy, smooth, sweet, complex rock and folk music that I’d always felt I was lacking.
Kaia Kater, a Grenadian-Canadian steeped in Appalachian music, singing sweet brass notes: “We lie in a twin bed, like two small sardines / And I whisper all my feverish thoughts / And we float on like cosmonauts.” Mitski, my Japanese-American hero, my all-American girl. TV on the Radio had been making thrilling indie rock before I knew better. Moses Sumney‘s songs that sit somewhere between indie and R&B. Jay Som. Nilüfer Yanya. So many more exist.
I am still a black immigrant girl (woman), stuck with the ideal of the white melancholic troubadour and rock star, insecure and out of place, watched by a family eye, looking for transcendent music and more. Does there always have to be a gap between what I love and what I am? There may always be the feeling of that Brooklyn show, that conflicted desire to belong with the white music I loved, but there’s also the knowledge that glittering brown and black skin can also produce the music for my daydreams, can be mercurial and wrapped up in sweet sentimentality, can echo my ancestral bits.
Rumpus original art by Mike Tré.