Non-Conforming Americans: Genre, Race, and Creativity in Popular Music

This is another in a series of posts by the PhD students in the Public Intellectuals seminar I am teaching through the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.  

Non-conforming Americans: Genre, Race, and Creativity in Popular Music by Rebecca Johnson

Papa bear and mama bear. One was Black, and one was white, and from day one, they filled our lower eastside Manhattan apartment with sound. Beautiful sounds, organized and arranged, and from song to song they would change in shape, tempo, rhythm, amplitude, voice, instrument and narrative. Sometimes those sounds would come from my father’s guitar playing in the living room, and sometimes, even simultaneously, from my bedroom, where I could often be found recording a newly penned song. But most of the time, those sounds came from speakers.

Sometimes my father would put on this:

And the next day he’d play this:

Sometimes my mother would put on this:

And the next day she would play this:

And sometimes, they would both put on this:

The wide array of sounds that I heard was not just limited to the inner walls of my downtown apartment though. They echoed as I left home every morning to take the train to my upper eastside magnet school, and as I entered that school every day and saw diverse colors in the faces of my classmates, and when I visited my father’s parents in Brooklyn, and then my mother’s parents on Long Island. The sounds I heard became interwoven in my identity, song by song, strand by strand, they became my musical DNA. As I got older, I learned how those sounds came together, replicated, and mutated in the history of a world much bigger than myself. I discovered how those sounds had changed over time, often through deletions and erasures, but also how they had evolved because of the insertion of something new, something extra.

The sounds I grew up with were all part of the history of popular music in America. Crucial to the trajectory of that history has been the interactions between African Americans and white Americans. The complicated relationship between these two collectivities has informed much of the way we as a society understand how music helps to shape and influence our identities, and how we understand and perceive different styles, or genres, of music themselves. This post aims to explore how these understandings were formed over time, and how they can be reimagined, and challenged, in the digital age.

Popular music in America from its start was not just about sound, but racialized sound. From the moment African sounds were forcibly brought to America in the hands and mouths and hearts and minds of Black slaves, they were marked as different and in opposition to the European sounds that were already at work in forming the new nation. And yet through music slaves found a positive means of expression, identification and resistance where otherwise they were denied. While they would eventually be freed, the mark of slavery never left the African American sound and would be used to label Black music as different and not quite equal. As Karl Hagstrom Miller writes in Segregating Sound, in the 1880s music began to move from something we enjoyed as culture to something we also packaged, marketed, and sold as a business. It was then that “a color line,” or “audio-racial imagination” as music scholar Josh Kun calls it, would become deeply ingrained in much of our understanding of sound and identity (of course, that line had long existed, but it was intensified and became part of the backbone the industry was built on).

The color line that still runs through music today was in part cemented through the establishment of genres. The function of genre is to categorize and define music, creating boundaries for what different styles of music should and should not sound like, as well as dictating who should be playing and listening to certain types of music and who should not (for example, based on race, gender, class). The essential word here is “should.”

The racial segregation at the time the music business was taking baby steps played a large role in genre segregation. The separate selling of white and Black “race” records by music companies in the early 1900s assumed a link between taste and (racial) identity. Recorded music meant that listeners could not always tell if the artist they were hearing was white or Black, and thus it became the job of the music and its marketing to do so. Genres of music are living and constantly evolving organisms that feed off of input from musicians, listeners, scholars and key industry players such as music publishers and record labels. The contemporary use of them is a result of this early segmentation.

A selective, condensed timeline of genre segregation goes something like this. In the early twentieth century many white and Black musicians in the South played the same hillbilly music (including together), which combined the styles of “blues, jazz, old-time fiddle music, and Tin Pan Alley pop.” During this period the best way for musicians to make money was often to be able to perform music that could appeal to both Black and white listeners. Yet hillbilly grew into Country music, a genre first and foremost defined by its whiteness and the way that it helps to construct the idea of what being “white” means. Jump to the age of rock ‘n’ roll, and you find the contributions of Black musicians being appropriated (borrowed, or stolen) and overshadowed by white musicians. If we fast-forward once again to the 1980’s, Black DJs in Chicago and Detroit were creating and playing styles such as house and techno, while white DJs in the U.S. and across the pond in the United Kingdom were simultaneously contributing to the development of electronic music. Yet today, the overarching genre of electronic music, and its numerous subgenres, is commonly known to be a style of music created and played by white DJs.

The whiteness that came to define many genres meant to a degree erasing the blackness that also existed in them. Styles such as country and hip-hop have become important markers of social identity and cultural practices far beyond mere sound. At the same time, the rules that have come to define many genres have erased the hybrid origins of much of American popular music. They erase the fact that Blacks and whites, for better or worse, have lived, created and shared music side by side. And, they have created identities side by side, in response and through interactions with one another.

But, what if your identity as a listener or musician doesn’t fit into any of categories provided? What if the music you like, and the identity you’re constantly in the process of forming, goes something like this:

Unlocking The Truth - Malcolm Brickhouse & Jarad Dawkins from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

What if you are not as confident as Malcolm and Jarad, and you are faced with a world telling you that your interests lay in the wrong place, because you are the wrong race? What if you’re like me, with skin and an identity created by the bonding of two different worlds, but you are bombarded with messages that tell you life is either about picking one, or figuring out how to navigate between the two?

Popular music is a space in which identities are imagined, formed, represented and contested. Racialized genre categories that function within the commercial market have not only restricted the ability of musicians to freely and creatively make (and sell) music, but have also impacted the ability of listeners to freely consume.

Take this encounter, for example:

While humorous, it is also realistic. In the privacy of homes (or cars), in the safe space of like-minded individuals, and through the headphones attached to portable music players, consumption has always crossed racial lines. In the public arena though, Black listeners, just like Black musicians, have not had the same affordances as white listeners and white musicians to express and participate in non-conformity. This does not erase the fact that these non-conforming consumers exist, or that they have power. The boundaries of genre and the identities they reflect and produce are imposed from the top down and developed from the bottom up. The old institutions will try to exercise and maintain control in the digital age where they can (just as in the physical world), but our current media environment is more consumer driven than ever. Consumers now want to pull or seek out music, rather than having it solely pushed on them.

We are in a period of transformation. The Internet and new digital technologies have forever altered the landscape of the music industry. The traditional gatekeepers might not be interested in taking risks as they determine how to survive in the digital age, but they no longer hold all of the power. Digital distribution creates new opportunities to have music widely heard outside of established structures. Once revered music critics, many of whom contribute(d) to and reinforce(d) racialized genre boundaries, are now faced with competition from music recommendation websites, music blogs, amateur reviewers and more. In the past radio might have been the medium that enabled artists to spread their music, but the Internet is quickly coming for that title. In an attempt to more properly reflect consumption by listeners, the music charts in Billboard magazine have now begun including YouTube plays and Internet streaming into its calculations. Potentially, anyone can make it to the top.

The current moment is providing the opportunity to complicate our understanding of racialized sound. The dominant conceptions of what it means to be Black, what it means to be white, and what it means to create music through those identities are being challenged.

Like this:

Splitting from genre tradition does not have to erase social identities and histories; it can allow music to expand and breathe. The remix and mashup practices of both hip-hop and electronic music have demonstrated how boundaries and identities can be reimagined in a way that recognizes points of similarity, but also celebrates difference.

Doing so is how we get songs such as this:

And artists who make music like this:

Holes are increasingly punched into the lines drawn to bound music and culture. The racial and ethnic makeup of America is changing. From musicians challenging stereotypes in the studio and on the stage, to series such as NPR’s “When our kids own America,” people are taking notice. The mutations in popular music that led to its evolution have always been about looking back, looking left, and looking right in order to look forward. The digital revolution is about providing the tools to make this happen.

Rebecca Johnson is a songwriter and Ph.D. student studying the commodification of American popular music in the digital age at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her work explores how music is produced, marketed, distributed and consumed in a constantly changing, technologically driven, and globally connected world.