Music, Stereotypes, & Breaking Down Racial Barriers

As my Facebook friends already know, I attended a Lindsey Stirling concert in downtown Raleigh last night, & it was nothing short of scintillating.  I’ve always loved Stirling’s unique style of violin music combined with drums, electronics, & dancing, but hearing her perform live brought a whole new level of magic to the experience.  It truly is hard to believe that just a few years ago the judges on America’s Got Talent told Stirling she just wasn’t talented enough to play her violin & dance at the same time & that she needed to be part of a group because she’d never fill concert arenas on her own.  As it turns out, those judges couldn’t possibly have been more wrong! lindsey stirling In any case, as we were waiting for the concert to start, my friend & unofficial “concert buddy” commented on what a diverse group of people were in attendance at this concert.  Indeed we saw people of all races/ethnicities & ages (including young children) dressed in a wide variety of styles including everything from a girl in a red sports bra & wide-leg black pants (that were almost certainly taken from the men’s department), another chick in what looked like a one-piece bathing suit with shoes that were basically the definition of hooker heels, girls in rompers (ugh!) & cute sundresses, guys in prototypical T-shirts & shorts, & everything in between . . . There were definitely more girls than guys in the audience, though the proportion of females to males wasn’t actually as overwhelming as I expected it to be.  Point being, this concert was just one example of the power of music in drawing together a diverse group of people who might not normally associate with each other or at least wouldn’t be expected to have much in quote 1 All of this has got me to thinking about how music truly does have the power to overcome so many barriers that our society has constructed, in particular racial barriers . . . and yet sadly how often these barriers still exist.  For example, I grew up in an area that was about 75% white & 25% black & yet our high school band was probably 90% or more white . . . even the jazz band, which is rather ironic considering that jazz is one of the most quintessential styles of African-American music.  Furthermore, as Laina Dawes discusses in her book What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (which has been added to my ever-expanding “must read” list), there has historically been a dearth of African American presence in the rock/metal community, despite the undeniable influence & legacy of Jimi Hindrix.  There are a handful of Asian/half Asian artists in the rock/metal scene (Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park & Matt Heafy of Trivium come to mind) along with a few Hispanic artists (like all of the guys who make up TX heavy metal outfit Upon a Burning Body), but in general it is still a genre very much dominated by white people.

Off the top of my head, Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust out of Atlanta is the only black lead singer I can think of in the rock/metal world.

Off the top of my head, Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust out of Atlanta is the only black lead singer I can think of in the rock/metal world.

If you consider country or bluegrass, the musical landscape is even less diverse.  And when it comes to rap/hip-hop there’s always Eminem of course, but aside from him the genre remains mostly black.  Same for R&B.  And don’t forget that Australian new-comer Iggy Azalea, a white rapper, has definitely caught some flack for “stealing black culture.”

Let me be clear here: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with certain genres being largely represented by whites, blacks, or people of any other race/ethnicity.  If a style of music arises out of a certain culture, it’s only natural that it will be most popular among the people of that culture . . . And that’s ok!  There is nothing wrong with that.

Duke Ellington, one of the great jazz legends

Duke Ellington, one of the great jazz legends

What bothers me is the idea that certain people can’t or shouldn’t like a certain type of music because of their race, ethnicity, culture, or any other characteristic.  I grew up in the 90s, a time when rap/hip-hop largely dominated the music scene.  And guess what: white kids/adults loved it!  And most people didn’t think twice about that, even though rap/hip-hop has traditionally been a genre created & dominated by African Americans.  But the minute a black guy or gal decides to be a country singer or a heavy metal guitarist or a classical violinist, suddenly people start giving them weird looks.  Hell, I remember the handful of black students in my high school band were sometimes referred to as “not really black” by other blacks as well as by whites, partially because they were in band.  As if being black means you can’t like classical music?  You’ll have to run that one by me again because it sounds like bullshit to me!

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a classically trained pianist.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a classically trained pianist.

Over the past four years I’ve attended at least a half dozen country concerts as well as a half dozen rock/metal concerts.  There’s no denying that the audiences at all these events have been mostly white . . . although I was pleasantly surprised by the racial & ethnic diversity I saw represented at Carolina Rebellion this year.  I can’t help but notice, however, that the Asians, Hispanics, & African Americans I’ve seen at these concerts have usually (but not always) been there with white friends.  Granted these concerts have all been in the South (VA, NC, & SC), so it’s possible that things could be much different in other parts of the country, though I’d be willing to bet they’re pretty similar in most areas.  I am not black, Hispanic, Asian, or any other racial minority (that is, I’m not any racial minority in the US, for on a world-wide scale I suppose being white does make me a minority, but that’s irrelevant to this post) & thus could easily be blissfully unaware, but I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed anyone being teased, taunted, or otherwise made to feel palpably ostracized due to being a non-white person at a mostly white concert.  That doesn’t mean it’s never happened of course, though I do think the rock/metal crowd tends to be very accepting of people from all walks of life seeing as most people who like this kind of music are in some way a bit of an outcast/misfit themselves.  I can’t necessarily say the same about the country music crowd, but that’s a discussion for another day . . . In any case, read this post by one of my favorite bloggers for some insight into one African American woman’s experience at a mostly white concert (Celtic Woman):

Upon a Burning Body is an all Hispanic heavy metal band from Texas.

Upon a Burning Body is an all Hispanic heavy metal band from Texas.

In any case, I guess what I am trying to say here is I think that sadly there are still racial barriers in this country, even for something as transcendental as music.  One of the greatest things about music is that it can & does speak to people of all different races, ages, cultures, & ways of life.  For example, I can listen to music in Italian, Hindi, or some other language I don’t understand & be just as moved by it as by a song in English.  Furthermore, composers like Beethoven & Mussorgsky can without words stir every human emotion known to mankind through their glorious symphonies.  Music is powerful, my friends.  It really is.words fail music speaks And that’s exactly why it breaks my heart to think that there are children, teens, & adults in this country who love music from various genres that they are not stereotypically “supposed” to like, & because of that many of them feel uncomfortable attending concerts, buying albums, or even telling their friends & family who their favorite artists are.  Some (who are invariably white) will probably scoff at this, saying these people are making a big deal out of nothing . . . but would you, as a white person, feel comfortable walking into a rap concert whose audience was 90% black?  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, maybe it’s not so silly, huh?  If you still don’t believe this phenomenon exists, check out this article about a black teen rock band in NYC:  The article also mentions an African American journalist who used to hide her rock records under her bed so her black friends wouldn’t call her a “wannabe white girl.”  Hell, even as a white girl, I know what it’s like to be told I don’t seem like I would like a certain style of music, namely rock/metal, because I’m “too nice” & conspicuously free of tattoos & piercings (aside from standard earrings of course).power of music I’m not really sure what the point of today’s post is other than to say this: whether you’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, another race/ethnicity, or some mix of any or all of the above, please don’t let anyone or anything stop you from enjoying the music you love.  If you’re a black guy who head-bangs to Slipknot or a white girl who loves rap, whoever you are, whatever you like, don’t let society’s stereotypes or anyone’s expectations for you change who you are or what you enjoy.  If we want to see a change in this world, we have to be that change (as the famous Gandhi quote states).  I truly believe music has the power to change the world . . . and one way that can happen is by breaking down racial & cultural barriers & demolishing  stereotypes.  As the famous quote attributed to Dr. Suess goes, Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

On that note, I’ve been waiting for this day for months now: today is the day both Breaking Benjamin & Kacey Musgraves debut their new albums.  And naturally I’m going out to buy them!  Toodles!

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