racial biases in the “avant-garde”: who gets to be called ‘experimental’ has a lot to do with skin tone

March 8, 2018
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By Gus Fisher, AFROPUNK contributor

“If I was light-skinned I’d be cutting-edge.” NYC-based musical artist Shayna McHayle, AKA Junglepussy, made this important point on Lizzo’s Good as Hell Podcast. “You could take my personality, my everything and put it in someone who’s a few pigments lighter and suddenly it’s something avant-garde. But I’m avant-garde.” McHayle’s music, incorporating samples ranging from German progressive rock, Bollywood and Japanese techno, along with influences from trap, dancehall, R&B and much more, is undeniably boundary-pushing. On top of that, she’s a female QTPOC-identifying rapper whose lyrics are about self-love, independence and respecting women. If Junglepussy’s not ‘cutting-edge,’ I don’t know who is. Yet Junglepussy is just one example of the vast majority of artists of color consistently left out from lists of music classified as “avant-garde” or “experimental.”

A quick google search for “avant-garde musical artists” returns some familiar suspects: John Cage, Frank Zappa, Harry Partch, Bjork, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, and finally…Miles Davis. For “experimental musical artists,” you get Animal Collective, Laurie Anderson, Radiohead, Aphex Twin, Sonic Youth, you get the idea. Almost entirely white, and almost entirely contemporary-classical, rock or electronic. You might say that these lists are comprised mostly of older, well-established artists, whose impact on today’s music can be traced back to songs they made decades ago. Fine, but then where’s James Brown? Prince? Michael Jackson? George Clinton? Lauryn Hill? Public Enemy? Tribe Called Quest? Erykah Badu? Outkast? We could go on for days, but point is that there exists a blatant dichotomy in music criticism between what’s labeled as “avant-garde/experimental” and what’s labeled as “R&B/hip-hop,” and it is far too rare for an artist to be labeled as both.

“Experimental” is sometimes used as a catch-all for artists such as Brian Eno who emphasize texture and timbre above rhythm or melody. But then why not just call it “ambient” or “contemporary western-classical” music? Continuing to almost exclusively include only white artists on lists of music termed “experimental” perpetuates harmful stereotypes of race and class. It’s these same toxic conceptions of ‘high culture’ that dictate the music that’s taught in schools, the paintings displayed in museums, the hairstyles that are deemed ‘appropriate for the workplace,’ and grammar that’s considered ‘formal,’ as opposed to ‘African-American Vernacular.’ Kanye West brilliantly characterizes this point in a 2013 interview with Zane Lowe:

“Me and Virgil (Abloh) are in Rome, giving designs to Fendi, over and over, and getting our designs knocked down. Brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said ‘no.’ How many motherf*ckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant? Meaning when I see Hedi Slimane and it’s all like, “OK this is my take on the world” – yeah he got some nice $5,000 jeans in there, some nice ones here and there, some good sh*t here and there. But we culture. Rap the new rock n’ roll! We culture! We the rock stars!”

Jeans can be $5000 ‘high fashion,’ while jogging pants are still delegated exclusively to ‘hip-hop fashion.’ But Kanye is saying that hip-hop fashion is high fashion, black culture is high culture. The same forces of racism and classism that keep Fendi from picking up Kanye’s leather jogging pants, the Grammys from acknowledging that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a vastly superior album to Taylor Swift’s 1989, and Spotify from including Junglepussy, Kelela and Tyler the Creator on its “Avant-garde Top 50” playlist are the forces that harm people’s abilities to get hired for a job, be treated equally by law enforcement officials, and receive the recognition they deserve for the achievements they make.