Opening my e-mail recently, I came across a message from a friend who was touring Europe with his rock band. The subject line was simple and sarcastic: “Awesome, Germany.” So I clicked through to find a single photo. While shopping in a Berlin record store, my friend had stumbled upon an atavistic, shocking and darkly humorous genre section nestled tightly between “Black Metal” and “Classical,” a rack of CDs dubbed—in English—”Black Music.”
Beneath the awkward heading—why use ethnicity as an adjective for an inanimate object?—sat records from people like Erykah Badu, Mos Def and James Brown. But then I noticed that sprinkled amid the Black Milk and Akon records were discs from All Saints and the Black Eyed Peas, groups composed, at least in part, of white, Latino and Asian musicians. Elsewhere on the rack was the entire Beastie Boys oeuvre, including 1992’s Check Your Head, whose ninth track is the quick, thrashy “Time for Livin’.”
Ultimately, the picture raises questions about racial politics and the reach of history, but the most important one is this: If three white Jewish guys making speed-punk can fit under the umbrella of “black music,” then isn’t that umbrella too big?
Speaking historically, I agree with Greg Tate: It is wholly accurate to dub certain types of music “black.” A whole host of important musical genres, including jazz, hip-hop, blues and even rock and roll, have origins that can be traced directly to the imaginations, hard work, and talents of people of color, both foreign and domestic. Nobody is denying that the “steady backbeat” thumping through nearly all the songs on pop radio today was originally the idea of a black person. My question is, why should we speak in historical terms when discussing modern music?
Basketball was invented by a white physical education teacher for his white students. But no one would ever think to call basketball a “white sport;” to speak in those terms about something that’s changed so much over the years would be silly. Similarly, Spike Lee has said that he takes directional cues from Italian-American Martin Scorsese, and Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director of Seven Samurai, but would anyone say Do the Right Thing is a Japanese film? Of course not. Yet music critics, fans and historians don’t think twice about calling the music of Aesop Rock, Eminem or the Mountain Brothers, an acclaimed Asian-American hip-hop group from Philadelphia, “black music.”
Film, sculpture, sport, literature, music—aren’t static.They’re ever-evolving, and to not acknowledge that by using outdated phrases like “black music” is to tacitly deliver a blow to one of the most important aspects of great art: its constant forward motion, its movement away from archaic restrictions.
And what of black musicians who play “white music”? Consider George Walker, born in 1922 to West Indian immigrants, who’s been playing classical music since he was 5. Then there’s the all-black D.C. band, Bad Brains. Bad Brains was a pioneer of hard-core—a genre that also attracted a lot of neo-Nazis. And today, indie darlings TV on the Radio, with four black members out of five, play spaced-out rock jams, often to seas of equally spaced-out—and largely Caucasian—hipsters. And let’s not forget country/western pioneer Charley Pride. Or Darius Rucker’s stint on top of the country charts earlier this year. Or the bluegrass fiddling of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. What color music do these people play? Would anyone ever tell Mr. Walker, a Pulitzer Prize winner, that his contributions to the history of classical piano are much appreciated, but still not enough to make classical anything other than white?
It’s not that I don’t understand why people like Mr. Tate—and German record stores—cling so tightly to the term “black music.” As a historically disenfranchised, brutalized and marginalized people, blacks have very often seen their accomplishments and contributions to culture intentionally downplayed or subjugated entirely. It’s thus become to many a matter of civil rights—not just accurate reporting—to remind people what blacks have contributed to the cultural tapestry throughout the ages.