White people, black music

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In college, I was astounded by how many white people considered themselves serious fans of Public Enemy. Somehow, one of the most pro-black hip-hop groups in history became the sound track for keg-guzzling, Jeep Wrangler-swerving, sunbathing-in-60-degree-weather, frat-boy-fun.

As I interacted in Michigan State University dorm hallways, cafeterias and classes, I learned more about these voracious consumers of soul music.


soul mu· sic sol myu-zik n, music made by black Americans and inspired by the black experience; is often concerned with issues of social injustice and struggle, particularly as experienced by people of African descent (See: Nina Simone, Goodie Mob, Mos Def, Donald Byrd) —Noah Stephens’ Dictionary of the Black Experience, Authoritative Edition


They were from affluent places like Grosse Pointe Shores and Grosse Pointe Park, where public parks are the only areas you can park and view beautiful Lake St. Clair. (Coincidentally, these public parks limit admittance to city residents.) Places that are geographically close to Detroit, but infinitely isolated from the way people live in my native Highland Park. Infinitely removed from the experiences that inspire soul music.

They also were from places like Grand Blanc, Brighton, Traverse City and other outstate towns that had as many black residents as they did water towers.

My sophomore year roommate was from this type of place. He was a soft-spoken, very amicable, privately religious white fellow from Kentwood, a suburb of Grand Rapids. He loved soul music, breakdancing and graffiti. His genuine niceness and avid appreciation for underground hip hop conferred upon him, in my mind, the status of “cool” white folk.

I decided to room with him.

One night, he mentioned he’s interested in the white female resident assistant on the fourth floor. He suspected the interest was mutual. I told him to go for it.

He asked if I knew of a black female fourth-floor resident with a particularly bad reputation. I told him I was familiar with the girl and her reputation.

He said the RA he was interested in jokingly advised him to leave the freaky black chick alone, lest she derail their budding romance. I agreed that he should. Then he said some shit that left me flabbergasted.

“I don’t know why she’s worried. I could see if she was hot and white.”

Here was a nice, Christian, white fellow who loves Brand Nubian, Black Star and Roy Ayers. Loves walking around with baggy pants and side-cocked hats. Loves spinning on his head like it’s 1986. Yet he considered black women beneath his Kentwood pedigree. A non-factor. Not worth looking in the eye whilst passing on the sidewalk.

Don’t know

MSU taught me a lot about white people who “love” soul music.

They were from places where white people make every effort to isolate themselves from the people who make soul music. They belonged to all-white fraternities, all-white sororities and dated exclusively white people. The more I came to know these folks, the more acquainted I became with one of American society’s most intriguing paradoxes: White people who avoid black people at every possible opportunity can’t get enough black-people music.

Paradoxical but nothing new. White jazz fanatics flocked to white-only Harlem speakeasies to indulge the “wild” rhythm of jazz. White rap fanatics live in white-only towns and indulge the “wild” rebelliousness of rap.

The phenomenon is well-chronicled. The rationale is far less easily quantified. Why are white folks obsessed with music created by people they apparently don’t like, don’t know, and don’t want to know?

Maybe they subconsciously admire black people’s ability to survive and create despite an ongoing, comprehensive effort to render them useless — creatively or otherwise.

Maybe it’s a need to colonize and appropriate music as they have land and people.

Maybe it’s an infatuation with the “primal” quality of all things black.

Maybe it’s the same love-hate paradox that makes a black man the last person anyone wants to hire and the first any woman wants to fuck.

It’s impossible to cite any one motivation. White supremacist thought is too diversified to pigeonhole. Rather, the nonsensical relationship between whites and soul music is guided by a coalition of racist motivations.

I wasn’t surprised to encounter racist white people at MSU. I was surprised that whites could maintain their core racist values while listening to music that condemned those same values.

I overestimated soul music’s ability to subdue a white person’s little inner Klansman. I assumed anyone who listened to artists like Brand Nubian would have an enlightened view of white supremacy and its impact on black people. I assumed an affinity for black culture translated into an affinity for black people.

I was naive.

Who we be

When I hear Roy Ayers sing, “Coffee is the color of your skin,” I think of the sister at the Seven Mile Sunoco with whom I shared an interested glance. I think of her full lips. Her deep brown eyes. I think the rest of the day of what may have happened if I had only spoken.

My old roommate owns the same Ayers record.

I wonder what he thinks.

Soul music will never mean to a white person what it does to me. It is a reflection of my culture, my experience. It is black people proclaiming their dignity amid a campaign to dehumanize them.

When you listen to soul music, you are being accepted as a guest in my culture. Behave accordingly.

Don’t inadvertently flail into me whilst “dancing” at an Outkast concert. Calm down. You don’t even know what being an “outcast” means.

Repress your urge to disassociate black music from the people who make it. You wouldn’t tell a Chinese person egg foo yung is not Chinese food. Don’t tell me hip hop is not black music.

Learn from soul music. Listen to the sentiment, ideology and experience espoused. Then, edit your worldview — purging from it white supremacist motivations.

If these guidelines seem unreasonable, fine. Feel free to leave soul music alone altogether.

Instead, go do something white.

Laura Bond comments: I like the way Stephens uses soul music as a framework for a larger discussion of racism and cultural appropriation; his language has force, energy and style, which makes the piece move like the music he’s writing about. His point is bold and ballsy, and he makes it well.

Back to Amateurs write, like, prose

E-mail Noah B. Stephens at [email protected]
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