Travelling Music

[Ta-Nehisi Coates]

This is a post about a frequent topic on this blog--the veil of race and how it colors so much of what I see. There are times when I'm ashamed of how I came up. I wish I'd been to Idaho when I was 13, learned to ski at six, or maybe even gone to a big state school instead of an HBCU. There's a yearning for a more cosmopolitan outlook, because I suspect that a lot of my tastes and insights are now hard-wired and that many of those tastes are parochial.

More likely, all of our tastes are parochial and cosmopolitan is just another neighborhood. But I'm a black man who's lived comfortably in de facto racial separation. And now I'm in a period of my life when I've become a traveler--through this blog, through reporting, through personal maturation--into the wider, whiter world. So it may be that we are of our neighborhood, but at this point in my life, I'm so often far from home.

I was thinking about this laid up in O'Hare yesterday, listening to the band Woods's Songs of Shame. (I blogged about them awhile back.) The album has really grown on me and I was thinking about how much I liked Jeremy Earl's voice, and how "black" it sounded to me. Earl sings in this quasi-falsetto, and the connection I make is to Earth Wind and Fire or The Stylistics---if they were singing folk music.

And if Rza was producing.  There is this way the group distorts Earl's vocals, and pairs them with these really haunting tracks. It's a contrast, which, musically, represented what I loved about East Coast underground hip-hop in the mid-'90s.

Of course The Stylistics didn't invent falsetto, and I'm sure that rock/folk/country acts have somewhere employed the same tactic. Moreover, I'm sure the contrast I hear in "Verbal Intercourse" is the kind of thing people have been doing in art--beyond music--for eons. But all have is my native frame--black music, black art--and that's the first thing that strikes me.

I think, when you hear someone like John Mayer call Kerry Washington "white girl crazy," or someone note that Barack Obama isn't "really black," it's the same sort of thing happening. Much as I have spent large swaths of my life in predominantly black environs and have had my judgment shaped by those facts, most white people have spent their lives in the same way. The result is a parochial frame for discussing race, one that takes assumptions and biases as facts.

There is one major difference though--blacks who want to do business in the greater country, who want to go to Colorado and be comfortable, don't really have the luxury of holding on to their assumptions. Instead, I think, we find ourselves forced to confront them and interrogate them. If you're going to be the kind of black person who dismisses/labels whole swaths of things as white or black, and takes that labeling as fact, then you've basically capped your potential. You've confined yourself to the neighborhood.

And still in all, in the pilgrimage out, the neighborhood walks with you. I think all you can do is be aware and understand that your frame isn't the world. Of course you end up rocking music like this. Kenyatta thought this guy was a woman when she heard the song. Then she saw him and thought he looked like he belonged in her calculus class.