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A search for black voices in music writing / by David Turner

The weather outside was getting colder. I could tell it would be one of the worst winters I’d ever known. It was my last year at Elon University and facing the stress of academic life ending, I grabbed whatever books I could find. I wanted to try and shut out nature and my overwhelming school commitments, and get lost in something. So I did.

At the end of 2012 and into 2013 I began freelancing first for Pitchfork, and then slowly my byline started appearing in Complex, Noisey, Spin and a few other publications. Every new place offered a new tone and separate lens to try and approach music criticism. But last summer the critical discourse I found myself within caused increasing frustrations. I felt I was constantly in private conversations about the whiteness pervading most music criticism, and rap in particular. In a world where so many conversations happening amongst music writers happen in public on Twitter, I felt unsure of the potential ramifications of being more explicit and public in my critique. It is one thing to air out criticism of the technical aspects of another writer, but to bring up an issue that called into question their own lack of racial understanding felt too much for public discourse.

But once school was out, with the fullness of a summer day to tune into the music writing world, I saw the reality of just how few black, and general other POC, wrote for most of the sites I read be it the New York Times Arts sections, local weeklies back home in North Carolina or even sites I wrote for like Pitchfork or Noisey. It became the daily routine of checking to see if any underrepresented voice either by race, gender or sexuality appeared in these publications. I was (and am) often disappointed at the constant lack of diversity. That I felt a bit of an outsider among these sites was not particularly new, but the more I read pieces on black music it became clearer just how much their experience with the music fundamentally didn’t line-up with mine. These white writers clearly knew the history of rap music, but they noticeably did not understand opening your eyes to the world and to look down and see black skin.

To find direction for all of these questions on race and criticism, I picked up The Resistance, a 1994 collection of reviews and articles by the film critic Armond White. It's the book I had initially opened during my last semester of college, but never dove into. The pieces ranged from reviews of popular films of the day such as Purple Rain to Pulp Fiction for The Baltimore City Paper to longer form pieces for film journals. And though the book leaned heavily on film it also contained thoughtful takes on music culture and even rarer pieces on the then still young medium of music videos.

I learned of White’s writing through the writer Brandon Soderberg, whose own writing felt very instrumental in my own forming an interest in music writing back in high school. White put blackness at the forefront of his writing in a way that stuck with me. He critiqued the cultural appropriate Madonna’s “Vogue” without treading lightly; instead he hones in on the whitewashing that happens in the song’s video, the song’s style and even the lyrics that champion voguing without ever name a single POC. White writes with confidence not only when it comes to his opinions, but in regards to the very idea that race-related social critique must part of discussions about art and music. As a black writer, every page was revelatory.

White pushed me to think about what exactly it might look like for me to be writing as a black person. I never played down my own blackness with my online presence. I’ve written about being racially profiled and my own frustration in the way that white voices overwhelm voices of colors in critical writing spheres. Yet to my own fault, I never sought or properly paid attention to voices that could’ve spoke to my own life experiences.

So I continued searching for them.

Next was Greg Tate. Tate’s 1992 essay collection, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essay on Contemporary America, demonstrated his way of drawing from academic cultural criticism in a way that was still accessible. Tate’s voice held its power because he was heavily invested in black culture, and it bears out on every page. His words kept hitting me over the head again and again, especially in the way he wrote to an assumed black audience. As a writer, I’d typically always assumed my audience to be white by default. Tate’s work for the Village Voice never worried about whether whitey would comprehend what he was spitting, and that was mind-bending. It was also oddly calming. Slang was dense, the subject matter varied, but its ability to grab hold of my attention was never in question as I hung onto ever word that came from his pulpit.

That was a feeling I rarely experience in 2014 and certainly never when I am reading about black music in 2014. So much contemporary writing about black music—much like most writing about all music—is the realm of tenured white males. The quality of these critics is almost irrelevant because after a while, it feels like there is an impenetrable wall preventing me engaging with a piece of writing. When the black experience gets filtered through a writer’s own whiteness, it no longer feels like a conversation about music that wants to engage with me.

Recently Pitchfork published a review of the Los Angeles rapper Vince Staples’ debut major label release Hell Can Wait; when I saw that the review was done by Craig Jenkins one of the few black writers with a consistent Pitchfork byline, I breathed a sigh of relief. Each listen of Hell Can Wait projected the tangible frustration of the black community with America throughout these last tenth months. The repeated cases police brutality, racially motivated adjustment of voter registration laws in my own state of North Carolina and death of Michael Brown and the organized protests in Ferguson loomed in my thoughts. Craig’s words spoke to an experience of the world having walked this path and not assuming such a path never existed. A review that felt breathed, and lived; within those circumstances was exactly what I hoped to read on such a release.

It was small, but that feeling of inclusion felt powerful. A large number of voices are often not only shut out, but wholly never considered, in the discussion of music -- even when the breadth of music covered is not just white and male. When certain voices are underrepresented in the critical discourse, it not only does a disservice for artists who can’t escape the wide gaze of straight white males, it alienates readers outside of that categorization as well. When a reader can connect with the identity of a writer behind a piece of criticism, it can provide a way of welcoming them back into the dialogue rather than leaving them alone on the borders.

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