Saturday, April 14, 2007

the New Black rock?

I've spent two days hunkered down reading through two different online dust-ups about race, identity and music. The first one played out on YouTube, and revolved around a very good short film posted there called "a girl like me," which is largely about African American self-perception. The second fracas was inspired by a late January New York Times article about African-American indy rock musicians and black hipsters, or, um, "blipsters," and took the form of 140 posts on the comments page of a blog called Brooklyn Vegan. I came away thinking that white people really don't know how to talk about race and racism. Actually, we'd prefer not to talk about it at all, but when someone brings it up, we trip all over ourselves trying to explain and theorize and sympathize and speak truth to power. In other words, we're irritatingly compelled to speak on something we can't really truly understand. It's similar to the phenomenon wherein men can never say, "I don't know," so perhaps what I'm talking about should be referred to as Caucasian Answer Syndrome.

Of course, I'm as guilty of it as the next indy rock paleface, and that's possibly why I pitched a similar story to a new website just a few weeks before the NY Times article was published. From my safe European perch, I was probably the last one to notice that several of the most au currant indy bands in New York these days are either all black or multi-racial, and I just wondered why. These bands include TV on the Radio, Earl Greyhound, Apollo Heights and the Dragons of Zynth, and they don't have much in common musically. But I missed the forest for the trees. Perhaps the only thing significant about these bands, aside from their music, some of which is quite good, is that they point up just how overwhelmingly white (and conservative) indy rock is. It's one whiny/angry/"artistic"/"crazy" cracker after another, slobbering into the mic about medieval tapestries or depression or whatever, to an audience that looks just like him. And Bright Eyes fans just...don't know how to talk about that. Or deal with it.

In fact, racial homogeneity is one of the only common threads which runs through indy rock, a genre which could be said to include everything from the psycho folk of the Animal Collective to the new country of the New Pornographers to ultra-fey jangle-shit like Belle & Sebastian. Another common denominator is that, by and large, indy rock fans and bands tend to think of themselves as liberal, progressive and somehow outside of American master narratives like capitalism and racism. But they aren't outside of these things, nor are they outside of history. And the recent entry of a smattering of black bands and performers into this largely white context isn't completely unprecedented either.

After sorting through all this talk about blackness and music (best one liner at Brooklyn Vegan: "Frederick Douglass was a blipster."), I got locked inside the wayback machine, and remembered an interview I did a good while ago with Darryl Jennifer. Jennifer played bass for the legendary Bad Brains, one of the best bands, and one of the only black ones, in the whole spitty landscape of 1980's American hardcore and post-punk music. Like today's indy rok, American post-punk ran the gamut from the psycho blurt of the Butthole Surfers to the new country of Rank and File to the ultra-complicated math funk of the Minutemen, but it was all very white. Before they self-destructed--temporarily at least--in a shitstorm of madness, homophobia and bad reggae, the Bad Brains were kings and innovators, and they dealt with racism every night. But when I spoke to him, Darryl Jennifer was unruffled by all that drama.

"We had to deal with racism, but it wasn't a big deal," he told me. "A German kid threw a beer on me once, so I dropped him [ed. note: knocked him unconscious.] At the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, the owner threatened us--once. He said he wasn't gonna pay us, and that if we didn't like it, he'd get all his machine guns and biker friends and dogs after us. [But] a lot of these skinheads weren't real Nazis, they were just frontin.' These days, Nebraska skinheads don't hate blacks anymore--they just hate the next town over. Racism doesn't exist if you don't let it."

Of course that last little bit is a tad optimistisch, but Darryl Jennifer was my hero that day for talking so cool about these humungus problems amungus. If only he'd post something like that over at Brooklyn Vegan....

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