Black, With White Taste
Last month was my coming-out party.
On the Fourth of July I took five of my girlfriends to the Hollywood Bowl. We saw one of our all-time favorite bands: Hall & Oates. I even bought the T-shirt.
Did I mention that we're all black? Yep, it's true. For most of my life, being a Hall & Oates fan was not something I was willing to cop to. But I can finally come clean.
One of black America's best-kept secrets is that most of us like a whole bunch of "white music." I found this out slowly, over time. In college, an impulsive karaoke pick exposed my friend Imani's love for Steely Dan. My pal Tamika, meanwhile, admits she was called a freak in high school for liking Peter Gabriel.
With hip-hop nowadays featured in breakfast cereal commercials and high school curricula, there's widespread acceptance of white people who like black music, even if they're sometimes called the annoying slur "wigger."
But what do you call black folks with alternative tastes?
You don't. In fact, people are surprised to learn that folks like me exist at all. Black people aren't expected to have even heard — let alone enjoy — most white music.
I grew up in Philadelphia. At my predominantly white elementary school there, I got into the music my friends liked. And so, by the time I transferred to a mostly black school, the damage had been done. Once, while I was rocking out privately on my Walkman in the cafeteria, two classmates demanded to know what I was listening to. They snatched my headphones right off my head to find out.
It was "Pour Some Sugar on Me," and from their reactions I knew I'd committed a major faux pas. Although they weren't familiar with Def Leppard, they knew it was no New Edition. It was obviously white-people music. After announcing my offense to the entire cafeteria, they laughed hysterically and walked off. I felt like an outcast.
From then on I kept my white taste in the closet, where it belonged.
Growing up, I was exposed to all kinds of music. I regularly woke up on Sundays to the sound of my father's jazz records, including the Pharoah Sanders album Thembi, after which I was named. Summer trips to the Jersey Shore meant Bob Marley's Legend on repeat the entire ride down. Stevie Wonder was a family favorite.
But, as so often happens, my friends influenced me more than my family. Largely on the basis of their recommendations, I started building my tape collection in 1987 with albums like Michael Jackson's Bad and Rick Astley's Whenever You Need Somebody. (I loved "Never Gonna Give You Up.")
It was Philly's Top 40 station, however, that introduced me to hair metal.
At that age, "blackness" was little more than a circumstance. I knew I was proud to be black, and that my friends' parents were likely to confuse me with Andrea, the other black girl in my class. When it came to music, my parents taught me that Elvis Presley had stolen rock & roll from black folks. But Spandexed acts like Mr. Big, Skid Row and Poison seemed to have so little to do with my father's tunes that I couldn't see the connection.
By the summer of 1988 I was a full-fledged metalhead. The first time I saw the video for Poison's "Fallen Angel," my friend Rachel and I jumped up and down on her sofa, whipping our heads around in a frenzy.
One problem: All I was getting out of our headbanging was a sore neck. My little cornrows were not the type of hair referenced in hair metal. Rachel's long brown locks, however, did the trick just fine.
By 1989 I was obsessed with Donnie Wahlberg from New Kids on the Block. I had his posters all over my wall and even got the lunch box. This obsession baffled my father.
"This sounds like a mediocre version of the Stylistics! Who are these white boys?"
Of course, my dad had enjoyed some white music in his time, too. He and my mother both loved Elton John and bonded over "Bennie and the Jets" in college. But when he accused NKOTB of being a whitewashed version of the black groups he'd liked, it got me thinking.
I began to understand the divide between black and white music. Had I grown up earlier in the century — when white music was the mainstream, black music was "race" music, and the record labels did all they could to prevent any overlap — I might have thought there was something weird about my taste.
But, hey, I liked what I liked, and it didn't concern me. That is, until later that year, when I left my private elementary school to attend a public school for gifted students. There were kids of every background, most of them black, and I didn't dress or speak like any of them.
A new school is hard enough without a pint-size racial identity posse reminding you that you're not black enough. But that's exactly what those two girls were — the ones who'd torn off my headphones. They had made it their mission to let me know I was the whitest-acting black person they'd ever seen.
I liked black music, too, don't get me wrong, and later fell for hip-hop after hearing Black Sheep's A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. So when the other kids professed their love for De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Digital Underground, I made it a point — in affected urban speech — to do the same.
Today, I still listen to hip-hop, but I'm never hesitant to flip the dial from old-school rap on 93.5 KDAY to the alternative station 98.7 KYSR.
I can see now that my New Kids on the Block fandom was a bit misguided. My dad was right — the original '70s soul they imitated is superior. But I still keep "Pour Some Sugar on Me" on my iPod because, well, the song is awesome.
Now in my early 30s, I know that I can't meet everyone's expectations. I no longer care what anyone thinks of my music. When I wear my Hall & Oates T-shirt to the Larchmont Farmers Market on Sundays, I get approving nods from hipsters who don't realize how nonironic I'm being.
Oh, and, just as I'd suspected, the Hall & Oates concert at the Bowl was fantastic. "Rich Girl" with a full orchestra? Amazing.
It's funny, because when the duo was last in town I couldn't get anyone to go with me. This time, we weren't the only black folks there, but we sure sang the loudest. That is, until a middle-aged white man turned around and scowled. "Concerts are for listening, not for singing," he insisted.
We were shocked at first but laughed it off. I proceeded to do what I should have done to the racial-identity posse: I ignored him and enjoyed my white music proudly.
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