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September 3, 2010 / JV

On White People and the Blues

In an attempt to summarize a dining experience I had that didn’t exactly rub me the right way, I explained to a friend: “You know how white people will come home after work and turn on the blues? … It was kind of like that.”

Music for me can be a touchy and emotionally charged subject, and – for the most part – I try to avoid discussions that are driven by the sole need to essentialize genres according to race. While it is clear to me that certain music has origins in circumstances in which race was an unequivocal factor, I’ve grown into an understanding that much musical development occurred within an environment of cross-racial, -cultural, often transatlantic influences. Borrowing has happened, sometimes even mutually.

Still, there is such a thing as black music: music that is derived from or inspired by black people and culture. Among this music is the blues and soul – both of which have picked up a lot of momentum amongst white listeners – be they punks, hipsters, or music junkies.

My issue/criticism/complaint is that this music is often not understood within its cultural, historical, and emotional context. This music comes from someplace, and is part of the experiences – the pain, joy, struggles and historical memories of black folk. There is something assuming, unsettling, and comfortably privileged about a white person throwing on a Bessie Smith record they found at Salvation Army at a dinner party. In thinking specifically about the blues, it was birthed from the realities of being black and without resources. Rhythms were created with feet, hands, and mouths. Similar to how some jazz musicians used instruments discarded from the Civil War, the blues was born from the specific situation of not having: a situation which has been commonly entangled with being of color in the U.S.

What is it about white people getting off up under black music that is so troubling? Perhaps it is the romanticization of black experiences that accompanies the thoughtless enjoyment of the culture that is born from them? Or is it the consumption of black pain as product? There is something disturbing about being confronted with music that for me is significant, evocative, and tied to an actual feeling in a space such as a hip restaurant in Brooklyn. I’m here to eat brunch (first mistake) and you have Otis Redding muted on the TV (presumably) singing and jumping around on stage, and – as though to say “AHA!” – you are also playing a completely different album by him on the sound system. At first, I offered the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, considering that perhaps this was the decision of a black owner who, like me, loves southern soul. But, there was something distinctly white about this. Aside from its offensively conspicuous “down-home” New Orleans theme and obviously new location in gentrify hot-spot Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, the ease with which black expression was on display as a backdrop just reeked of the detached, uninformed consumerist indifference that is fed by commodity culture. It was like an exhibit of southern black feeling that most of the “mixed crowd” patrons probably could not have related to on any personal level but could rather mindlessly neglect while eating barbecued shrimp and grit cakes. Anyway, taken completely out of context, Otis became 30-something inches of energetic sweaty black man, invoked to rouse a fake nostalgia for a time that most white people would, quite frankly, rather forget.

In being white and, to an extent, in being a part of sub- and counter-cultures which value history and the creation of things, one is faced with an abundance of options for musical cultures that are available to be listened to, researched, experienced, and enjoyed. (Take for example the fact that being a rock n’ roll fan might lead you to the unavoidable fact that many artists, including The Rolling Stones and that Elvis guy drew directly (and in some cases stole) from blues influences, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.) There are endless musical cultures to be discovered, particularly when you aren’t exposed to certain genres in your childhood. But it is important to consider the stories, histories, pain, and oppression that such music has been inevitably steeped in, and to seek to really understand what it means, and where it comes from – culturally, historically, emotionally – as opposed to appropriating whichever part of its aesthetic seems useful. Everything is not simply for your listening pleasure or dining experience.

Posted at PostBourgie.



Leave a Comment
  1. Hugues / Sep 7 2010 10:28 am

    There is a lot of middle class black people that use to listen a lot of blues music (and still listen to this day) in there living room with their families but of course they can more directly relate to the experience that you find in the lyrics and in the feeling of blues music.

    But it’s not because i can relax to a John Lee Hooker or a Mance Lipscomb song that i can’t understand or feel that thoses musicians went trough a lot.

    I think that blues music is a testemony of hard black life experience in the U.S. but it’s also about life experience in general and all the feelings and pains that goes with it, it means that all kind of people can relate to it.

    It’s music for mature ears, it’s a music of intimity but sometimes it’s also a dance-music.

    In the 60’s the folk scene that was full of young white middle class people helped a lot to make re-discover a lot of forgotten old blues artists like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and other great blues-men.

    Music travels and the emotions that goes with music travels too, when something in the music grabs you, you don’t heave to analyse it, or to feel guilty for some social or race differences.

    But i do understand about what you’re saying, it’s like reggae music, people don’t know that guys like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie who were smilin’ most of the times on picture covers were also wearin’ guns all the times.

  2. Hugues / Sep 7 2010 10:28 am

    it’s like reggae music or jazz music *

  3. Chad / Sep 12 2010 2:23 pm

    I think there is a big difference between certain white people putting an Ipod on in a resturaunt or bar or any public place and shuffling up a “mixed” playlist that happens to include alot of enjoyable black music i.e. blues jazz reggae perhaps mixed into stuff deemed more white.I do find it inappropriate for certain white people to put together a black themed based playlist in their black themed resturaunt/bar in a historically black cultured neighborhood that they most likely did not grow up in.It seems like a form of black exploitation.Where as the ipod on shuffle seems more like the appreciation(although the white person may not actually understand the pain or messages or the history or the depth to anywhere near the fullest capacity)of blues and other historically signifigant black music.
    And of course white musicians playing music made by black people has brought more attention to black musicians.But thats a double edge sword because it just proves how Effed up things are.It shouldnt have taken white people playing black music to make black music less obscure.Also,as much as that did bring the original black artists to the surface,how many people to this day(casual music listeners)believe that the rolling stones wrote time is on my side(to state just one)ALOT!Despite there intentions(whatever they are) white people still get alot of credit for the greatness done by black people.Which further illistrates my views on the themed resturaunt.
    Now.I loveeeeeeee ALOT of music.Music from everywhere!I like many forms of black music.Listening to certain Nina Simone songs will make me cry uncontollably.But so what?does that mean I can relate to her at all???I can only try to understand the message as a biography of her life experiences and her hard times and good times.It is not about me.Its about her.
    That being said I think I would find it sad if I were to walk into a public black themed venue owned by a white person where a white person was using an artist like Nina Simone to portray that they somehow fell like its providing themself with a cultureally black experience and even CREATING one!
    I dont mean this to be confrontational but you should interview the owner of the resturaunt.

    • the black scientist / Sep 14 2010 7:03 am

      Word! The restaurant situation blew my mind… you’ve illuminated for me some of what is so troublesome about appropriation :)

  4. db / Sep 14 2010 6:40 am

    This is a powerful piece and thanks for writing it. One of the problems with the conversations around the issues is that we want to be able to connect our own lives to the world around us, and of course the blues is a prime example of that impulse, both for the creator and the listener. But the social context that springs a cultural form or genre or style is much bigger than all of our individual experiences – it was there before we were born and in the case of civil rights it will, despite anyone’s best efforts, be there after we depart. Our own responses to a track might be similarly heartfelt, but still totally different at the sociological level. Or, we might share an emotion but have radically different reasons for that feeling. To be in a privileged position means you can ignore that difference and concentrate on the feeling – but many do not have that luxury.

    • the black scientist / Sep 14 2010 7:06 am

      Extremely well-put. Thank you for reading :)

  5. Chaz / Oct 16 2010 9:12 pm

    Really good read. You ever see the ‘Blueshammer’ scene from ‘Ghost World?’

    • the black scientist / Oct 22 2010 6:06 pm

      Thank you. Quite glad you enjoyed it. I haven’t seen that movie – I’ll add it to my list.

  6. TAT / Oct 22 2010 5:27 pm

    “the consumption of black pain as product” –dope line. dope post. good shit.

  7. Jessica Ruka / Feb 9 2011 5:57 pm

    Thanks for this. I could not put into words why it bothered me so much that my white roommate “lives for the blues.” Or why, when I accompanied her to a blues show, it bothered me deeply that the entire blues band was white.
    We live in Chicago so it is not entirely uncommon for white people to uncritically consume Blues music.
    Knowing how/where the music comes from though, it has always drove me nuts that my friends can chitchat over cocktails during a blues performance the same way they would over a classic rock cover band.
    Whenever I would try to explain to someone why it bugs me my response was always, “I didn’t realize you had to be black to like the blues.” But, it was never that white people were enjoying the blues that bothered me. It was always that white people were listening/playing the blues without as you said, “is that this music is often not understood within its cultural, historical, and emotional context.”

    Thanks for this post.

  8. nTm / Feb 9 2011 6:25 pm

    I see music as a connecting point, like all art. The message of pain, hopelessness and not-having is placed in a vehicle that can penetrate even the most thick-headed idiot.

    Blues, hip-hop, poetry? All things that contain messages that are better preserved and more powerful than a history book or lecturer.

    It is the responsibility of the knowledgeable to share said knowledge. Thus, when I’m playing some blues and some white dude is jamming out I take the opportunity to ‘splain some thangs.

  9. Morgan / Oct 31 2011 1:20 am

    Remember, everybody understands the blues! Yes, there are historical and contextual nuances, but the MUSIC is universal; whetever the color of your skin.


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