Someone once approached me with the opening line: ‘Hiya! I love reggae, especially Bob Marley. Do you?’
There was a silence while I waited for him to elaborate and he waited for me to respond but neither of us got what we wanted. Instead, I decided to kill the polite conversation and walk away. For all I know he might still be standing on a soggy street in Derby, 20 years later.
It was weird, largely because I wasn’t wearing my I love reggae and Bob Marley t-shirt that day, so how could he possibly have known what my musical proclivities were?
The simple answer is that he couldn’t. He had nothing more to go on than the colour of my skin and in terms of music, that only ever means one thing: the assumption that black folks only listen to music made by other black folks.
For lots of people that might be true but for lots of others it might not be. The problem is that when you venture beyond the world of RRR (rap, reggae, r’n’b), into the land of white blokes with guitars, it confuses the hell out of people.
As a teenager, I often sat in my darkened bedroom listening to The Smiths or elbowing my way towards The Pixies on some dancefloor. It didn’t feel strange to me but it clearly was to others. I could tell that people didn’t quite know what to make of the black girl bowling out to the Stone Roses.
Other black people don’t get it, either and reactions can range from ‘what, you trying to be white, or something?’ to dismissing my musical taste as just plain ridiculous.
Is the presumption that I spend my days booty-jiggling to Beyonce a racist one? Well, kind of, but then, most assumptions based on skin colour are, aren’t they? Guardian journalist and all-round clever dick, Charlie Brooker, summed it all up in a piece he wrote in 2009. Talking about a black girl he once knew who liked indie music, he said: ‘a little voice in my brain kept squeaking that she should be into rap or dance music really. You know: anything with drums. Without realising it, I’d been programmed to expect her to behave according to a bewilderingly narrow set of parameters.’
At least he was honest, I suppose. But it’s boring. BORING! And annoying, because underlying it all is the suggestion that I’m just too different to understand anything white musicians have to say. Ungodly rhythms and shameless beats should be the only musical language I understand. Well, for the record, it doesn’t work like that.
Don’t get me wrong, I love ungodly rhythms and shameless beats, but I also like jangly guitars and 80s electro - I like lots of music and it’s as simple as that. The Small Faces, Joy Division and Led Zep sit next to Barrington Levy, Public Enemy and Otis Redding on my playlist because they’re all brilliant and their unique takes on music have the ability to make me want to laugh, cry, dance, cry a bit more and sometimes take me to places I shouldn’t really go. How could anyone live without access to all of that?
But it’s a complex issue. On the flipside, other black people don’t get it, either and reactions can range from ‘what, you trying to be white, or something?’ to dismissing my musical taste as just plain ridiculous. When I worked on a hip hop and r’n’b magazine, I once made the fatal mistake of mentioning a love of Radiohead. I never lived it down. Laughingly, my editor joked that I’d be better suited to working for Kerrang.
Ironically, the editor wasn’t black. He was a white guy who loved “black” (or should I use the new, more euphemistic term, urban?), music, which is entirely allowed. He was, of course, just following in a long line of white guys who love “black” music, which is entirely acceptable. I doubt whether anyone has told him that he’s selling out, or is trying to be black as a result of being a Gangstarr fan.
What music segregationists tend to forget (or ignore), is how shit the musical landscape would look pretty without black musical renegades: less we forget, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament Funkadelic and Afrika Bambaata were all influenced by everything from country, rock and psychadelia to German electronica. And while we’re on the subject, I’ll let you into a little secret: Jamaicans love reggae, but lots of Jamaican’s love country, rock and pop, too. I spent a lot of my childhood listening to Jim Reeves and Doris Day, and one of my first bus trips through the winding country roads of Westmoreland, Jamaica, was accompanied by the deafening sound of Leanne Rimes.
But as we stumble through 21st century it’s hard to say how much has changed. I recently discovered the word Blipster (see the Urban Dictionary) a new definition for black indie kids, and bands like TV on the Radio, The Dears and the band formerly known as Bloc Party occasionally make waves, but is that progress? Indie clubs are still probably 99.9% white and bands like the above still draw gasps of delight and wonderment.
Who knows how all this will pan out but in the meantime, a mother’s gotta do what a mother’s gotta do, despite the fact that I’m fighting a losing battle. My kids will take Olly Murs and Jessie J over Bowie or Todd Terry any day of the week but I’m hoping they’ll get over it. Even black musical renegades have standards, you know.
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