It was my first ever iPod and I held it proudly. It was 2007, I was 15 and I had just immigrated to the UK six years ago. I was heading home and I can remember blaring Bryan Adams on the bus.
One of my friends turned around and asked what I was listening to. Hesitantly, I handed my headphones over to him. His instant reaction was to blurt out “What are you listening to this for?!…..white people music!” I was instantly embarrassed.
Later that evening my embarrassment turned into confusion. I found this form of music similar to the kind of sounds I grew up listening to in Pakistan. How was it a white person thing? Yet I would encounter this myth among people of color many more times over the coming years in the UK.
Research into the history of South Asia and its contributions to music, and examination of break-through Pakistani artists in the genre, made me realize how nonsensical this myth is.
For me the myth began the moment rock music and its trajectory started to ignore non-western influences. It intensified when people of color internalized racist assumptions that the westernization of rock music meant it was a purely “white thing.” The two play hand-in-hand.
History of Stringed Instrument & Guitar
The earliest example of a stringed instrument originates from the Egyptian period where the first plucked string instrument to be found was a bow shaped harp. In the years to follow a necked instrument was developed with precise marked frets (those raised lines on the neck of the guitar).
Specific to South Asia the name “Guitar” itself derives from ancient Sanskrit for “strings” which translates into “tar”. To this day many stringed folk instruments are in use in central Asia without many significant changes being made to them. The Indian sitar, was itself an innovation for its time. Indians developed it comprehensively based on the inspiration they took from the Persian culture and their setar.
Modern-day Rock Music Dilemma
The modern problem began with the whitening and westernization of rock music by mainstream outlets. The genre has been appropriated systemically. Rock’s western origins begin with black artists such as Ike Turner with Rocket 88 in 1951 and Little Richard and Jimmy Preston with “Hucklebuck Daddy” in 1949. But if you are not an avid rock historian you might not know much about these figures.
Today “The Top” lists on a variety of online music and rock platforms retain their whiteness. On Planet Rock “where rock lives” their ‘greatest ever rock song’ list consists only of western white rock bands or artists. The only person of color in the list is Jimi Hendrix and no attention is given to artists such as Junoon or Carlos Santana.
The concentrated use of white figureheads for rock, such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan, creates a culture that is mutually synonymous with “white culture.” A culture which then presented to a person of color seems alien to their experiences and is therefore rejected. This is problematic.
When a specific group within the population is made synonymous with a genre of music, preconceptions are strengthened resulting in ignorance. People of color internalize the racist message. Racism in the musical field is internalized in white people as well, since they come to feel it is “their” music and no one else’s.
Arguably, a variety of other issues present more insidious forms of racism than the issue over rock music and its white affiliation. However, a study undertaken in 2012 (Rock, Pop, White Power: How Music Influences Support for Ethnic Groups), suggests this issue has social implications that reach beyond music.
At Ohio State University, 148 white undergraduate students were asked to fund student groups on their campus using tuition funds. While waiting for the study to begin students were placed in waiting rooms where music played in the background. During the waiting period they were not allowed access to any other forms of media (phones, iPods and even books). Thereafter, mainstream rock songs by Bruce Springsteen and The White Stripes were played for seven minutes while the students waited. The findings illustrated that those who listened to rock music in the waiting area allocated 35 percent of their funds to white-American students. The findings were so striking that the lead of the study went onto further state that,
“Rock music is generally associated with white Americans, so we believe it cues white listeners to think about their positive association with their own in-group…”
The study suggests that the cultural union of rock music with whiteness enforces racist attitudes not only in the music world, but in society at large.
How to change it?
So how do we tackle this western perception of rock music as a means of expression for a singular group rather than a universal expression? Maybe we wait for a “colored” rock artist to make it big? Maybe something like what Akala is doing with Shakespeare through The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company could be an effective approach. The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company is the brainchild of the conscious rapper Akala. It is an organization that provides young artists and poets the opportunity to lyrically reinterpret Shakespeare’s work and thus recognize the similarities between modern hip-hop and Shakespeare’s themes and rhythms.
In my opinion, we don’t question the cultures that we practice or adopt enough. I was born into a culture and in most instances I did not have the courage to question some of the practices of my culture. Nor was I courageous enough initially to question the socialization in which I partook when immigrating to the UK. Only when I questioned the culture before me did I realize that consuming the culture wholesale perpetuated internal racist beliefs and assumptions that bracketed my own opportunities in life.
Brown People Can Rock
Now let’s rock with the band that inspired me to do this piece, Junoon. Junoon rocked harder than anyone I ever saw. Here’s a video of them performing in New York.
Taimour Fazlani is a writer for Media Diversified and other publications. Find him on Twitter at @talkativebeard.