With a Rebel Yell or a Fist in the Air: Music and Identity
I began singing and dancing very early on in life. It is in no way surprising that my mother, a trained opera singer, and father, a music loving piano player, would have 6 very musical children. We all sang together and many of us played an instrument. At some point or another we all had proper music training. Additionally, my mother had about 1-2 kids per decade starting in the 60s. This meant my music influences spanned across time and space. It was very easy for me to be open to different sounds, rhythm, and styles. I also learned, very early, that music was not just about sound, but had an aestethic and meaning that came with it. What do you think when you think of opera? Or gospel? I bet you have an image that goes along with the genre. I’m sure you can see Hip Hop, even if you can’t hear it.
This is because music provides a channel of expression. Musical identity can encompass the body, cultural influence, politics, religious affiliation, history, language, even moods. Studying a particular music style is another way to interact with a particular group of people and their culture. Ethnomusicologists are anthropologists that do exactly this. While I could launch into world music, culture and identity, I would prefer to keep this post a little more local. Consider yourself and your life. Take a moment to transport yourself to place where you felt that music spoke to you and you wanted the world to know how you interacted with that music. Did you wear a concert t-shirt? Learn to play an instrument in that musical style? Did you defiantly blast music that your parents or guardians didn’t approve of? Or maybe that your peers didn’t approve of? What was the aesthetic or material way in which you expressed affiliation to a particular musical style and ideology? I was born in the 80s. Rock music of the time was a lot of crazy make up, tongues and crazy living that my mom just didn’t approve of. It’s not that I was expressly forbidden to listen to rock music, but since my mother didn’t necessarily listen to it and my siblings didn’t either, I wasn’t exposed to that much of it. Additionally, growing up in the NYC ‘hood, rap and R&B reigned! Rock music was considered ‘white people music,’ and that didn’t have such a great affiliation. Even then, I knew that “white people” anything was associated with oppression, power inequality, mistrust, and systemic mistreatment of the other– us. I didn’t want to be associated with any of that, so I chose Michael Jackson over Michael Bolton, even if unconsciously. But then, one late night, I was about 10 years old, and I stayed late to watch TV. There was a show on that showed music videos (not MTV- I had no cable), so I stopped to watch and listen. A video came on that looked like an old timey TV show. An electric guitar started in on the first few notes, and my life was changed. I had discovered Nirvana. It didn’t seem evil. I didn’t feel oppressed. They were in dresses and it looked like fun! I was instantly love with the energy!
I begged my sister to buy me the CD and I devoured it! Very quickly I latched on to Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, L7, No Doubt, 311, my list of white folks playing guitar and crowd surfing grew! My choice to listen to Kurt Cobain over Tupac was about music preference to a certain extent. However, when I publicly declared my love for this at school and within my neighborhood, it became political. I was teased, made fun of, and labeled as weird! But all of this music was about being an outcast and outsider, so I gladly wore my label, and accessorized it with Doc Martin’s and purple hair. Yet, the one label that shook me up was “white girl”. I did not like that label at all! It wasn’t just because of the music that that label was applied to me, but because I liked being a good student and reading Shakespeare. My mother had stressed proper enunciation and diction, and limited the amount of slang I was allowed to use when I spoke. My style of dress was not at all hip hop. I was a traitor in their eyes! My music style affiliation just hammered the nail in that coffin. (Side note: this reaction can be deconstructed in many different ways, but I’m going to stick to music as an ID, for now. I’m not glossing over it, and recognize that it is deeeeeeeeeep with political and social significance) In my eyes, I hadn’t turned my back on my “blackness,” but I felt like I was being forced to make a choice- until I discovered Living Color! Rock music that was political, energetic, black guys from NYC, and spoke about the black experience. I was OPEN! By 9th grade, I was playing guitar, singing, songwriting, owning my new political, rock, black girl from the ‘hood identity. That is quite a cross section of identity and groups, huh? However, it’s not enough to just look the part. I can’t just carry around a guitar and not be able to strum. I can’t claim a certain type of ‘Brooklyn’ identity without being able to cite some very specific events. There is still a strong tradition of oral history, neighborhood specific slang, shared experiences that I need to be able to recall to have been considered a part of a particular group. I could and can still do it. I’m “Brooklyn”. I might have hung Chris Cornell on my walls, but I knew the words of Biggie Smalls because in many ways he, like many other hip hop artists of the time, was a street journalist. His lyrics captured the essence, pain, survival story of what it was to be in those neighborhoods during that time period. Looking back, I understand why it was important to my peers and community that I embraced hip hop and its culture. To them, I was turning my back on the neighborhood. For me, I was expanding my world of possibilities. Yet, I have all of those wonderful experiences, lessons, stories painted onto my canvas of identity.
Now consider your story, your culture, your identity in relation to music. How have you expressed your identity and self through music?