Does it matter if you’re black or white?

The deaths of culture-defying musicians Adam Yauch and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn are a reminder of music's skin-tone sensitivities.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Can white people play black music? And if so, should they? These may seem like archaic, possibly racist, questions, but I have never heard a satisfactory answer. Recent events, however, suggest that this old dilemma may have been resolved while no one was looking.

This month has seen the passing of two white musicians who succeeded in traditional ‘black’ genres. On Sunday, the blues musician and bassist for seminal 1960s band Booker T and the MGs, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, was found dead in Tokyo at the age of 70. It had been barely a week since the rapper and founder member of Beastie Boys, Adam Yauch, also died, aged 47. Dunn was the son of a Memphis sweet-shop owner and Yauch was a New Yorker from a middle-class, Jewish background. Both achieved eminence outside their cultural parameters, so to speak. But what was notable about their obituaries is how irrelevant this seems today.

Dunn’s obituary in The Times [London] noted: ‘By the 1970s, many rock stars were putting in calls to Memphis to ask for Stax’s top soul-session crew to play on their recordings. It was said that more than a few of them were surprised to find when the MGs turned up that although the organist Booker T Jones and the drummer Al Jackson were black, the guitarist Steve Cropper and Dunn were white; it was assumed that only black musicians could make such a soulful sound.’ Earlier in the month, an obituary notice in the same newspaper observed: ‘Yauch and the Beastie Boys took the attitude, posturing and sound of black rap music and translated it for a white audience. Without them, the success of other white hip-hop artists could never have happened.’

How antiquated such scenarios seem now, when Adele’s soul music shifts millions of copies, Eminem remains one of the world’s most celebrated rappers, and when the operatic tenor Noah Stewart this year became the first black musician ever to top the UK Classical Album Chart. Musicians who cross racial and cultural barriers and blend their allied genres are the norm these days. Indeed, watching Dominic Sandbrook’s The 70s on TV this week, I was struck at just how novel the multi-racial band The Specials seemed at the end of that decade. Their fusion of punk and ska may have been innovative then, but there would seem little exceptional about it today.

It wasn’t always this way. ‘Whites Invent “Rock And Roll” ‘ ran a fictitious 1955 headline from the Onion‘s spoof anthology, Our Dumb Century (1999). ‘Authorities Assure Public That Negroes Had Nothing To Do With Popular Music Form’, runs the strapline, accompanied by a photograph of Elvis Presley. ‘White teenagers across the nation are cheering the latest product of American ingenuity today, as a new white-devised music form is sweeping the land. It is called “Rock and Roll”, and young people are dancing to its exciting, Caucasian beat.’ Such satire stems from the popular perception that white people borrowed, or plainly stole, rock’n’roll from Afro-Americans – just as they did the blues.

The appropriation of the blues proved to be irksome to many Afro-Americans (it still rankles among many today), as that genre was perceived to embody the culturally specific experience of blacks in America, not least the baleful legacy of slavery. To sing about something beyond your ken seemed incongruous; for a white man to do so seemed particularly offensive. This is why Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were sometimes subjected to censure; for Porgy and Bess, the latter was accused of misrepresenting Afro-American culture. It is for a similar reason that the rapper Vanilla Ice (real name Robert Van Winkle, from Dallas) and ragga singer Snow (Darrin O’Brien, from Toronto) got so much grief back in the 1990s. Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood still does. Like Ali G, they feigned to come from the ghetto when they did not. It is on this understanding that Eminem’s character Jimmy in the film 8 Mile (2002) clinches the final rap tournament, by revealing that his opponent Papa Doc is actually called Clarence and went to a private school.

Yet such ostensible inauthenticity aside, the purists fail to appreciate that on a purely aesthetic level, music has always involved cross-cultural pollination. Rock’n’roll was itself a mixture of blues, gospel and country – so no one really stole it from anyone else. Elvis Presley may have found fame with the unmistakably rhythmic rock’n’roll tunes ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’, but both were the creation of a Jewish songwriting pair: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. ‘It’s Now Or Never’ was a re-working of the Italian standard, ‘O Sole Mio’; ‘Love Me Tender’ was a re-invention of the ballad ‘Aura Lee’, composed by an Englishman in 1861. ‘Always On My Mind’ was a country song composed in 1972.

As in gastronomy, music thrives on cultural coalescence. Some of the finest musical works are those that innovated and appropriated. Consider Mozart’s essentially Italian overtures, Franz Liszt’s gypsy music, or the Lithuanian Jew, Aaron Copland, writing jazz scores or invoking the American West. Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Madness and The Clash were musical magpies par excellence; Radiohead, Dizzee Rascal and the Black Eyed Peas – a multi-racial outfit whose songs defy categorisation – are more recent exemplars.

Beastie Boys were continually evolving and adapting, from hardcore punk via hip-hop to funk. In a late track, ‘Bohhisattva Vow’, Yauch rapped a Buddhist devotional prayer over a hip-hop beat accompanied by samples of monks chanting. When once accused of appropriating an African-American genre, Yauch responded ‘I kind of think of it like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin playing the blues.’ He might have added that hip-hop may never have happened at all without the Teutonic influence of Kraftwerk, and that one of the genre’s constants has been the sampling of rock tracks.

Musical purists are like those gastronomic neurotics who fuss about the taxonomy and cultural authenticity of food, Platonically-minded bores who abhor the chicken tikka pizza as a culinary abomination. In fact, such an Anglo-Indian/Italian concoction should be regarded a work of genius. What is more, it may actually taste very nice.

So can a white man play black music? Well, the answer might be yes, but that depends if you really believe there is such a thing as ‘black music’.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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Topics Culture


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