In June 2000, as a freshman in high school, I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters perform at the Compaq Center in Houston. It was my first gig. I still remember the confused look on the face of the black security guard as he let me into the room with my black violin teacher, who chaperone me at the show; he had raised his eyebrows as if to say: “Wait, what are you doing here?” We walked into a crowded arena of predominantly white rock fans; for a long moment, the visceral fear of being around white strangers made my heart beat.
But when the house lights went out and I saw Dave Grohl, my hero, take the stage, I knew I had made the right (albeit awkward) decision. I thought I was going to lose my mind when Grohl and Taylor Hawkins fought together on drums for the intro to “My Hero” in the Foo Fighters opening set, and I saw Flea’s fingers dancing up and down on the fingerboard of his bass alongside the other Chili Peppers. was fascinating. Watching the show that night, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if he or any of my rock icons would ever acknowledge black lives like mine.
Although the rock music I grew up listening to and loving had no outward signifiers of Blackness (an irony given that the genre wouldn’t exist without pioneering black musicians), these bands nonetheless spoke to me. right when I came of age in late-’90s Houston, just as my city was cementing its place in the Southern rap canon with the rise of rappers like Z-Ro and UGK. I knew every word of DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters” featuring Lil’ Keke and Fat Pat without even trying to memorize it, and Destiny’s Child “No No No Part 2” (feat. Wyclef Jean) seemed to be playing on repeat at the Funplex ice rink. Hip-hop was as much a part of the city as its humid air. But all the while, the Foo Fighters color and shape was on constant repeat in This Black Girl’s Discman.
Music is my life. He claps my hands in good times, hugs me in sad times, and punches me in angry times. I consider myself a lifelong student of all genres, regularly reading books like rolling stone and twirllisten to podcasts like Sound Opinions, and tracking iTunes Top Songs and Top Albums charts. I want to know what people listen to, why they listen to it, and what music is worth buying in the age of streaming. As interested as I am in studying musical genres, the basis of my tastes isn’t hip-hop, a genre full of dark-skinned, frizzy-haired artists like mine. Instead, it’s rock music, the most visible icons of which are mostly white artists like Radiohead and Vampire Weekend, Jenny Lewis and Sturgill Simpson.
It’s hard to pinpoint when my love of rock started. I was raised on Sunny 99.1, Houston’s adult contemporary station, and my childhood music regimen at home consisted of Hall & Oates, Patti LaBelle, and Kenny G. probably led to drifting the dial to 107.5 The Buzz (now 94.5), Houston’s alternative rock station. Soon I persuaded my mother to let me buy the No Doubt album tragic kingdom a sleepy Saturday in Circuit City; I had bought this CD based on the single “Don’t Speak”, and the fact that a girl was the lead singer and a black man played bass. As more bands like Alice in Chains and the Dave Matthews Band began to fill my mixtapes, I remained on alert for any magazine articles that revealed a black band member. Over time, however, my disappointment at not seeing a lot of darkness in the music I love grew into a kind of sad acceptance.
Loving white rock artists then as a black girl, and now as a black woman, has been an incredibly isolating experience: I’m in my thirties and can only think of two black friends who share same musical interests as mine. . And before last spring, I had only seen one rock band I love, Arcade Fire, elevate darkness in both their art and their community. But towards the end of May, when the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the United States, I started to see other rock musicians finally start making statements supporting the movement and denouncing the racism. First, California-based group Best Coast posted a Black Lives Matter statement on Instagram; then Guns N’ Roses and Green Day followed with their own supporting statements. With each passing day, more of the white artists I’ve long loved are posting about the importance of protests, sharing anti-racism resources, donating to bail funds and foundations, and urging their followers to do likewise. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
Of course, writing an impassioned article about racial inequality pales in comparison to actually experiencing the hundreds of years of discrimination and injustice that black people have long suffered. But I can’t deny the part of me that also breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t anticipated a day when St. Vincent would lead an Instagram TV interview with Jessica Byrd about how to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but here we are. While I felt conflicted with the messages and wary that they were performative, I also felt seen in a way I’ve never seen before by my favorite bands. And while that’s certainly not enough, I concede that it’s a start.
Trying to explain to my peers why I liked rock bands has always been a challenge. One day in high school, as our bus approached its two Sharpstown stops, a black friend noticed me flipping through my treasured CD booklet, an overloaded fuchsia collection emblazoned with my friends’ signatures and inside jokes scribbled all over it. . Even though we were less than ten miles from my neighborhood, it would still take us an hour to get there, so I needed the melodic comfort of Weezer to sustain me for the rest of the trip. “Jennifer, why are you listening to this white music?” my friend asked, loud enough that the kids a few seats away could hear and participate. I shrugged and let out a “That’s the music I love.” I was never quick on my feet, which would have been helpful for the choir of children watching in my CD booklet with God’s judgment itself.
The simultaneous ridicule and confusion over my favorite genre would continue on the flat dusty plains of Lubbock, where I proudly hung Radiohead Hello thief poster in my college dorm; during my twenties in Houston, where I quit working to volunteer at an Arcade Fire concert; and now in my thirties in New York, where I wear my Guns N’ Roses t-shirt on conference calls. The puzzled look on that security guard’s face at the Compaq center all those years ago turned out to be great training for the future: I’m now an expert at anticipating people’s double takes and, in turn , I dubbed the music that brings me joy. .
Thankfully, my parents fortified my darkness. Living in Houston, I was surrounded by black artists, doctors, and even a black mayor. They showed me that I could be anything. As a child, I only had to look out the window of our family van to see myself represented in just about every possible position in society. I leaned on that as I tried to feel comfortable straddling two worlds: the black girl I’m honored to be and the music that seemed to only exist in white spaces. . My desire to listen to the music I enjoy – with or without the blessing of my melanistic peers or the warm welcome of my white peers – has been a lifelong burden that has helped me find love- own.
That’s why I remain cautiously optimistic and still stunned by the outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter from white artists in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a band I’ve loved since high school, is now spearheading an effort to redistribute revenue to black organizations. The project aims to start making amends for the music industry‘s long history of taking credit for the music of black artists. Two decades after that mind-blowing Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, Flea is using her Silverlake Music Conservatory to ensure black communities have access to music education resources. And the Foo Fighters issued a statement of solidarity with the black community and donated to Color of Change, Black Future Labs and the NAACP. About 25 years after first playing color and shape on my Discman, I see my favorite bands defending George Floyd, for darkness and for my darkness.
I also take comfort in knowing that some of my favorite artists were doing the work before the current public support for black lives. Throughout Arcade Fire’s 2018 Everything Now Tour, Will Butler, one of the band’s founding members who also grew up in Houston, hosted informative after-parties to discuss social justice issues alongside leaders influential communities. And before protests spilled out of Minneapolis this summer, the band’s frontman, Win Butler, had already written a song for George Floyd.
It’s something to see white musicians using their platform to draw attention to blackness. But that’s not all, because even the most tender voice of Win Butler will not dismantle an oppressive system that white musicians have taken advantage of and of which, knowingly or unknowingly, they have been complicit. years of ridicule for my musical preference. But the life I’ve spent seeing myself in these artists’ music now feels a little less one-sided knowing that they’re finally starting to see me.
I may not have come across many young black rock fans myself, but I know they are there. I hope it’s a relief to no longer have to reconcile their relationship to music and their darkness. I hope it’s comforting to know that some of the bands that black fans suspected were on the right side of history have now offered supporting evidence. Finally, the bands are watching us directly, and it’s not too early.