Wow I Never Heard a Black Guy Sound Like You
I found the first thing I loved on my 18th birthday, and that was music. I bought a Fender acoustic guitar at Guitar Center and opened up a Guitar for Dummies book to learn how to play. Little did I know that this is what I would consider to be the first day of my life.
Exactly one year later, I met a punk kid by the name of Christian who was in my music class. We became friends because of our mutual love of music. I looked up to him as a mentor and a friend. He guided me through the fundamentals of being able to play guitar and learning how to sing. Christian was in a band called Track Royalty, a four piece post hardcore/emo band from Philadelphia. These four dudes introduced me to the underground DIY music scene.
I learned everything from these guys; how to write a song, building harmonies, playing shows, getting yourself out there, and telling your story. I learned the meaning of punk was to accept people for who they are no matter what, and that music is about expression of the self and accepting the differences in others. I followed these rules in every way possible by doing my best to appreciate every artist I came across with in my journey, but I don’t think I ever got the same respect from people in the punk community. Just like every other facet of my life, I was judged. Except this time, it was for the color of my skin.
I remember the first time I experienced racism in a community that I thought was accepting. I played a show at a Fishtown, Philadelphia bar singing my heart out and I heard a man scream the words
“WHO DOES this Nigger think he is? White? He can’t sing punk music, get him off stage.”
In comparison to years of childhood bullying, self-harm and other incidents of racism this was painful. I didn’t react because I had finish my set, but I also did not know how to react. No one had ever called me out for the color of my skin and playing guitar at this time. I didn’t think this sort of thing happened in 2009, I thought our generation advanced beyond that. I was wrong, and I soon came to find out that this would not stop.
For the next six years I was be reminded of the color of my skin at shows. I would hear things such as:
“I didn’t expect that from you”
“most people like you don’t sing like that.”
“maybe you should try singing R and B or rap music.”
“ so are you trying to make up for what white people are doing to black music by stealing white people music?”
These weren’t the only things that were said, these were the things that stood out. Some people said this to me face to face. Some people said it to their friends during my sets and think I didn’t hear it. Others would come to me during a show and get surprised to see that I was black after hearing me on the internet without looking at my face. This sort of discrimination was not limited to the audience.
Show promoters would be surprised when they found out they booked a black guy after hearing my recordings. I even recall select shows where I would meet the person who booked the show I had and they didn’t believe that I was the person they booked. I felt that I was trying to hide the fact that they felt like they made a mistake and did not want to book a black person.
Some Journalists have described my music as “soulful” or “urban” and then tie it with the words “punk” and “indie.” Not only is this inaccurate, but it’s a new age racist way of trying to say “look at this black guy who’s playing punk music, let’s find a way to mention he’s black while pitching the story.” Instead of being promoted for my music and the message, I felt like I was being reminded that I am a black person and that matters more than my music itself.
Getting established was not easy either. I received years and years of rejection from label owners. Some managers would say that I was not the right look, or we weren’t looking for people who looked like you. Or I would be told that I should have a more suburban vibe or that my tone was too urban for rock music. Just like journalists I knew these were cop outs. I started to feel that people were uncomfortable with the notion that a black person could play rock music. This racism didn’t stop when I tried to reach out to people, it even continued when I made my own music communities and collectives.
When I started the Penn State Songwriter’s club I received backlash from fellow musicians and other student leaders. Some members of the student run NAACP considered me a traitor for being a black student who led white kids in the college music circuit. I was wrongfully accused for not supporting black music, even though black musicians were welcome and I hosted events that catered to the hip hop and R and B community. Some students were not comfortable leading the club I founded and treated me with disrespect and were vocal about not liking the fact that I was black. I was questioned about my competency to be able to lead because of my race. The majority of these people did not commit to the values of my organization, none the less I still was questioned for my capability and competency to lead because of the color of my skin.
I believe that I have shown many years of involvement, support and dedication to the music scene, but I have not been able to be as easily accepted to the scene. This may be due to my radical opinions and out of the norm thinking. But I would be lying to myself if I knew the color of my skin did not have something to do with it.
I feel that people have questioned my competence as a musician because of the color of my skin, instead of embracing the idea that I am a musician who has a story just like anyone else. I have not been able to accomplish the same things that my white peers have with such ease. Some of my peers can get a show by asking the person who books or promotes a show. When I ask for shows, I have had to prove my worth, because of the stereotyped perception that I do not write rock music. I have had to try ten times as harder as my white peers to get to where I needed to go. This white privilege doesn’t end with the ability to book shows, get reviews, or any form of notoriety. It comes in the ability to grow and develop as a musician.
My skin color is not the only thing that stops me from being welcomed into the “open minded music scene” I don’t have the look either. Not having the image of a rockstar makes it harder for people like me to be accepted. It confuses people, and makes me less likely to be welcomed into a community that falsely promotes open minded acceptance. I don’t wear skinny jeans, have pierced skin or band tattoos. I don’t wear pretty boy Urban Outfitter flannels, have a lumberjack beard, or wear any of the in style fashion motifs of the underground music scene. Having the privilege of being able to be accepted just for wearing a certain type of clothing and having white skin is not only a privilege, it’s discouraging to people like myself.
I am in a community where the community upbringing and socioeconomic statuses of most musicians are the same( this is not to make the assumption that all white people have the same privileges, but an observation that I have come to recognize that is common in the underground music scene). Most musicians are not from cities, but small towns where they are able to easily afford the training and equipment to get started as a musician. By the time they are in their late 20s to early 20s they move into cities and are able to take over music communities as their own without knowing anything about the community they live in. The livelihoods of most white musicians are relatively at an even plane and their ability to create that opportunity seems to be taken for granted. It’s not their fault for not recognizing this is a privilege that puts them at a higher achievement level than their African American counterparts, but it is.
A young black person like me who had to buy his first guitar on his 18th birthday wasn’t given opportunity with ease. I didn’t have friends in middle and high school who wanted to play with me, and start a band. I had to make the effort to develop my own network and reach out to people to learn how to play my instrument. My grandparents couldn’t take me into music school at a young age because the opportunity was not available.
Recognizing privilege is not only discouraging, but I started to believe that becoming an established a musician is impossible. It doesn’t help either when people who are in power typecast and stereotype me in a negative light and use my skin color as a means to justify their opinions. I find it more discouraging when these same people are also the people who determine who is and is not included in the underground music culture and are respected when divulging their opinions on the rights of black people. The very same people they discriminate against.
I believe that the dialogue used in the underground music community has made me feel dehumanized. Using terms like “people of color” (POC) as a means to describe my identity instead of recognizing me as a person, does not make me feel welcome. I do not like the acronym because I believe it is a modern day racial slur and too similar to the word “colored” which has been used in the 30s- 70s to describe black people. I find the term to be slacktivistic and dismissive to the individuality of ethnic and racial minorities. People should not be categorized and casted into social systems for the sake of judgement and assumptions. Instead people should be seen for who they are one person at a time.
I have been denied and offered shows and social gatherings at DIY shows for being labeled as POC. Creating shows that only allow certain races of people to play is not only racist, but I feel that it implies that I would not be able to play any other show that my white counterparts could play because of the color of my skin. I also feel that I am being showcased as a circus act for being asked to play a show that is described as “POC only show” or “THE BLACK PUNK” show. Why does the color of my skin matter when I am creating art? It shouldn’t matter, I am a fucking human being, not a person to be exhibited on Ripley’s believe it or not.
The recent #blacklivesmatter movement is not much different. Much like POC is a cop out to recognize people’s cultural individuality, I believe that #blacklivesmatter has been designed to ignore African American issues and to create false dialogue about black problems. I have been asked to engage in dialogue about #blacklivesmatter as if all black people experience the same problems and that we are all the same people. I have been given sympathy about problems I don’t experience which is not only confusing, but also racist and dismisses the idea that the music scene is an understanding and open minded place. Instead I have come to learn that this community is slacktivistic, systematically intolerable and closed minded. I’ve grown tired to being judged for my skin and I have been tired of not being able to be seen as an artist, but instead I am labeled as a POC.
I don’t feel capable of being welcomed into DIY safe spaces or venues, because of the color of my skin. There are many diy “safe spaces” and venues that are not safe or welcoming at all. This does not have to do with the fact that the people who run the majority of these spaces do not look like me, but more because of the management of these spaces. Some bookers make selection preferences based on gender, sexuality, or race. The fact that I know that there are venues that will book me based on my skin color doesn’t make me feel privileged or appreciated. Instead, it makes me feel positively discriminated and like I am being given a charity token instead of appreciated for my art.
I have learned that the community does not take the action or effort to make a difference about what occurs in this scene. We listen to the bands based on images, and not based on stories. We support people based on what groups they represent and not based on who they are. I have felt that I am not accepted, and my skin color is definitely one of those reasons, not to mention the lack of privilege that I don’t have.
No matter where I play I experience discrimination to some degree or form. It is no longer something that I am surprised by, but something I expect. People are surprised to see me when they hear my music. They don’t believe that a black person could sing the way that I sing. When I load in gear at shows, local business owners and residents ask me why I am here, and don’t believe that I could actually be in a band who will be playing at the local venue/house or coffee shop. I have been pulled over and stopped by cops during jam sessions and band practices because of the gear I would carry. I have even had my gear inspected by cops because they have thought I had drugs or that my guitar bag was a cover up for a gun.
I don’t know if there is a solution to the racism that I experience or anyone experiences in the music scene. I find it painful that I am part of a community that preaches equality, but does not practice equality and demonstrates hypocrisy. No matter how far I grow in music I am reminded of the privilege, the hatred and discrimination that occurs in this community. I have contemplated changing the genre of music that I play, but I know I would not be able to run away from racism. Racism doesn’t leave, it only changes, and advances to hurt the people who are affected by it. I hope for a day that I am not judged at or looked at for the color of my skin and where my art can be heard for the story and not my skin.
My level of self-esteem and self-efficacy has been challenged in every facet of my life. Feeling accepted in the music scene has been just as depressing as my hopes for being welcomed in any other aspect of my life. The environment in my life hasn’t always been the most encouraging even when I have tried to make things better. My depression does not only live and breathe from the external factors, it comes from the inside.