Help Appreciating Black Music Without Appropriating It

rachel krantz
Momentum
Published in
13 min readMay 17, 2022

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Conversations about how to suck less — aka how to be actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic (and so much more!) — can sometimes be tricky to navigate. People in marginalized groups are often asked to do a lot of unpaid labor to explain these issues to their friends, schools, and colleagues. So I figured one thing I could do with various consenting guests on my new podcast Help Existing is to delve into the specifics of a wide array of questions. This week’s topic — how to appreciate Black music when you’re not Black, without appropriating it — seemed like a good place to start.

I spoke with Evette Dionne, author of Lifting As We Climb, and a pop culture critic who often writes about Black music. Together, we delved into the central question of whether a person who is not Black can listen to, twerk, or otherwise dance to Black music in any way that’s not somehow problematic.

If your reaction to this topic is like, Ugh, the premise of this even annoys me, that might be a sign of some white fragility or some other form of exceptionalism you’re applying yourself to not think about this. So maybe this is especially for you.

For our full conversation, check out the full Help Existing episode below. What follows is an edited-down and enhanced multi-media version of my interview with Evette Dionne.

Rachel: Why do you think so many people consider Black music to be synonymous with pop music?

Evette: You can’t turn on a Top-40 radio station anywhere in the United States without hearing a hip-hop artist, without hearing R&B artists. To the point that Black music art forms are not considered Black music art forms anymore — they’re just considered universal music was no cultural heritage or background to be considered.

Whereas Black literature has often been pigeonholed in a way that most people do not access it. I say all the time that what I consider the Black women’s canon of literature, which includes books like Waiting To Exhale and The Color Purple and The Bluest Eye — people know those works, but they have not read them. It’s very rare that you find someone who has actually read The Color Purple. So there’s a lack of access to Black literature. Those same boundaries don’t exist when it comes to Black music.

That said, I believe that music can cross boundaries in ways that other art forms cannot. I can recall when Whitney Houston died, there was this whole story about this really deep part of Mexico where they don’t have regular access to television, radio, and the internet. And you could hear them playing “I Will Always Love You.” That is the power of music. I would never say that “No, you can’t enjoy hip-hop because you’re not Black or Latinx.” That is never my approach. I think music exists to make people think. I think it exists to make people feel good and is designed to entertain, and therefore everybody has access to the entertainment.

But if you are not a Black person, you are not Black. And there is nothing wrong with liking the music while also knowing that there are boundaries. And those boundaries around culture are really important because it often becomes a slippery slope of, ‘If I’m allowed to listen to the music, then if they say the N-word, then I can say the N-word because all of it is a part of our broader American culture.’

And that is just fundamentally not the truth. It’s intellectually dishonest in my view.

Rachel: And you have a lot of people who aren’t Black playing soul and R&B, feeling like ‘this is sexy, this is the most seductive music.’ That obviously has a long history, right? The objectification of the Black body and that division of intellectual and central spheres. Particularly the white obsession with Black sensuality.

Evette: Absolutely. The United States has a very particular history around enslavement. White people, the dominant culture in this country, are wholly obsessed with what Black people do and don’t do with their bodies.

I mean, that’s how we end up in the sort of place where people are literally obsessed with whether or not a Black woman can be hyper-sexual, or whether or not Black men are bucks, or whether or not fat Black women are asexual, are they mammies? All of that has been used from the antebellum period through our current time to pathologize Black people in their sexuality. And also to stereotype them in a way in which — Melissa Harris-Perry calls it a crooked room. We’re always looking at the world through this crooked prism, and we’re unable to understand our own humanity because of those stereotypes.

And so, again, like, not that you can’t enjoy Black music. But when I’m thinking particularly about Black R&B music, which is so often about the specific and unique struggles that come with trying to be in relationship with another Black person, to use that as a seduction tool when you are not Black is just really odd.

Not that you can’t do it. Like, if you have a playlist going and your playlist is comprised of all sorts of people. Sure. Okay. That’s understandable. But if it’s just all Black people, knowing that historical context, it’s not only odd, but it makes me question the motivation. What would bring you to the point that you think that’s the best approach to seducing other people, particularly if the people you’re seducing are not Black?

Rachel: Engaging with this, learning more about the history of Black music, having that awareness, is that enough? Or can you really not enjoy Black music when you’re not Black (particularly as a white person) in a way that isn’t always going to be at least somewhat appropriating?

Evette: That is a good question. I think it is wholly possible to enjoy Black music without appropriating it. My concern always comes in when people who are not a part of the culture are weighing in on the music.

And that’s whether they are critics at newspapers, or music executives who get to dictate what music is even released to the public, or it’s someone on Twitter, just talking about this album that they did not enjoy. What I ask is that people practice a level of self-awareness of realizing that they can be listening to this music without being a part of the culture from which it was created.

And in that sort of scenario, you’re an observer and a listener, rather than an active participant in dictating what the culture looks like. You don’t know the lineage of Black women, particularly in rap music, and the ways in which they’ve used their bodies as a form of empowerment. And so you’re entering into a conversation when it is not your place, and you’re embarrassing yourself. White folks can enjoy the music as an observer, but in terms of weighing in on conversations about Black music? Wade into that conversation very carefully — and if you can, not at all.

Rachel: That’s a great distinction. We’ve talked about listening to Black music when you’re not Black, but what about dancing to it? Does that change the equation? Should people who aren’t Black not be dancing to any of the songs that are more specifically aimed at a Black audience? Like songs where Beyoncé is addressing Black women’s experiences, for example?

Evette: I think people can dance to whatever they would like.

I’m not opposed to like white people dancing to Beyoncé. I think some of my favorite Tik TOK videos, in fact, are white people dancing to Beyoncé. I think that’s fine, as long as you credit the originators of that dance in your TikTok. We so often see on TikTok where a Black person creates a dance, and then it only becomes popular when a white person does it. And the person who created it doesn’t get the credit. That’s when it gets slippery.

But in terms of like white people dancing to Black music, to be honest, I don’t see the issue with that.

Rachel: I had Googled “WOP TikTok” when that was going around and I wanted to see the dance. And the most popular compilations were not only comprised of almost entirely just white people, but all white people who appeared to be in very expensive houses. It was very strange, but not surprising.

But I guess something I wonder about is, what about forms of dancing that are more traditionally Black? For example, we all know the Miley Cyrus twerking example, and how that was really a launching point for talking about the white appropriation of black culture. Should white people in particular just never twerk, or dance to certain songs — or was the real problem there that she was taking Black culture and then turning it into her own song that she was then profiting off?

Evette: Yeah, for Miley Cyrus in particular, my issue was never about the twerking itself. My concern was that she was using this very specifically Black aesthetic, like the grills and the twerking, as a way of saying, “Look, I’ve evolved. I’m a grownup. Now I can do what I want.” It was almost like seeing Blackness as a way of busting out of her shell. And as soon as it no longer benefited her, she was like, “yeah, hip hop was awful.” Then she later had to apologize for that.

That is where my concern always is. If you are using Blackness — particularly donning it like a costume you take off when it’s convenient—that’s when I have an issue and it becomes really bothersome. But in terms of white people twerking, I don’t see an issue with that inherently.

Now whether or not they have figured out how to twerk is— you know, that’s not my business. But I don’t have an issue with that. But I do have an issue with someone being like, “I’m going to show you how grown I am by donning this [Black asthetic],” or, “I’m going to stick it to my parents by dating someone Black.” That is my gross. You’re doing too much.

Rachel: Yeah, definitely. That’s a really important distinction I appreciate. I’d just add that I would think being actively anti-racist is also important.

Evette: Absolutely.

Rachel: If you’re someone who really appreciates Black music, Black literature, Black films, Black culture —as so many of us do, and should — you should definitely be actively involved in making sure that Black people have equal rights, and are not afraid in their own homes or on the street, or every time they get stopped by the police.

So I feel like a lot of the issue with that WOP compilation I described is not only that it was all white people twerking to a Black song, but also whoever made that compilation, it not even occurring to them, “First of all, who made this song? Who should I be featuring in this compilation? Maybe there’s something really fucked up about it only being white people in this compilation. And what is the meaning of it only being white people in front of their fancy houses in this compilation during a deadly pandemic that’s disproportionately killing Black people, at the same time there are monumental protests over police violence?” Protests that none of these people, at least on the face of it, appear to be engaged in or participating in at all — and are making TikTok videos instead. At least on the surface, who knows what they’re actually up to.

That kind of disconnect of like, I’m just gonna enjoy and reap the benefits of this culture, without giving anything back to it, or caring what happens to the people who made it.

Evette: Absolutely. That is the concern. It is also a matter of algorithms prioritizing white people. TikTok’s algorithm has been called out for the way in which it silences particular kinds of people. For a while, it was people with disabilities — the algorithm purposefully overlooked people with disabilities. It’s the algorithm that also makes it seem as if the people creating the most popular dances to songs are the people at the forefront of a platform — white people.

That is when it becomes an issue, something that I think needs to be addressed on a tech level. But individually, it’s things like, if you’re creating a compilation to a Black song, saying, I am going to prioritize majority people of color. It’s like, reading the room. It’s simple reading the room.

Rachel: Definitely. So, I’ve been wanting to talk with you more about Beyoncé for years. I loved your writing on her and she has had a very big influence on my psyche. Something I’ve wondered is like, okay, first of all, is it cool if we have that conversation about Beyoncé? And if you’re saying don’t engage in that conversation at all, should I just leave my own experience out of it? Like, should I not be writing or talking about that?

Evette: That’s a good question. First of all, I’m always down to talk about Beyoncé!

In terms of the relationship that white folks have with Beyoncé, it exists in this really strange place. I can recall when Beyoncé was starting on this very public journey of figuring out whether or not she had a place in a feminist movement and white folks just being wholly resistant to that, like writing about the fact that she was too racy and that no, there was no place for her, that she should leave the feminism to people who are serious about it rather than toying around with it.

And I think in response to that, we got Lemonade. I love that she seemingly understood that Black women have always existed in the place of feminism where we have to forge our own way and that she was inheriting that lineage. So it’s always a strange place with white folks and Beyoncé.

But at the same time, you can’t talk about tennis without talking about the way Serena Williams has shaped it. That’s an impossible feat. And so I think that there’s a way to have that conversation about the ways that Beyoncé has influenced your life and your work without delving into the very cultural specificities of what she has done.

It’s a fine balance, but it can be done.

Rachel: Okay. So keeping it to the personal, rather than cultural commentary, is what you’re saying. That makes a lot of sense.

Evette: Yeah. Because what I often see is that when white folks step into that conversation about Beyoncé, for example, they misread so much.

As she’s progressed in her career, she has become very explicitly Blacker and Blacker. And there are going to be things that get lost in translation in a song like “Formation,” because she’s becoming more tuned into who her true audience is. It was actually very emotional for me, as someone who graduated from an HBCU, to see her turn Coachella into a homecoming celebration. That’s a very clear, pointed thing, the intricate details of it. That level of specificity is not accidental. And I think that she is creating, in some respect, some boundaries around who her art is for. And it is up to all of those who are consuming it to respect that.

But people think her music is universal, and that they know her. One of the things that Beyoncé has mastered as a part of her star image is that people, myself included, feel as if they know her. So when she releases a project, there is so much that is put on that project and projected onto it. When I heard Lemonade, I was like, you know what, this is what I get out of this: men are always going to disappoint you. That’s where I landed because that’s where I was at in my own situation. I was like, I can read into all of this, I know exactly what’s going on here. But in actuality, we don’t know.

But it’s comforting to feel like, yes, that’s exactly what she’s saying. And therefore it applies to my life.

Rachel: Yeah, so much projection. Wow. That’s so funny how we were each hearing what we needed to hear, or wanted to hear, based on where we were on our path. You know, there was something I really admired and projected onto her willingness to put her pain and perfection on display in Lemonade. And her ability to put her husband in a position of, I’m gonna make a whole album about this and you have to even be featured in it.

It was like, wow, what is more powerful than that? Because I’d already started thinking about maybe writing a book one day about my journey with non-monogamy —but not knowing how it was going to end, whether or Adam and I would stay together — that I was like, I’m going to model after her example as an artist. This is my own epic story. And who else but Adam would let me make art out of all this drama?

But of course, that album was much more for you than for me. And again, circling back, there needs to be an awareness of that. I guess what I’m getting from this conversation is it’s okay for me to have a serious attachment to and relationship that’s ongoing with my projection of Beyoncé, but I also have to continue to understand — and think about and read about — how her music isn’t being created specifically for me. And what I’m projecting is probably even more likely to be misguided because of it.

Evette: Yeah. I would say that. But that is so often the beauty of music— that it does cross boundaries. And by boundaries, I mean, racial boundaries. That is part of the beauty of it. But I think the danger that we find ourselves in is thinking that Black music really is universal, that really does have meta-commentary for anybody who wants to read into it. I don’t think that’s the case necessarily at all.

With Beyoncé, for example, she has been very stark and clear about, like, I center Black women in my work. I just do, I’m going to center these goddesses from our ancestral past. I am going to center younger Black women who are up here all throughout Lemonade. You got to see me and other Black women walking on water. You’re going to see me and Black women from other cultures outside of Black American culture performing and creating music together. You are going to see me dressed in an aesthetic inspired by the Black Panthers. I’m going to create this album that’s about Black women healing themselves.

And so that level of specificity can’t be overlooked or missed. It’s intentional. And I think we have to respect the intention. Not to say that everyone can’t listen to it. But there is also a specificity embedded in Beyoncé’s and other Black artists’ music that is for a specific group of people. And we shouldn’t overlook that or dismiss it.

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rachel krantz
Momentum

Award-winning journalist & author of reported memoir OPEN, Host of HELP EXISTING podcast, Twitter & IG @rachelkrantz. www.racheljkrantz.com