Indie Pop Blues: The Totally Uncool Whitewashing of Rock Music
I didn’t know it at the time, but the best gift I ever received was an ugly little green iPod from my brother, when I was about seven years old. It was one of those iPod nano’s: a less memorable iteration of the iPod, it was no bigger than a bullet, and that unfortunately colored bullet packed hundreds and hundreds of songs. Ranging from Gwen Stefani’s to the Gorillaz to Carrie Underwood to Green Day to Ms. Lauryn Hill to Nirvana to Coldplay to Jay Z to Muse to Katy Perry to Queen—I don’t think there was an artist or genre my brother left out.
Needless to say, he was the champion of elder-brotherly tasks and duties; and when it came to shaping my pop culture inclinations and tendencies, I’d say he blew all the other older brothers out there outta the water. I’m not gonna posture here anything or pretend I was some big indie kid or anything. The closest I ever got to being a musical prodigy was mashing a toy keyboard and forgetting to attend my first and last voice recital. I do feel fortunate, however, to have had such a breadth of pop culture influences. Every member of my immediate family has contributed their own unique influences to my sound and style. If I tried to list all the ways, all the albums, the genres—there’s no way for me to quantify all the ways that my Puerto Rican upbringing and my Nigerian heritage, in particular, have shaped not only who I am as an artist but also who I am as a human being. And, to me, an artist whose repertoire exists solely within and because of computer software and USB microphones, I consider mine to be a relatively "indie" profile and background. Basically, being multiracial is like 70% of the reason my music is so weird, and I’m sure many other artists of color and BIPOC artists can speak to this experience.
That’s why I’m so fucking confused as to how, between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and girl in red, the indie/rockstar aesthetic has become almost entirely coopted by white musicians.
Spoiler: it’s racism.
If someone asked you to close your eyes and picture a rockstar, and indie artist, a popstar, a DJ, a producer—how many of the images that just flashed across your mind were of white people? (Bonus: how many were of men?) Yet the ironic truth is that although the aestheticization of both the rockstar and the popstar (both of whose origins are inherently Black) has become increasingly white-centric, the fact is that Black people have been the primary pioneers of and contributors to the sound of popular music since the beginning of the 20th century, and continue to not only dominate the charts but actually move conversations and movements forward in music. In every iteration of pop and rock music, Black culture and Black roots are fundamental to the sound.
So what is the disconnect? Why is it that we’re all aware that Beyonce is the most legendary pop sensation to exist, that Frank Ocean and Daniel Caeser are simp kings, that Michael Jackson was literally called the King of Pop—and yet the standard pop-girl archetype is some blonde Taylor Swift type?
This collective cognitive erasure isn’t accidental, it’s a matter of deliberate misrepresentation. Erasure is a tactic of systemic racism used to gaslight Black people in a myriad of contexts and, in this case, it’s something of a psychological trigger intended to ward off doubt in the oppressor’s motives. In short, whitewashing the history and aesthetic of rock music and pop music allows white people to appropriate Black culture and history without even acknowledging that this culture was never theirs in the first place.
“This is just the music I grew up on.”
“No one owns music. How aren’t you the racist one?”
“At that point you just have to separate the art from the artist.”
Take the Spotify Editorial playlist Bedroom Pop for example. Scrolling through, titles that immediately jump out at me are ‘Pretty Girl’ by Clairo, ‘Honeypie’ by JAWNY, and ‘Cooks' by Still Woozy. The chords of the ‘Pretty Girl’ chorus follow a jazzy progression on a funky electric piano; Honeypie is undeniably funk and RnB inspired; and Cooks literally features a jazzy LoFi hip hop beat. And then you have bands like Vampire Weekend whose “uniqueness of sound” is literally just African influenced drums and vocals, and Glass Animals whose album Zaba—if it wasn’t obvious enough from the title—is based around this entirely fetishized and imaginary “tribal” and African aesthetics. One of the songs on that album is literally called Walla Walla.
Look, I won’t lie, it’s a damn good album. But is it good because the music is innovative and unique? Or is it good because prancing around in the jungle with all the niggers is exciting for white people? White artists get to float in and out of cultural waves, bend genres, constantly adapt—all by virtue of being white.
For a black person to somewhat infiltrate this tightly guarded realm of alternativeness—specifically the grungy rocker image—there’s still a heavily restricted hierarchy of access. In my personal experience, that is to say my experience as a skinny, bisexual, brown-skin, cisgender, black woman—so take that as you will—the hierarchy is as follows:
In order to qualify as a black indie kid you must be:
Lightskin black guy
Light-skin, skinny Black girl skinny dark/brown skin Black guy
Curvy Light-skin Black girl dark/brown skin Black guy
Skinny dark/brown skin Black girl
Skinny light-skin trans Black guy or girl
Skinny nonbinary/agender Black person
And you know what? That sucks. I love Zoe Kravitz, but sometimes I need more than High Fidelity and Dope to feel like I’m actually seen and heard in the world.
Black people—Black women and trans people especially—are basically responsible for contemporary pop culture. If it weren’t for us, white people would probably be listening to some electronic polka music or some nonsense like that. And what really sucks even more than not being represented are the subsequent economic aftereffects that are inherently tied to being underrepresented. By keeping music and pop culture white-centric, the entertainment industry systemically profits off Black labor without investing enough in uplifting and amplifying Black communities, effectively hoarding the distribution of wealth within a segregated private sector, diluting the role of collaboration and creativity, and exploiting the Black communities whose work is the only reason they have wealth in the first place.
That’s why I’ve taken a personal interest in my work as an artist to constantly challenge and push against traditional notions of pop stardom. Yes, there are the Lana’s and the Marina’s and the Billie’s of the world, and we love them, and they’re great. And there are also the Santigold’s, Onwueg’s, and FKA Twigs’, and they're also great, AND YOU DON'T NEED TO BE BLACK TO LISTEN TO AND SUPPORT BLACK ARTISTS. If you need some recommendations to begin to familiarize yourself with “the other black experience”, as it’s called in the description, I’d recommend this AfroPunk playlist for all your eye-opening, brain-melting, black indie needs.