Photo credit: Zana Callahan
Dear punk fans everywhere: We need to have an interactive and informative conversation.
Let’s start with a little exercise: Name five alternative bands that have an African-American, female-identifying member.
Next, name five alternative bands that have a white male-identifying member.
Which one was easier?
No, this is not another post about alternative festival lineups, or how the culture cultivated by events such as Warped Tour have become toxic in recent years as a result. I want to talk about intersectionality and how it’s woven into the scene (or not). I’m not here to point fingers. That has been time and time again, but that and all other variations of the so-called blame game rarely create lasting change. I’m here to open your eyes and bring awareness to instances some people have the privilege to be ignorant about, whether actively or passively.
So, for now, please put your guard down. This post is not a call to arms or a callout. This post is the first step towards creating meaningful and beneficial change to the alternative scene, your scene. The very scene I wish could be mine too.
I’m a black woman who loves alternative music. The fact I’m black shouldn’t be important, but for some reason, it still is, even in 2018. When someone asks what kind of music I enjoy, and I tell them alternative or punk, their response is rarely the head nod or similar immediate acceptance many of my non-black friends receive. Instead, I’m asked even more questions.
“What do you mean, ‘punk’? You know you’re black, right? Where’s the rap? What about Kanye?”
What is it about being African Americans playing in a rock band, or even just enjoying rock music, that strikes people as strange or unusual? I’ve had people tell me alternative music is not a “black person thing.” But if that is the case, what is? Furthermore, why do you get to tell me what is and isn’t for a black person?
It appears to me that to be “accepted” as an alternative rock band with African American members the band must have influences of R&B. That’s what people associate with black people, R&B, so it seems everyone assumes all black musicians play R&B music. As Jelani Sei said in an interview I did with them for The Alternative, “We had issues figuring out what to call ourselves, and being in CT made a lot of people feel like the only way for them to describe us was with that lazy moniker of R&B. So we tried to adopt it ourselves and dubbed it Progressive R&B or Indie Rock R&B. [We tried] a plethora of names. But yes. We are an alternative rock band. And even that to us is sometimes conforming. We are much more than a band as well. The thing about being a band, though, is that a lot of predetermined notions come with it. And recently we’ve been trying to stray from that. At the same time embracing that we are a band with the gall to be different in the age of repeat.”
Jelani Sei should not feel pushed into being anything other than themselves. No one should.
It’s no different for black music fans. Every time I go to a show in Chicago, I feel eyes ogling me. Most nights I am the only black girl at the concert. Not just in the crowd either, but in the entire venue. The people on stage are white, and the crowd is white, the box office are bar staff members are white. As a result, I am very much insecure about being black. I feel like I’m not allowed to dance around like the other young adults for reasons no one seems will to admit or discuss. They’d rather stare instead as if I’m unable to see them or notice their glares. They might not know it, but as far as I can tell this is a textbook example internalized racism.
To be clear, I am not calling all white people racist. I am, however, drawing your attention to how uncomfortable people of color feel at shows where you may never even think to consider your level of comfort. For you, it’s just another night out with people who mostly look like you. For us, for people of color, it’s the opposite. We’re rarely represented anywhere in the venue aside from the occasional security personnel, and they’re only there to catch white people flying over the guard rails while crowd surfing or to prevent them from harming one another in the pit. It’s not the same for us, and that only changes if you work with us to make the scene more accepting.
Women in the scene know how it can feel being uncomfortable at a show. Sexism has become a hot-button issue in music over the last few years, but no matter how far we may feel we’ve come there is rarely a month that goes by without someone being outed as an abuser or manipulator of women. Worse still is the fact many of the biggest tours and festivals rarely include women in their lineup, or even on their crews. That isn’t to say no progress has been made, but it’s not enough.
Women of color know the intersectionality of being both the wrong color and gender. We know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in our own skin simply because we want to enjoy the things that, when enjoyed on our own or with other POC, make us feel alive. Worse yet, we’re often made to fear for our well-being or risk being called offensive names if we speak out.
But that’s precisely what we must do. We must work to make sure everyone can be comfortable in this scene, and that starts by us first becoming uncomfortable. We must abandon our comfort zones until they become more welcoming of diversity so that all can enjoy the music we all appreciate so much.
Sharing has been the key to keeping DIY alive since inception, and it has never been easier than it is right now. Sharing great music by people of color is a good start, as is covering them in blogs or seeing them in concert, but until we address the more significant issues that those same artists often sing about there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The same goes for the way women of color, or indeed all women, feel when attempting to participate in this so-called community. If you don’t belong in those groups, then it is your responsibility to listen as much as it is ours to speak up. We have to work together. That’s the only this scene we all love can progress.
As we head into a busy fall filled with great releases and tours, let’s all make it a point to talk more about the current state of the alternative scene. Let’s get comfortable with accepting the problems in the scene, so we can start seeing writers of color, bands of color, and fans of color. The more comfortable people feel, the more people will support the music we love, and this scene could use a little more love right now.
Kayla Carmicheal is a contributor to The Alternative. This is her first piece for AuxCordFM, and we hope it isn’t her last.