The month of February, in my life, has always been a month in which people expect me to speak on behalf of my race and ethnicity. They expect me to be in touch with my African roots, with the culture of Africa and America, all so I can tell them what it means to be African American, should they choose to listen for 28 days. This expectation, while some may say is warranted given the fact that February is Black History Month, put a lot of pressure on me that I neither wanted nor knew how to handle. It saddens me to say that this pressure I felt made me almost resistant to learning about my own cultural background. As I’ve grown older, however, I realize that this month, and all others for that matter, is a time in which I should explore my race and ethnicity in order to facilitate conversations that result in others understandings of what it means to be African American, what it means to be Black.
Black History Month typically has a focus on the identity of the race and ethnicity in terms of its group identity, and while this is extremely important to know for several reasons, we sometimes fail to recognize individuals within the racial and ethnic group. Knowing the group identity of African Americans is crucial to the understanding the development and evolution of the culture itself, it’s what gives Black citizens our strong sense of community with one another. However, this communal feeling could be strengthened even more by acknowledging the different types of individuals we have within the African American community.
Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that people within my own racial and ethnic group tend to make fun of me or treat me differently. It didn’t take long for me to notice that the jokes made were all mainly focused on, and connected to, the music with which I mainly identify: Indie and Alternative Rock music. This genre, stereotypically speaking, does not fall in line with what I’m expected to listen to as a Black person. I should be listening to more Rap, more R&B, more jazz, and while I do listen to artists and songs from those genres, my default music setting remains to be Indie and Alternative.
The teasing that stemmed from the type of music I listen to was the main cause of what made me resistant to learning about my own culture. I wanted to form my own identity, I didn’t want to be seen as a stereotype or be put in a box. Having to live in a world where my Blackness was questioned because I listened to more Arctic Monkeys than Kanye West made the task of forming my own identity to be more difficult than I had imagined. Only a few days ago did I realize I felt like a fish out of water in settings where I should be comfortable; I felt odd around friends that I shared a music connection with because I tended to be the only Black person, and I felt odd around people of my own race because there was a disconnect on a major cultural point: music.
This thing that outlines the shape of our lives, forming the bigger picture of the person, was inconsistent with what society expected of me. My music taste being one of the many ways in which I felt out of place. When I felt comfortable around my own race, I would soon be blindsided with the question, “What kind of Black person are you?” when I revealed I didn’t like something I stereotypically should. When I felt comfortable around those who were not of my race, the blindsiding was more frequent, with questions and comments like, “You don’t listen to Drake? I’m Blacker than you,” or simply noticing, on my own, that there were only two or three other people of color that I could see at a festival in Pasadena.
Just as I recently realized I felt like an item belonging to the ‘other’ category rather than having a distinct group, I realized why these songs and artists that I listen to mean so much to me. Somewhere along the line, I began to prioritize myself simply as a human first instead of someone belonging to a certain ethnic group. Artists like Walk the Moon bring out the best in me, allowing me to be vulnerable, encouraging me to spread positivity, and most importantly letting me be myself. Songs like Best For Last by Adele, 1612 by Vulfpeck, or Woman by Harry Styles give me the confidence to represent and become familiar with myself first. And in gathering this confidence and understanding of myself, I am now much more comfortable speaking on issues of representation in terms of race and ethnicity. Finding music by Izzy Bizu two weeks ago helped me see that you do not have to isolate your Blackness to find yourself and your humanity. Her music video for Give Me Love demonstrates her own style and hobbies that are similar to my own, but also demonstrates her strong cultural ties that make up a woman I now look up to.
African American culture is constantly evolving, and because of this it is extremely important to know where we come from. Knowing what makes our ethnic group unique, what makes it strong, and what makes it tough are all crucial in our understanding of ourselves. Great respect and acknowledgement should go to the work that artists of the Rap, R&B, Hip-Hop, and Jazz genres have created in the transformation of what it means to be Black. Seeing as Black History Month does an incredible job of calling attention to these things, we should also call attention to the individual aspects of African American identity. We must not stop at the much deserved acknowledgement of these music types, we must also recognize how much more we are capable of doing and being. Humans themselves are seen as complex, multifaceted beings, and our racial and ethnic group should be seen in the same way.
Janina Baker-Mason, DJ