Drowning out the noise: Musical tastes don’t have to be defined by skin color

I can see where the stereotypes in music come from. People tend to look for artists who they can relate to, and unfortunately, that’s often about appearance or what everyone else in their circle of friends might listen to.

The piano starts to play. I recognize the tune immediately: “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance.

It’s such a beautiful melody to start a song with.

When I listen to it, all my fears go away and I feel like I can conquer anything. It does what a good song should do.

Lead singer Gerard Way finishes the first verse, giving way to massive drums and guitars as the song transforms into an all-out celebration. I picture the black parade roll out on a destroyed street, just like in the music video. I see the band giving it their all on the float.

I’m not paying attention to the commotion on my bus in St. Paul. I’m fully immersed in the music.

The guy behind me taps my shoulder. I look over to see a black kid around my age, dressed in hip-hop attire.

“You listen to that heavy metal stuff?” he says.

“You think you’re white? Listen to something normal, not this white music.”

(Sigh). This again?

I’ve been asked so many times why I listen to certain types of music. It all follows the same refrain: “Why do you listen to white music?” “Do you think you’re white?”

I’ve also grown ridiculously tired of being called an “Oreo” and being accused of not acknowledging my race as my own. All because of the music I listen to.

I listen to all types of music, anything from rap to rock, pop to indie. Some of my favorite artists and bands include My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Green Day, System Of A Down, Marilyn Manson, Mindless Self Indulgence, Lady Gaga, Queen, Two Door Cinema Club, Tegan and Sara, M.I.A. and Macklemore.

When I listen to a song, I listen to the message, rhythm and artistry. I don’t pay attention to stereotypes or what the singer’s race is. That’s how music should be absorbed. If you like it, then enjoy it. Who cares if it’s a white rapper or a black singer?

Around eighth grade, the song “3” by Britney Spears was a huge hit among my peers. Whenever the sexually explicit song played on the radio, I’d think, “Why is this on the radio? I don’t relate to this. There’s no point to it.” So I started listening to indie rock, and in later years, heavier rock and “smarter” pop that doesn’t constantly reference sex, drugs and clubbing.

I can see where the stereotypes in music come from. People tend to look for artists who they can relate to, and unfortunately, that’s often about appearance or what everyone else in their circle of friends might listen to.

The stereotype also comes from race distribution in the music field. Black artists dominate the hip-hop, R&B and soul scenes, while whites are the majority in rock, country and folk music.

But there are some that cross color lines. Lenny Kravitz is probably the most well-known example of a modern-day black rocker. Lajon Witherspoon, lead singer of Sevendust, is black. Darius Rucker is a black country artist.

It’s not just a black and white issue, either. Dir En Grey is one of the few Japanese rock bands. The late Freddie Mercury of Queen was from Zanzibar and grew up in India, and we all know how famous he was.

Yet people constantly stereotype music and expect that only one race can “own” a specific genre. Anyone who doesn’t follow these “rules” will be questioned and criticized by peers.

For example, a white person who likes rap and dresses in a hip-hop manner gets called an ugly term like “wigger”—someone who is white and acts “black” or “ghetto.” But take a look around—there are more white rappers than ever, be it Macklemore, Mac Miller, Eminem, and locally, Brother Ali and Slug from Atmosphere.

Where would those rappers be if someone had made them feel guilty about listening to “black” music when they were young? Where would Run DMC be if they’d refused to work with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” because rock music was “too white?”

A great example of uniting through music was the kick-off ceremony for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A group of multicultural artists, including Shakira, Black Eyed Peas and K’naan performed.

While K’naan sang “Waving Flag,” you could see everyone in the audience getting into the music, cheering and raising their hands throughout the song. They weren’t divided into nations or races. They were one.

It was beautiful to see that on live television—thousands of people from all over the world, of all skin tones and races, uniting because they related to a song.

Look, I know people will continue to judge my music preferences. I get that it won’t stop until music genres—and expectations for each other—become more racially diverse.

When someone challenges me about listening to My Chemical Romance or Macklemore, all I’m going to say is, “Define white music. Define black music.”

Why create a racial divide where it doesn’t need to be?


On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 21 students participated in a ThreeSixty multimedia project centered on microaggressions—or as defined by Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “the daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative racial slights toward people of color.” Check our our photo display here.