On White People and the Blues
In an attempt to summarize a dining experience I had that didn’t exactly rub me the right way, I explained to a friend: “You know how white people will come home after work and turn on the blues? … It was kind of like that.”
Music for me can be a touchy and emotionally charged subject, and – for the most part – I try to avoid discussions that are driven by the sole need to essentialize genres according to race. While it is clear to me that certain music has origins in circumstances in which race was an unequivocal factor, I’ve grown into an understanding that much musical development occurred within an environment of cross-racial, -cultural, often transatlantic influences. Borrowing has happened, sometimes even mutually.
Still, there is such a thing as black music: music that is derived from or inspired by black people and culture. Among this music is the blues and soul – both of which have picked up a lot of momentum amongst white listeners – be they punks, hipsters, or music junkies.
My issue/criticism/complaint is that this music is often not understood within its cultural, historical, and emotional context. This music comes from someplace, and is part of the experiences – the pain, joy, struggles and historical memories of black folk. There is something assuming, unsettling, and comfortably privileged about a white person throwing on a Bessie Smith record they found at Salvation Army at a dinner party. In thinking specifically about the blues, it was birthed from the realities of being black and without resources. Rhythms were created with feet, hands, and mouths. Similar to how some jazz musicians used instruments discarded from the Civil War, the blues was born from the specific situation of not having: a situation which has been commonly entangled with being of color in the U.S.
What is it about white people getting off up under black music that is so troubling? Perhaps it is the romanticization of black experiences that accompanies the thoughtless enjoyment of the culture that is born from them? Or is it the consumption of black pain as product? There is something disturbing about being confronted with music that for me is significant, evocative, and tied to an actual feeling in a space such as a hip restaurant in Brooklyn. I’m here to eat brunch (first mistake) and you have Otis Redding muted on the TV (presumably) singing and jumping around on stage, and – as though to say “AHA!” – you are also playing a completely different album by him on the sound system. At first, I offered the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, considering that perhaps this was the decision of a black owner who, like me, loves southern soul. But, there was something distinctly white about this. Aside from its offensively conspicuous “down-home” New Orleans theme and obviously new location in gentrify hot-spot Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, the ease with which black expression was on display as a backdrop just reeked of the detached, uninformed consumerist indifference that is fed by commodity culture. It was like an exhibit of southern black feeling that most of the “mixed crowd” patrons probably could not have related to on any personal level but could rather mindlessly neglect while eating barbecued shrimp and grit cakes. Anyway, taken completely out of context, Otis became 30-something inches of energetic sweaty black man, invoked to rouse a fake nostalgia for a time that most white people would, quite frankly, rather forget.
In being white and, to an extent, in being a part of sub- and counter-cultures which value history and the creation of things, one is faced with an abundance of options for musical cultures that are available to be listened to, researched, experienced, and enjoyed. (Take for example the fact that being a rock n’ roll fan might lead you to the unavoidable fact that many artists, including The Rolling Stones and that Elvis guy drew directly (and in some cases stole) from blues influences, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.) There are endless musical cultures to be discovered, particularly when you aren’t exposed to certain genres in your childhood. But it is important to consider the stories, histories, pain, and oppression that such music has been inevitably steeped in, and to seek to really understand what it means, and where it comes from – culturally, historically, emotionally – as opposed to appropriating whichever part of its aesthetic seems useful. Everything is not simply for your listening pleasure or dining experience.