Indie rock, class, race, and culture in America

Martin Douglas's "The Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show" is a fascinating longread about race, culture and class, partly a memoir of Douglas's life as a young black kid in a North Carolina housing project who loved indie rock; partly a critique of the way we think about what blackness, whiteness and culture are.

The black kids of my generation and the ones before it were raised with the notion that it’s essential to hold onto one’s “blackness,” and that venturing outside of those boundaries meant you were trying to assimilate to white society, to “be more like one of them.” But essentially every African-American child growing up has an intimate knowledge of some version of the black experience, and the way we dress or the music we listen to still won’t hide the color of our skin. I never saw my interest in alternative culture as a way to obfuscate my racial identity. Aside from the annoyance of being typecast as a fan of a band purely based on superficial concerns, that conversation overlooked the one substantial reason why there are a lot of black people who relate to TV on the Radio’s music: They are a band primarily consisting of African-American men who often explore what it means to be African-American. For a generation of alternative music fans made to believe we were betraying “what it means” to be black, a band had finally come along that made that very idea a theme in its music.

But as TV on the Radio started to grow in notoriety, it still created a schism in my initial attraction to rock music; here was a band that was, for all intents and purposes, “socially acceptable” for black people to like. This falls into my earlier point about young children emulating people who look like them. I imagine if the band were around when I was younger — with their overtures to shoegaze, incisive and smart lyrics, steadfast commitment to experimentalism, and Kyp Malone’s beard — they probably would have been my favorite band throughout my entire childhood. At the very least, I wouldn’t have felt like such an outsider for loving alternative music.

The Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show (via Andre's Notes)


  1. Very interesting.

    Some Caribbean-American teens that I’ve worked with differentiate themselves from African-Americans by purposely not listening to hip-hop and favoring rock or other music.  

  2. The FISHBONE documentary “EVERYDAY SUNSHINE” that came out a couple of years ago addresses all of these questions in a less sentimental and confused fashion than Douglas does in this article. FISHBONE had (and still have) 25+ years in the mostly White music business and had to face every form of peculiar racism known, including racism directed at them from other Black people in the business (“we can’t sell you to a Rock audience…”) besides drink and drugs, it was one of the leading factors in the initial dissolution of the group. They still tour.

    1.  including racism directed at them from other Black people in the business (“we can’t sell you to a Rock audience…”)

      From blacks in the music industry? I’m trying to imagine how this played out. They tried to market them as “soul” music?

      1. I imagine they tried to pressure them to conform to a type of music that more closely aligns with the mainstream/popular music produced by black musicians at that particular time.

        1.  Given the nature of their music I find that kind of bizarre. Might as well market Bad Brains as disco….well they did do some reggae…

        2. Fishbone were/are multi-genre and also non-genre simultaneously. Every music influence that came within their sphere was absorbed and spit out as something else. It helped that everybody in the band was out of their mind

      2. I guess you could say no one in the music business knew what to do with Fishbone (Black or White or Polka Dot) – here was a band who was popular mostly with a young, White punk crowd – I guess Fishbone caught a lot of serious poo-poo from their astute Black colleagues in and out the business. See the movie. Netflix has it. Aside from the overall gist of the film, it has a fairly wild sub-story involving, uh…kidnapping. 

        1.  Cool, dropping in the queue after work. I can’t say they held up for me, but I liked them as a teen, and am interested in the story.

  3. That race and culture are so difficult to divorce pisses me off, and I find it absurd.  Then again, I don’t care about race, but will absolutely discriminate based on culture determined by how acceptable (read: progressive) I find the pillars by which it defines itself.  Perhaps that viewpoint is a luxury of growing up in America, a cultural hodgepodge where it is easy to pick pick and choose aspects of various cultures and create your own.  That some parents, and people in general, would try to enforce a cultural norm tied to race make me want to throttle someone.

  4. Anyone else having trouble getting to the article?
    I’m just getting this (even when I try to go to
    Access DeniedYou don’t have permission to access “” on this server.Reference #18.37a8fc3e.1360617988.6fddbe1

  5. Actually, he nailed it with the “White Person Bingo”.  Go into any alt-? show without at least checking off at least five boxes on the White Person Bingo will get a strange look.  Moshing-While-Fat will do the same as well.

  6. Wish I could find a good interview with Stew of The Negro Problem (his band) and Passing Strange (musical for which he won a Tony that was filmed by Spike Lee and shown on PBS). He’s been talking about this very topic for years. Also buy all of Stew and TNP’s albums because they are great.

  7. I realize I’m white so this doesn’t apply the same way, but in terms of musical taste I pretty much get it.  I grew up in NC as well, probably around the same time he did.  I was into EDM, and my first exposure just like him was through MTV.  Yeah I liked some rock, alternative, and the occasional rap song, but “techno” as it was called back then, was an awakening for me.  Obviously I didn’t have much access to it, but as the 90’s rolled on it became more popular, or at least big beat did, which might be my favorite genre anyway.

    But I can relate to that odd stare/expression when someone asked you what kind of music you listen to, who your favorite band was, ect..  It really was like you were from a different continent, like how dare you not listen to alt rock.  Obviously as time has moved on EDM has become somewhat more mainstream, but I still get the occasional odd expression when asked what I listen to.
    I usually just lie unless I plan on really befriending that person…

    I have a friend I met through work who is also into EDM, he’s black and grew up a county over from me.  He also knows these feels.

  8. Yeah, as a black person who loves a lot of different kinds of music, I appreciated this essay a lot. Also recommend this response:

  9. I can totally relate to this guy, especially back when there genuinely were not a lot of black people outside the expected music genres black people were supposed to be in. I’d go to a concert and you would be the only black person there, then I’d see another black person and two things go on in my head:
    1) I want to go up to them and introduce myself and in my mind say, “Hi OMG I’m black too lets be friends!! Yay!!” 
    2) They look at you as a threat to their novelty of them being the ‘black person’ and ignore you.

    So yeah, we have that going on, too. You don’t want to seem too eager, but you are interested, and you know they are too. Kinda dammed if you do, damned if you don’t.

  10. The song this essay was titled after is by a dude named Sean Padilla, and his band is The Cocker Spaniels. Let me tell you something: he goes OFF (live, and on record). Get his music, and see him wherever he plays. Your entire world will be crushed by his mighty, mighty skills at Rock Music. The album that song is from has the best title in the history of album titles. That, and the fact that he is one of the kindest, most standupinnest weirdos i have ever had to pleasure to meet. Just do yourself a favor.

    Seriously, some of the best, weirdest, catchiest music of all time. If you like GBV, the Pixies, Zappa, Prince, AND Pavement, you need to hear him.

    But i digress. Yes: Black folk are quite possibly much better at all the awesome shit they invented. Isn’t that interesting? Now let’s dance.

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