Opinion: Why is indie music so white? And is that a problem?

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A few months ago, the news and commentary website Fusion ran a headline that turned more than a few heads: “Not just Nazis: Alt-genres have always been ‘safe spaces’ for white people.”

There are problems with that article, as popular YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano has pointed out. Connecting the prefix “alt-” in music to the alt-right is a logical stretch and obscures the racist movement as something that’s actually “alternative” to anything. Fantano, a longtime music buff, slammed the article, also criticizing another piece by music website Pitchfork called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” along the way.

Of course, millions of non-white people listen to what we call alternative and indie music today. Using “safe space” as a negative term to talk about bias toward white artists is just clickbait.

But there is a central point in the Pitchfork piece that is worth talking about: so-called “indie” music is really, really white. So much so that “indie,” which originally meant “music from an independent label or origin,” now largely functions as a shorthand for post-punk/new wave revivalist, `80s-indebted music with a predominantly white artist pool. The line between what mainstream taste-makers consider “indie” and “alternative” is increasingly blurring every year — the Billboard alternative chart, Music Choice’s TV radio, iTunes genres, Spotify playlists and Pandora stations all show overlap in the concepts.

And while the Pitchfork piece’s evidence of indie’s racial biases is scant and perhaps poorly argued, it brings up an issue that has fallen on deaf ears since the turn of the century.

The vast majority of 2016’s most popular indie artists on Spotify and iTunes (and Billboard’s alternative chart) are white. Even before indie started blending into the mainstream in McDonald’s and UPS commercials and countless big-budget movie and TV soundtracks, indie stardom was a place for mostly white artists. Today, searching “indie” on social media or even Googling “indie people” brings you an overwhelmingly white picture. But whether it’s a real problem — and why the trend persists — seem to still be up for debate. Why does indie’s dominant whiteness matter?

First, let’s look at Pitchfork’s evidence for indie’s “whiteness.” There are a few hasty examples of why one indie artist’s heavily white film can be seen as a microcosm for indie’s whiteness, and before you start complaining, yes, that argument could be more clear. But the piece also points out that thousands of people signed a petition to cancel Kanye West’s headline performance at the 2015 Glastonbury concert festival, which hits on one of the main points of indie’s bias toward white artists.

The lineup at Glastonbury featured several artists that were far from indie, but a look down the list clearly shows why outrage over hosting a black rap superstar is an “indie” issue. Mary J. Blige, Pharrell and Killer Mike also performed, but West was popular enough to be the lightning rod. People opposed his performance chiefly because of the idea that rap music doesn’t belong at a festival that, apparently, is supposed to cater to rock music tastes. Although there’s no written rule for that, you can see why that starts to be an issue when you consider whether there would have been such outrage at, say, Watsky or — dare we say it — Macklemore performing there.

American music has been separated by dog-whistle labels since “race music” became an issue in the `40s. Black blues music, growing in popularity, was deemed objectionable. Various industry biases kept it at bay from white audiences. Likely in the same vein, Billboard charted that music as the “Harlem Hit Parade,” “Race Records” and later “Rhythm and Blues” as an umbrella term for black music specifically. That separation continued even as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Elvis and countless others built their musical empires on the backs of covers of black songs, black influence and, in some cases, outright stealing of black music.

Then in 1969, it was the “Soul” chart, and it was R&B again in the `90s. The chart was discontinued for two years in the mid-1960s, presumably because the line between black music and popular (read: white) music in general had blurred even more. Pitchfork itself detailed the history of when the R&B chart came back in `65, newly based on what mostly black audiences listened to and bought. But that move only furthered the packaging of black audiences into a separate chart. The issue is painfully obvious when one looks at the fact that the chart was once called “Black Singles” in the `80s.

At least they didn’t mince words.

Today, the trend continues. “R&B” still functions as a de facto label for black artists, and “indie” and “alternative” are synonymous with predominantly white music. White indie/alternative artists frequently use R&B and pop-dance trappings that, if used by black artists, would easily classify as R&B or — if we’re being real — Top 40 pop.

Bon Iver’s “8 (circle)” isn’t much different from Frank Ocean’s sounds or — let’s be honest — “Marvin’s Room”-era Drake. If Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” were sung by a black artist, it would be categorized as R&B or — if you reimagine the song as non-ironic and religious — a gospel song. If The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” were by a white artist, it would undoubtedly be picked up as a dance track for alternative stations, rather than being an R&B chart mainstay.

The Beastie Boys and Limp Bizkit, despite being rap groups, have received play on alternative rock stations in the past. But you won’t hear Frank Ocean, Miguel or even Childish Gambino on stations that use the ostensibly umbrella term “alternative,” and don’t even get me started on Twenty One Pilots. (I’m a fan, but “Ride,” “Stressed Out” and “Heavydirtysoul” would be exclusively played on Hip-Hop/R&B stations if TOP were a black group.) Despite one writer’s dismissal, it’s easy to see an independent, political artist like M.I.A. having more success if the “alternative” industry — freed of its arbitrary race barriers — treated her music like that of her white indie counterparts referenced in that same piece.

And despite the fact that, as Fantano noted, almost every genre can be broken into a mainstream and an alternative branch, it’s hard to ignore that the word “alternative” largely came to mean predominantly white pop-punk, post-grunge music for most of the `00s. (The charts took a more decidedly indie turn after 2010.)

It’s similar to why the term “singer-songwriter” evokes images of Ed Sheeran but not Beyonce — because Sheeran fits the singer-songwriter bill of a white person with a guitar, and Beyonce does not, even though she does, in fact, sing and write songs. A similar case is seen with “blue-eyed soul,” which basically means “soul sung by white people.” If genres were stripped of their racial categorizations, we’d just have “soul.”

Given this background, it’s no wonder that indie has ended up as white as it has. But other factors come into play as well: socioeconomic and cultural ones and the co-opting and outright appropriation that has supported indie music’s rise.

The band that was hailed as saving rock and roll in the early `00s, indie come-up darlings The Strokes, brought back lo-fi, punk-influenced rock with a vengeance, but it was also made up of wealthy, well-taught musicians. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs met partly at a private liberal arts college, where the drummer was a jazz student. Interpol has New York University roots. Passion Pit met in college. Jenny Lewis was a small-time actor, and the entirety of Vampire Weekend came together at Columbia University. Coming up in wealthier, more financially secure circumstances may make it easier for more predominantly white artists to have the safety net, the connections and the finances necessary to strike big into a music career.

White musicians using influence from other cultures has been a mainstay of the `00s, from The White Stripes and The Black Keys taking huge influence from seminal black blues musicians to Vampire Weekend borrowing heavily from Afrobeat. And that’s not an inherent problem. But that borrowing becomes an issue when white audiences, labels and radio stations begin to overlook black artists entirely in favor of white artists that become popular on the strength of their black influences.

Bluesman Gary Clark Jr. came from humble music roots in 2004 and is now Grammy-nominated, but he has nowhere near the name recognition of Jack White or Dan Auerbach. White artist Foxygen has benefited from Motown-influenced music, and mostly white band The Avalanches put out music that’s straight-up disco.

The 1975 owe as much to Prince and Chic as they do The Cars and other new-wave bands, but black artists seem to be less numerous, or less visible, under similar influences. And it’s a slap in the face when Vampire Weekend’s main influence is pegged as Paul Simon, as if Simon were the source of African music itself.

A conversation about indie’s white predominance may raise the question, though, of why hip-hop can be so racially homogeneous without also deserving criticism.

Why is hip-hop so black? It had to be. After decades of being put into a corner in the music industry — you may recall when MTV said white audiences would be “scared to death” of “Prince and … other black faces”  — black people made something that was practically about, and a voice for, black culture and political views. White American culture had no such need, and never has.

Black people had to carve out a space for themselves they owned and controlled, while white artists and audiences and DJs and critics and labels have had control for decades. It’s also telling that, although it’s been harder for white artists to break through in hip-hop, when they do — Eminem, Macklemore and yes, even Vanilla Ice — they soar.

Most indie also — distantly — only exists because of black blues music and R&B. It is to those genres that rock, funk, disco, new wave, punk and countless other genres that have spilled into indie at various points all owe their origin. Indie, like blues rock music today, seems ironic (and not, like, the cool kind) if it continues to be a reminder of the systematic separation of black people from music that they themselves pioneered.

Personally, I love indie music, in all its whiteness. I probably always will. But radio stations, critics and audiences need to recognize its inherent biases and give artists from non-white backgrounds a chance to make independent music — or even what we today call indie rock or “alternative” — without being pigeonholed or excluded from other genres. It’s about time that indie music, and rock in general, stop being perceived as something only white people with denim jackets play. It’s about time it be seen as a scene that anyone has the same shot at succeeding in.

Contact CU Independent Editor-in-Chief Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu, and follow him on Twitter @ArnoldEllis_.

Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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