a black woman who loves “white folks” music

December 11, 2013

Tweet from February 15, 2012 to be logged in The Library of Congress for future generations: Fun Random Fact for the Day: Pandora Radio figured out I liked Tool before I did. Such an admission used to bring about confused stares and side eyes along with that inevitable question: “You like white folks music?” White folks music. A black girl isn’t supposed to be into that. Yet I was, I am and I have been all my life. The black girl who likes “white folks music” is always the odd girl out.

An Essay by Inda Lauryn *

1984 – First memories of coming home from school, heading to parents’ bedroom and watching MTV for the rest of the day waiting to see Michael Jackson videos. Because even then at the ripe old age of five going on six, I know I am black. I cannot recall a time in my life in which I was not aware of my blackness. I have no one epiphany-like memory with the world letting me know once and for all that I am and always will be only a black girl. Being a black girl has always been part of an existence I took for granted until then. My feelings have not been caught up in it yet. For now, I am content to lie on my mother’s bed and wait for the love of my life to appear. The wait is not always unpleasant. Duran Duran videos are not so unpleasant to wait through. I’m fascinated to see Simon le Bon wrestle with a tall, leggy black woman in the jungle. I don’t see too many more of those until the ultimate black girl has the chance to strut her famous legs through the city. Until then, I wait for Michael.

Van Halen videos are slightly uncomfortable even though I can still sing the words to “Hot for Teacher” to this day. Along with David Lee Roth and company, I get to know Phil Collins and Genesis. I adopt a blank expression and sway from side to side as Robert Palmer lip syncs in front of identically clad models. I don’t know what “West End Girls” are, but I love Pet Shop Boys. Some of these videos become favorites. Who can imagine that time without Peter Gabriel in primitive but yet still oddly beautiful stop motion animation? Did anyone else see that he’s got black girls singing in the background with him?

As I wait for Michael, I get my first taste of gender confusion as I wonder why a girl is named Boy George and why she is singing the line “I’m a man.” I see a girl with very short orange/red hair in a video that kind of scares me yet I still watch because it fascinates me. At the time, I have no idea that Annie Lennox and her wonderfully haunting voice will come to mean more to me than a childhood memory. Those are not the only Brits I get to know while I wait to see my man. Wham! must have had me in mind with an oddly colourful video and yet another black girl singing in the background. If she can jitterbug with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely, anything is possible. Apparently, it is Michael Jackson’s fault I have such diverse taste in music. Perhaps if I had not spent so many hours watching MTV as a child waiting to see him, I would not know Billy Idol or the Go Gos. Perhaps if I had not been able to watch those videos within the privacy of my parents’ room, I would have never developed the need to hide the fact that I like “white folks’ music.”

1992 – Adolescent hell made even more so by the fact that being a black nerd is less than cool – it renders one white.

Maybe that’s why I’m happy that suddenly all the black kids are rapping along with Anthony Kiedis name dropping Bob Marley in “Give It Away” and rendering him the cool white boy of the moment. The Red Hot Chili Peppers is practically the only band I began listening to in my adolescence that is still around today, barring U2 who have been around all my life. Anthony Kiedis is my grown man crush since I never really got along with boys my own age. While I also love Mary J. Blige and Boyz II Men along with everyone else who is hot in R&B at the time, I find myself contemplating with Kiedis as he forlornly sings about his hometown of L.A. and get excited when I recognize Flea in movies like My Own Private Idaho and Son in Law.

Still, I know that RHCP may be an exception among black folk. Just because it’s cool to like a group that successfully blends a whole array of black music styles does not mean they will not still call me a white girl if I confess to liking Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Then again, he gets cool by high school when he raps instead of sings “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Oh my my, oh hell yes indeed. As junior high becomes high school, I regularly find my disposable income go to cassettes then CDs. I buy black music. My collection is full of Boyz II Men, ABC, BBD since I dare not buy the music that contributes to my unwanted label of white girl. I sometimes wear a tie both because I am such a huge Boyz II Men fan and because I think it’s cool I know how to tie it.

Yet, somewhere around this time, I become more comfortable with myself. As I age through the years, I am sometimes the only black person in my class, especially the advanced levels of English and math. While my white classmates want to impress me with their knowledge of Tamia and Whitney Houston, they’re in awe that I know Crash Test Dummies and Green Jelly. A teacher once makes sure she calls out in front of the entire class that she didn’t know I liked KISS. I feel the need to explain myself to the only other black girl in the class that they have a slow song I like. On a rare Friday night when I am not alone eating rice with the chopsticks my aunt sent me directly from Japan, I watch MTV’s Friday night block party. I sing The B-52s’ “Love Shack” with some of my sister’s friends. My sister is not sure what is going on.

This could be why I feel a little less like a freak when I discover just how much I like classic rock. The Moody Blues’ Days of Future’s Past finds its way next to Jodeci’sForever My Lady and D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar. Then I fall in love with the guitar. My first love: Eric Clapton. I have a copy of Unplugged since I love “Tears in Heaven” so much. Hearing a riff of “White Room” once too often takes me to The Cream of Clapton. Of course, none of my black friends know about this or the copy of Oasis’What’s the Story (Morning Glory) that sits in my ever growing collection of music. I leave home for college. Amidst strange looks from the cashier and my sister who has to announce that the cashier is “looking” at my CD, I openly buy a copy of The Monkees Greatest Hits before I leave.

2000 – College years filled with self-discovery and a sense of not being alone in the world. The only thing I regret about college is not seeing more of New Orleans while I was there. Although there are new friends sometimes, I spend most of my time on campus working at the newspaper and later at the Writing Center where I tutor English. I sometimes spend Fridays at Wherehouse Music browsing through used CDs and Saturday nights looking forward to Sessions as West 54th where I discover Ben Harper.

Falling in love with Jimi Hendrix amplifies my love of guitars. He is my favorite, but Clapton, Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughn also catch my ear. I spend my time in the newspaper office listening to the Crossroads box set and Janis Joplin when I am alone. A few times, the professor/advisor wanders in and makes a small comment: “Janis Joplin?” He is not the only white professor surprised to find that their black students proudly attending an HBCU are just as well versed in The Beatles and the Rolling Stones as they are Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.

The summer I spend in State College, PA, brings old memories and more classic rock. I find another used music shop and buy a used CD of The Doors’ greatest hits. I surreptitiously listen to the white boys behind the counter express their disappointment with Jimmy Page for helping Puff Daddy ruin his song. I wholeheartedly but silently agree.

While my neighbor plays Angie Stone with the door open, I listen to Living Colour behind closed doors while I am alone without my roommate. One day I decide to open my door because I have nothing to hide. A brother at one of the programs we attend begins his karaoke performance of RHCP’s “Scar Tissue” with a disclaimer for his choice of song. I sing along with the sister who performs Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” While a new friend turns me on the Dave Matthews Band, I introduce her to my intellectual crush at the time, Ben Harper. A black friend whispers to another that I don’t listen to the same things they do. I tell her she doesn’t have to whisper it. She is the one who snaps my picture as I sing to Fiona Apple.

Yet, I am reminded of the previous summer in Chicago after a small shopping excursion. One “friend” ridicules me for buying a Paul McCartney CD and another blatantly turns her nose up at some of my other purchases that include Eric Clapton, Santana and Eagle Eye Cherry. This does not stop me from waking up at six in the morning on Sundays to listen to a local DJ named Kitty Lowie play three hours of The Beatles and tells stories about their lives and that fabled era of the late 1960s. I even shower early in the evening so I can listen to the two-hour commercial-free show from seven to nine. This is the time my roommate finds me listening to the program and only comments that I went way back – until the next night when she is the subject of teasing and finds a way to deflect it by mentioning how the night before I was listening to The Damn Beatles. I buy the entire Beatles catalogue when I finally return home including The Yellow Submarine Songtrack.

2006 – Graduate school brought more misdirection and disappointment.

I enjoy living on my own. I have an unsteady income that sometimes leaves me with a few disposable dollars. Usually those funds make their way to Borders where I tend to buy more CDs and DVDs than books. No, I never buy books at Borders unless they are clearance. Yet, I can smell CD deals with no problem.

A rock essentials sale puts Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass into my collection. It also brings me to the man I have come to love and admire more than most others.Highway 61 Revisited and Nashville Skyline are my introductions to Bob Dylan.This iconic figure is familiar to my expansive music vocabulary even if I had not before listened to him. With tastes in music as varied as mine, his name inevitably comes up as legend, particularly Highway 61 Revisited in which he abandons the acoustic folk sound that lionized him early in his career.

Yet, it is a favorite of mine with the ominous piano opening of “Ballad of the Thin Man.” I can understand why Rolling Stone magazine would proclaim the opening track “Like a Rolling Stone” the greatest song in rock despite the obvious connection. Yet, this is not why Dylan holds such a special place in my heart. As I often do, I look for other CDs to get more music and find out if they are as good as Highway 61 Revisited. I eventually come across Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. I immediately get caught up in the good time feel of “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35,” a track I eventually add to one of my warm weather mixes. Yet, Blonde on Blonde misses something that Blood on the Tracks does not.

“Tangled up in Blue.” As I head off to catch a bus, the opening notes catch my ears before getting to the lyrics. I freak. I seriously freak out because this song is so good. I consciously think of how glad I am I discover Bob Dylan as a 27-year-old grown ass woman because I get it. Bob Dylan becomes the true bard in my vision. My man Jimi may have made “All Along the Watchtower” his own, but Bob is the one who wrote it.

I forgive Bob for using the n-word in “Hurricane.” I applaud Steve Earle for interrupting “Masters of War” to dedicate a crucial line to Dick Cheney and his hunting buddies on his radio show: “And I hope that you die/And I hope you die soon.”

I tell this no one.

2012 – Latest memories of working in the day and spending three days out of the week writing in a small community café, trying to find space in the writing game. I spend all day in my Wisconsin apartment since I work from home. I spend three nights a week in a café writing. I keep on my headphones to listen to my own music and drown out the noise. I listen to the café’s music only while I wait for my hot chocolate. I once ask the guy serving me what’s playing because the song sounds so familiar. Edward Sharpe and the Magnificent Zeros.

Most of the latest music in my collection is predominantly neo-soul and mostly black women since I am playing catch up on all the music I could not buy during lean times and I still must be selective about what I buy now. Erykah Badu. Jill Scott. Angie Stone. Meshell Ndegeocello. Macy Gray. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Janelle Monáe. The Noisettes. The Memorials. Subject to Change. Maxwell. All within the last few CDs I have in my collection. The latest: Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

I try to get into groups like TV on the Radio. I have known about groups like Bad Brains and Fishbone for years but have never really gotten into them despite my love of the collaboration Fishbone did with Blackstreet and Slash back in the day, “Fix.” I feel a bit embarrassed that the white hipsters that get to write for magazines like SPIN and Black Book discover them before I do. It reminds me of my white professor/mentor in State College who I hate to admit is my introduction to Nina Simone and Oscar Brown, Jr. He is a huge jazz fan who also introduces me to short films from the 1930s and 1940s featuring jazz musicians. I can’t reconcile my ignorance of these things when they are a part of my culture and heritage. It irritates me when some white guy wants to show me how much he knows about Betty Carter because he is just so with it. I am confused when I see Saul Williams speak at Barnes and Nobles in Ann Arbor and looks at me in surprise when I nod when he asks if anyone in the room knows who Betty Davis is as if he is the only black person who really knows her work – as if my knowing who she is as well somehow makes him less exceptional.

I forgive myself for my small Southern town upbringing that did not allow me to become a tastemaker who got to hear everything before everyone else did and predict the next big thing. I forgive myself for discovering Donnie’s The Colored Section because of Fader magazine and staying with his career even after that flawless album was not the commercial success it should have been. I forgive myself for not growing up in a city like Ann Arbor that can afford to import culture when it feels the need therefore those dwellers may know a little more than I do about who’s who in black punk rock. I forgive myself because I discover Janelle Monae from a black female friend from MySpace and give The Noisettes a shot because of the accompanying recommendation from Amazon. I forgive myself when I gave up on rap music long before 1997 and did not give it another chance until I get into the likes of Mos Def, Common, OutKast and pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas. I forgive myself for liking what I like.

February 9, 2012: Shared photo on Facebook meme: When Led Zeppelin is playing, you shut the fuck up.

One Like from a black male friend.

I have always been asked what am I listening to since I am rarely seen without headphones. I find this difficult to answer not because I am embarrassed or ashamed but because The Flaming Lips sits between Espranza Spalding and Green Day while N’Dambi sits between MUSE and N.E.R.D. on my MP3 player. Just because I listen to something one minute does not mean I will be listening to the same thing the next.

The difference now is I no longer question why Beck may speak to me on a deeper level than Beyoncé of whom I must admit I am not a fan. I do not feel it necessary to be a fan in order to belong. Instead, I question why my other sister feels it necessary to completely turn her head from the road while driving the car to give me an incredulous look when listening to Janelle Monáe’s “Suite II Overture” because it’s classical music.

Incidents such as these remind me that black girls who listen to anything other than black girls and boys are subject to question. However, events such as those I encountered at my nephew’s 2010 graduation continue to be an exception. The black salutatorian (a title I also held) chooses to base the theme of her speech on a Tim McGraw song and no one blinks for the moment. The white male student before her with the third highest grade point average chooses The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun,” so I sing the opening line only to find another black girl behind me doing the same thing with her friend pointing to me and reassuring, “See she’s singing, too.”

Black girls like me are not the exception. Rather we are an underground that has slowly begun to emerge and celebrate our heroes in the likes of Betty Davis, Skunk Anansie’s Skin, The Noisette’s Shingai Shoniwa, The Memorial’s Viveca Hawkins and Imani Coppola in all her incarnations. We are not unfamiliar with the genres outside R&B and rap because we are inundated with white performers from birth and we become familiar with them; we grow to love some of them. Calaix gives us a voice with the exceptional and eclectic mixes she presents on Kinda Black Radio. I get a bit ecstatic to see Erykah Badu perform with Re:Generation, a side project with Mark Ronson, members of the Dap Kings, Trombone Shorty and Zigaboo Modeliste on David Letterman. I wonder if Mary J. Blige knows she has done some of her finest work with collaborations with Elton John and U2.

We also find out that we have been a huge part of this history from the beginning. I am not the only one who listens to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” wondering who is the sister in the background taking over the song (which Merry Clayton did the next year when she recorded the song solo). I can tell you that taking out Beverley Knight’s soul screaming from Jamiroquai’s “Main Vein” changes the entire song and not for the better. I believe making Minnie Riperton a vocalist for a white psychedelic rock band was an absolute stroke of genius. And, yes, Tina Turner is still the ultimate rock chick in my book. While living with my father, I have access to satellite television and VH1 Classic by default. I watch an incredible British documentary called The Seven Ages of Rock. In seven hours, I see the progression of rock music as the British see it from the early 1960s to the turn of the century. In almost fifty years, the only non-white males acknowledged as having an impact on rock music are the black American blues men like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker and white women like Patti Smith and Kim Deal of The Pixies. No wonder girls like me are made to feel so out of place in this world.

In the meanwhile, with no cable, I am left to discover new music with free downloads through sources such as Facebook and Twitter. I don’t do too many downloads from Afro-Punk because I don’t want to be put on a mailing list. I occasionally find links through Soul Music’s Finest. I enjoy podcasts from Radio Nowhere and CBC’s Radio 3 featuring all kinds of Canadian music. I also get to see a few local musicians play live at free events occasionally since I am now back in a college town where everyone aspires to be in a band. All of this is to say that I no longer know what’s going on in the current music scene from R&B to alternative rock. I hesitate now to say that I am into some 20-year-old musician because as a woman in her 30s it may seem weird. I do not engage in conversations about rap artists, whoever they are now, and the new breed of R&B stars is foreign to me.

I prefer to revisit the past and congratulate myself when I can actually see how Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the beginning of album-oriented rock even though Rubber Soul and Revolver are superior albums. I wish I had made the VH1 documentary NYC ’77: The Coolest Year in Hell because it is awesome that someone can trace a rise in lots of now familiar music traditions and creativity in one place within the span of a few months. I still envy those who have managed to get a dream job listening to and writing about music all day knowing that I would never get the chance to cover anything other the “black” acts because that is supposed to be my milieu.

The MTV and VH1 that existed during my development are no more, only distant memories of my childhood and adolescence. Black girls still declare their love for music outside the “black” genres and continue to have their blackness questioned. I let a black female Facebook friend know that I am a black Southern woman and I also listen to a couple of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs because they happen to be good. We find each other through social networks and reassure each other that we are not alone. While I still rock The Damned and The Stranglers in my headphones, I preach the gospel of multi-genre artists like Imani Coppola for having the audacity to make their music their way and for reminding me that rock, folk, country, rap and easy listening are indeed our turf and territory.

In my solitary existence, I am closer than ever to the other black girls and women like me. I Like when they announce they get to see Martin Scorsese’s documentary on George Harrison and when they avow their love for sci-fi and fantasy films. I find kinship with them since I understand. I am not the only black girl who became a black woman who loves “white folks’ music.”

Inda Lauryn is constantly changing the soundtrack of her life. Although she has been writing since her childhood, she only recently within the past few years decided to pursue her first love as a professional endeavor. The themes of music and family constantly find their way into her work, music intentionally but family not so much. Also an independent scholar, she is currently working on a detective novel, a new sci-fi web series, an afro-gothic novel and the literary masterpiece that has been formulating in her head for the past couple of years. She is also shopping around her supernatural novel Blood Tastes Sweet and her first fantasy web series The Final Resistance is available in novel form at Smashwords for free along with a sampler of her body of work. Feel free to visit the website http://conceding2kismet.weebly.com and http://c2kfantasy.yolasite.com to find samples of her work, leave feedback and get to know the Kismet experience.

* Jamie Broadnax is the writer and creator of the niche blogsite for nerdy women of color called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has written for Madame Noire and is the VP of Digital for the online publishing hub the She Thrives Network.

Originally published on blackgirlnerds.com