In June 2000, when I was a high school freshman, I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters perform at Houston’s Compaq Center. It was my first concert. I still remember the confused look on the Black security guard’s face as he let me and my Black violin teacher, who was chaperoning me at the show, into the venue; he had raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Wait, what are y’all doing here?” We stepped into a packed arena of predominantly white rock fans; for a long moment, the visceral fear of being surrounded by white strangers made my heart rate go up.
But when the house lights went down and I saw Dave Grohl, my hero, take the stage, I knew I’d made the right (albeit awkward) decision. I thought I was going to lose my mind when Grohl and Taylor Hawkins dueled together on drums for the intro to “My Hero” in the Foo Fighters’ opening set, and witnessing Flea’s fingers dance up and down his bass’s fingerboard alongside the other Chili Peppers was mesmerizing. While watching the show that night, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if he or any of my rock icons would ever acknowledge Black lives like mine.
Though the rock music I grew up listening to and loving had no outward signifiers of Blackness (an irony considering that the genre wouldn’t exist without trailblazing Black musicians), these bands nonetheless spoke directly to me when I was coming of age in late-nineties Houston—right when my city was cementing its place in the Southern rap canon with the rise of rappers like Z-Ro and UGK. I knew every word to “25 Lighters” by DJ DMD featuring Lil’ Keke and Fat Pat without even trying to memorize it, and Destiny’s Child “No No No Part 2” (feat. Wyclef Jean) seemed to play on loop at the Funplex skating rink. Hip-hop was as much a part of the city as its humid air. But all the while, the Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape was on constant repeat in this Black girl’s Discman.
Music is my life. It high-fives me in the good times, hugs me in the sad times, and punches along with me in times of anger. I fancy myself a lifelong student of all genres, regularly reading the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin, listening to podcasts like Sound Opinions, and following iTunes’s Top Songs and Top Albums charts. I want to know what people are listening to, why they’re listening to it, and which music is worth purchasing in the age of streaming. As interested as I am in studying musical genres, the foundation of my taste isn’t hip-hop—a genre full of artists with brown skin and kinky hair like mine. Instead it’s rock music, whose most visible icons are predominantly white artists like Radiohead and Vampire Weekend, Jenny Lewis and Sturgill Simpson.
It’s hard to pin down when my love of rock began. I was raised on Sunny 99.1, Houston’s adult contemporary station, and my childhood music diet at home consisted of Hall & Oates, Patti LaBelle, and Kenny G. One day, my teenage angst likely led me to drift the dial toward 107.5 The Buzz (now 94.5), Houston’s alternative rock station. Soon I was persuading my mom to let me buy No Doubt’s album Tragic Kingdom one sleepy Saturday at Circuit City; I had bought that CD based on the single “Don’t Speak,” and the fact that a girl was the lead singer and a Black person played the bass. As more bands like Alice in Chains and the Dave Matthews Band started to fill my mixtapes, I remained on high alert for any magazine article that revealed a Black band member. Over time, though, my disappointment that I didn’t see much Blackness in the music I love became a kind of sad acceptance.
Liking white rock artists back then as a Black girl, and now as a Black woman, has been an incredibly isolating experience: I am in my mid-thirties, and I can think of only two Black friends who share the same musical interests as mine. And prior to this past spring, I’d only seen one rock band that I love, Arcade Fire, elevate blackness in both their art and community outreach. But toward the end of May, when Black Lives Matter protests spread throughout the United States, I began to see other rock musicians finally start to make statements that supported the movement and denounced racism. First, the California band Best Coast issued a Black Lives Matter declaration on Instagram; then Guns N’ Roses and Green Day followed with their own statements in support. With each passing day, more and more white artists I’d long loved posted about the importance of the protests, shared antiracism resources, donated to bail funds and foundations, and urged their followers to do the same. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
Of course, making a passionate post about racial inequities pales in comparison to actually living through the hundreds of years of discrimination and injustice that Black people have long been subjected to. But I can’t deny the part of myself that has exhaled a sigh of relief, too. I did not anticipate a day when St. Vincent would conduct an Instagram TV interview with Jessica Byrd about how to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but here we are. While I have felt conflicted about the posts, and am wary of them being performative, I also feel seen in a way I haven’t before by my favorite bands. And though this is certainly not enough, I’ve conceded that it’s a start.
Trying to explain to my peers why I liked rock bands has always been a challenge. One day in high school, as our bus approached its two Sharpstown stops, a Black friend noticed me thumbing through my prized CD booklet, an overstuffed fuchsia collection emblazoned with my friends’ signatures and inside jokes scribbled all over it. Even though we were less than ten miles from my neighborhood, it’d be another hour until we got there, so I needed Weezer’s melodic comforts to sustain me for the rest of the journey. “Jennifer, why you listen to that white music?” my friend demanded, loud enough for kids a few seats away to overhear and join in. I shrugged and let out an exhausted, “This is the music I like.” I was never quick on my feet, which would have been helpful for the chorus of kids peering into my CD booklet with the judgement of God himself.
The simultaneous ridicule and confusion about my genre of choice would continue in the flat, dusty plains of Lubbock, where I proudly hung Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief poster in my college dorm room; through my twenties in Houston, where I took off work to volunteer at an Arcade Fire concert; and today in my thirties in New York City, where I wear my Guns N’ Roses T-shirt on conference calls. The puzzled look on that security guard’s face at the Compaq Center all those years ago turned out to be great training for the future: I am now an expert at anticipating people’s double takes, and in turn have doubled down on the music that brings me joy.
Gratefully, my parents fortified my blackness. Living in Houston, I was surrounded by Black artists, doctors, and even a Black mayor. They showed me that I could be anything. As a child, I just had to look out of our family van’s window to see myself represented in just about every possible position in society. I leaned on this as I tried to become comfortable straddling two worlds: the Black girl that I’m honored to be, and the music that seemed to exist only in white spaces. My desire to listen to whatever music I enjoy–with or without a blessing from my melanated peers or warm welcome from white peers–has been a lifelong burden that’s helped me find self-love.
That’s why I remain cautiously optimistic and still stunned at the outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter from white artists in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a band I’ve loved since high school, is now spearheading an effort to redistribute revenue to Black organizations. The project is aimed at starting to make amends for the music industry’s long-standing history of taking credit for Black artists’ music. Two decades after that mind-bending Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, Flea is using his Silverlake Music Conservatory to make sure Black communities have access to music education resources. And the Foo Fighters issued a statement of solidarity with the Black community and donated to Color of Change, Black Future Labs, and the NAACP. About 25 years after I first played The Colour and the Shape on my Discman, I’m seeing my favorite bands stand up for George Floyd, for blackness, and for my blackness.
I’m also comforted in knowing that some of my favorite artists were doing the work before the current public support for Black lives. Throughout Arcade Fire’s 2018 Everything Now Tour, Will Butler, one of the band’s founding members who also grew up in Houston, hosted informative after-parties to discuss social justice issues alongside influential community leaders. And before the protests bubbled over and out of Minneapolis this summer, the band’s front man, Win Butler, had already written a song for George Floyd.
It’s something to see white musicians use their platform to bring attention to blackness. But it’s not everything, because even Win Butler’s most tender vocals won’t dismantle an oppressive system that white musicians have benefited from and, consciously or unconsciously, have been complicit participants in. And it certainly doesn’t give me a sense of vindication over years of ridicule for my musical preference. But the lifetime I’ve spent seeing myself in these artists’ music now feels a little less one-sided knowing that they are finally beginning to see me.
I might not have crossed paths with many young Black rock fans myself, but I know they’re out there. I hope that it’s a relief to no longer have to reconcile their relationship to music and their blackness. I hope it’s comforting to know that some of the bands Black fans suspected were on the right side of history have now offered supporting evidence. Finally the bands are looking directly at us, and not a moment too soon.