The White Girl Who Likes Black Music

If you saw me walking through town with my earbuds in, and you were to pull one out, you might be surprised to hear what I’m vibing to. It’s not country, rock, indie, alternative, or pop. Most days, with few exceptions, I’m listening to hip-hop, rap, and R&B: A$AP Rocky, Drake, Frank Ocean, Future, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Kevin Gates, Miguel, Nicki Minaj, Rae Sremmurd, Remy Ma, and Ty Dolla $ign.

My most listened-to playlists include “Cruise Control,” an Apple “collection of slick modern-day R&B;” “Simmer Down,” which includes songs from “the tranquil side of the hip-hop world;” “Switching Lanes,” a list of “trap-inspired anthems;” and “Training Day, Vol. 2,” a mix of “unrelenting rap jams.”

I listen to political/conscious hip-hop, cloud rap, drill, experimental hip-hop, east-coast hardcore, west-coast hip-hop, trap, and lyrical rap. Whenever I get excited about an album, it’s because it falls within one of these genres, because some of my artists of choice have made something new, or because my friends on Twitter are exclaiming about a song or mixtape.

And yes — most of the friends I’m referring to are Black.

I’m a white girl who likes Black music. Although, I think Eminem’s work is tremendous, and I appreciate Macklemore’s intentions, if not necessarily his talent. Lily Allen’s work is fun and feminist, but ultimately not my taste, and I’m strictly against Iggy Azalea because I find her music boring and her insistence on appropriating Black culture to be repugnant (don’t worry — I’ll get to appropriation later).

Ultimately, the Black music I’ve chosen resonates with me. I love the sound. I love the message. I love the uplift and insistence and anger and drive. That is not to say that all Black music is uplifting, or insistent, or angry, or driving. It would be reductive to say so. But the reason I listen to the artists and genres I do is because of the sound, the message, and these four traits, each of which speaks to me on a personal, if not Black, level.

I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, kindergarten through high school graduation. I knew about three Black people because that’s what New Hampshire is: a thoroughly whitewashed area. There was some poverty, some gentrification, some incidences of drinking, drugs, and teen pregnancy, but mostly it was a safe, white area where white kids could grow up sheltered, without the worrying about the more difficult concerns of the wider world.

Back then, any rap my classmates listened to was Eminem. He was white, he was a fresh face on the scene, and he was accessible to kids who had never encountered Black culture before. If there were any Black artists in our repertoire, it was the sort of club hits like Usher’s “Yeah” or Lil John’s “Get Low” that would play on pop radio and at school dances. These were novelties, songs where we could point at the window or the wall and laugh at lyrics like “till the sweat drips down my balls.”

Back then, I was certainly guilty of white girl ignorance, and appropriation. I have an album on my Facebook page titled “livin in a gangstas paradise” (sic), in which a friend and I are wearing backwards or tilted hats, throwing sideways peace signs. The captions are “rollin wit da homies beetch” (sic) and “we be rizzeal yo” (sic). There is another album called “Darien Lake Biznitch” (sic).

I look back on these titles, these captions, these images of myself, and am thoroughly ashamed. What did I know of Black culture then? What made me think I had the right to co-opt this language, these poses? I could say I was simply ignorant, that I was living in a culture that never introduced me to people of color, that I was indoctrinated in a way of living that made playing at Black face (because that’s what it is) something “fun,” and that I couldn’t have known any better.

But of course I could have known.

The internet existed then, if not the many think pieces that float around it now, and I could have read about neighborhoods like New York, Chicago, LA, and any area of the south. I was taking many history classes, and knew about the history of slavery, violence, and discrimination against Black people.

Most importantly, one of my closest friends in high school was biracial. I say this not to brag about having a “Black friend,” but simply to tell the truth of my experience. There were only three Black kids in my high school, and even they didn’t have a social group that consisted of Black people — such a group didn’t exist. But this friend would tell me about how hard it was for her to be half-Black, half Native-American. She would shed tears over the discrimination she faced, something my privilege as a white girl would never expose me to.

How I never connected the dots and realized that my actions contributed to her pain and the pain so many others in her position is beyond me. But I regret my actions deeply, even if it’s too late to erase their impact.

Thankfully, I grew and matured when I went to college — more specifically, when I moved to Rochester, N.Y. I went to the University of Rochester, an expensive “new Ivy” league school mainly populated by rich kids. There was increased diversity there, it’s true; it’s difficult to avoid increased differences in background and skin tone at any college or university. But what I mostly saw white kids, with some Asians of various descent mixed in. Rarely did I see a Black face — on campus, that is.

Due to my meager financial status, I lived in the 19th Ward, the part of the city with the lowest rent, which meant living alongside Rochester’s mostly Black population. I witnessed an attempted shooting at one apartment. At another, I saw a woman holding her toddler’s hand while threatening a man with a knife.

But those were two isolated occurrences in nearly seven years of living in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Mostly I saw people living their lives: going to restaurants, frequenting bars, hanging out on porches with their families and friends, and saying Hello to each other on the streets. I began to realize that white culture wasn’t the only culture, that there wasn’t a need to “other” Black people.

At the same time, my musical tastes began to evolve and grow. Instead of the steady diet of pop that I was raised on, and the alt-rock that I began to imbibe as a teen, I delved into indie, Americana, singer/songwriters, and, of course, hip-hop and rap.

While my infatuation with the other genres has faded, my love and appreciation for the latter has remained for many reasons. As was written in Meanderings, now Gravity, “…white people like Black music because it gives them ways of expressing themselves which their own music lacks…White people listen to Black music for the same reason Black people do: to discover themselves and thereby find hope for the future. It is that simple, and that deep.”

When Kevin Gates says, Action is the pride/ It’s the hustle/ It’s the persistence, I hear the struggle to escape poverty, to make something of yourself, to get to where your dreams are pointing you. When Earl Sweatshirt says, Lately I’ve been panicking a lot/ Feeling like I’m stranded in a mob/ Scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop/ Never getting out of hand, steady handling my job, I hear the hardships of dealing with anxiety. When Drake says, Lately I feel the haters eatin’ away at my confidence/ They scream out my failures and whispers my accomplishments,” I hear the insecurities that come with making art.

All these words resonate with me, with my constantly overdrawn bank account, my mental illnesses, my fight to write the words that matter. As Kel Kray writes in Everyday Feminism,

“digest lyrics with [other white people] and reflect on what they mean to your world.”

But of course, that also means listening to and learning from the things that don’t immediately apply to me as a white girl.

As Maisha Z. Johnson writes, “If you mean to appreciate part of Black culture, that has to include learning about the history of what you’re appreciating, and about the struggles and achievements of the people you’re borrowing from. Then you’ll be the kind of ally who’s informed enough to honor our culture in a way that supports us — instead of just taking what you like and hurting our community.”

I can’t say that I know what it’s like for Drake to sing I’ve been tryna reach the youth so I can save them this year. The youth of my culture doesn’t need saving. When Fetty Wap says, I don’t know why they hate, we got no time to waste, I know he’s speaking of racism, but I haven’t encountered it. When Kendrick Lamar says, “’Member when we used to make a boost look like Motorola?, I have no experience with that, with trying to look like I had nicer things than I did.

But it’s important to listen to these words, for me to hear Black people talk about their experiences so that I can continue to expand my awareness. As Nicole Phillips writes, “Wanting to take part in a culture that does not belong to you is valid and necessary to fully understanding other human beings,” and I completely agree.

This does not mean being part of an all-white-girl twerking team, or part of a list of white people stealing parts of culture that don’t belong to them, or putting on a southern “blaccent” like Iggy Azalea.

That’s appropriation, and it’s harmful to everyone involved.

Instead, I’d encourage everyone to listen to Beyonce’s Formation. The song and accompanying music video are a celebration of what it means to be Black and female. If you missed the video, you probably caught it at the Super Bowl. Regardless, the lyrics that close out the song are vital.

Obviously she sings “okay ladies, now let’s get in formation,” but if you want, you can hear “okay ladies, now let’s get information.”

For me, that’s what Black music is. It’s identification, and yes, entertainment, but most importantly, it’s information. It’s a way to learn about the Black community and expand my knowledge beyond what it means to be a white girl. It’s a way to appreciate without appropriating. It’s a way to become a better intersectional activist.

It’s music —Black music — and I’m the white girl listening to it, not just grooving to the beat, but really, truly listening.

Liz Lazzara is a freelance writer, editor of Sans Merci, bartender, cat rescuer, feminist, and future author. She currently lives in Boston.

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