A few years ago, a friend of mine showed me "The Color of Fear," a documentary released in 1994 structured as a round-table discussion about race relations in America. Along with Chinese-American director Lee Mun Wah, the discussion included two African-American men, two Mexican-American men, two Asian-Americans, and two Caucasians. Initially, the exchange goes as expected, with the participants of color describing regular racial struggles they face such as the Japanese-American man sharing his frustration with constantly being mistaken for the last Asian person someone met or a black man addressing the insecurity he felt as he drove through the American South. As a person of color witnessing this conversation, nothing was a real surprise to me. Driving anywhere south of Northern Virginia feels like a wicked time portal and I also have to admit that when I was younger and less sensitive to these issues, I joked that "Asians all look alike."
Amid all of these personal accounts of marginalization and discrimination, a white participant in the round table goes for the "just pull yourself up by your bootstraps" card, claiming that life wasn't really that difficult if you didn't psych yourself into believing that race held you back from grabbing certain opportunities.
This film is more than 20 years old, though this is pretty much how conversations about race still end up and how people of color are expected to deal with it: Take your oppression with a smile because the instant you speak out against it, you're seen as crazy or perceived as desperately reaching. Living in this skin, dealing with the multigenerational layers of trauma that come with it, and being shrugged off as if the issue is in your head is an insult of the highest order.
The kind of white obliviousness seen in "The Color of Fear" played out in the Baltimore music scene recently following the publication of Jana Hunter's article, "White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene," for Pitchfork which explored how white privilege affected the structure of Baltimore's DIY music scene. The piece was praised but locally it was met with plenty of frustration from white members of the scene who took issue with the article and Hunter's bold, mindful assertions. "Increasingly, I saw my life here as parasitic," Hunter writes. "I find the rent to be cheap here because I am white in an oppressed black city. The feelings of lawlessness and freedom exist for me because I am white in an oppressed black city."
A focal point of that article was Baltimore club-bending rapper, Abdu Ali, a friend of mine and a collaborator on local parties and shows. Ali spoke about what it meant to be a black artist in town and what opportunities he felt he was not receiving because of that. "Baltimore musicians of color don't really make it here," he says. Like the white guy in "The Color of Fear," Hunter's piece and Ali's quotes were dismissed as "complaining" or worse, which had the affect of proving Hunter's point: Too often, white Baltimore is blissfully unaware of how it benefits from white supremacy and won't accept it no matter how cogently and sensitively the information is presented.
In his new book, "Between The World And Me," Baltimore-bred author Ta-Nehisi Coates describes people like this as The Dreamers: people who refuse to accept their privilege and the source of it—calculated oppression of darker people around the world. Such people, out of frustration, aim to make oppressed people appear delusional when the reverse is true. Baltimore is run by the dreamers, especially the music scene. Hearing older black people from the city talk about the fun they had at Choices, Odell's, Godfrey's, and even back to places like the Sphinx Club on Pennsylvania Avenue brings a sense of pride and joy, but it is simultaneously very sad. These places where black people and other people of color could congregate are virtually nonexistent in Baltimore today—especially ones that are centrally located and easily accessible to most. From throwing shows and even just attending them, I've noticed that when young black people do come together in central areas, it's typically met with some resistance by law enforcement and/or neighborhood residents. The sight of black youth in mass is sadly threatening to a lot of people, yet these shows rarely have any violence or major disruption to the natural order of things.
The contrast in this city is laughable. The punk shows and parties given by predominantly white art-school kids with drugs, noise, and mass groups of people everywhere either go uninterrupted or when they are shut down, it's usually with the same force as a mother making her child to go to bed. I also noticed this disconnect as a Charles Village resident for nearly two years. Living next to Hopkins frat boys who blasted Top 40 music through the night (usually every night) while they sat on their porch, drank themselves to the point of needing ambulance assistance, and walked over to Wyman Park to pass around spliffs, I experienced something completely foreign to me: a neighborhood with police around to actually protect and give people the benefit of the doubt. This was something I didn't experience growing up in East Baltimore. Well into their 20s, whites are allowed to be "just kids" while blacks of the same age and younger cannot throw a rap show and smoke blunts without being intruded on.
Speaking out against discrimination is not pleasurable. Stressing that black lives matter, while unifying, is a dark reality that we have to deal with and a tiring one; even slain lions get more sympathy than our victims. Thankfully, the days of being quiet seem to be over now that the majority of American people have access to voice their concerns online, contributing further to social-justice awareness. Hunter and Ali's comments started a local conversation that isn't going to stop. In an attempt to keep that conversation going I reached out to local musicians of color who want to be heard and have their realities valued about their experiences in the Baltimore music scene. (Lawrence Burney)
TT The Artist
Let me speak quiet, let me be polite, let me ask for just enough and not expect too much.
Let me make contributions to my community, but withhold all the necessary resources
Let me educate the youth about art, passion, and culture, but limit the plateaus of their future
Let me advocate for a change, but leave me voiceless
I am a brown face
Although I try to defy the stereotypes
I can't erase this color line
Should I instead act color-blind?
Cultural appropriation ain't nothing new so tell me what's a colored mind supposed to do?
To even address the notion of "racial equality" seems almost dangerous to me as an African-American, female artist. The concept numbs me because I am muted by the obvious disparity of the playing field. While these discussions are definitely a lot of pressure, stated bluntly, I believe that decision makers and people who have the power to catapult or oppress an artist usually don't want to affiliate themselves with a "black" conscious mind—but rather something they can sell or market without fear of Locard's principle of exchange to smudge their image, profit, or brand.
I pride myself on being a mover and shaker of the Baltimore music scene. But as my career in the music industry grows, I am able to go from national to international travel. Music and art have taken me places and allowed for new experiences that I am beyond blessed for; however, there is a distinct racial barrier that seems to be omnipresent. A female artist's first encounter with others in the industry usually leads to questions like, "What does she look like? Which magazines has she been in? How much cosmetic work has she had?" I've actually had people tell me that they wouldn't invest in me because they simply weren't attracted to me. That's jaded. I remember being at a panel discussion about four or five months ago and I asked the question, "Why is it that we don't have an acceptance of black female artists as is? Why don't we have a broader spectrum of what's acceptable for our look, our sound?" But the biggest questions are perhaps: What makes a person THE authority on what other artists should be (or what art should be, for that reason)? And why can't we as black women have the opportunity to be ourselves without having to make a valid point or be conscientious? The racial disparity of the music industry lives there. It lives in that place where often times women are muted but men are not.
Now, without quite writing a dissertation on "equality in the music industry," I want to touch on a slightly different point: Beyond being black, being a woman in the music industry (also known as the modern-day boys' club) poses its own challenges. Each of these battles I face the same way. I spend my energy on discovering new ways to progress in my field with a few key understandings: 1) I have to work extra hard to be seen, heard, and taken seriously within my field because of the preconceived ideas of who I may be due to the color of my skin; 2) I operate as an emotionless machine. Emotionless, because you can't wear your heart on your sleeve in a room full of vultures; and 3) I do not let the negativity of others oppress my passion for art. These concepts may be the basis for people calling me "crazy" to expect more, but I feel as if I deserve more. I struggle and indeed fight to find opportunities and spaces where I can merge my ideas with the community which I reflect—to move the culture forward. I am an advocate of both art and other artists. I believe it takes a village of people with that same attitude to yield real change but again: Cultural appropriation ain't nothing new so tell me what's a colored mind supposed to do?
"I'm not going there, that place is white."
"I'm not going there, that part of town is racist."
"They don't want black people in there."
These are just some of the statements I've heard over the past five years as I've become a new musical entity in Baltimore. They are stark contrasts to my own consumer experiences here: attending the Taxlo parties of the 2000s curated by Cullen Stalin and Simon Phoenix; going to the Ottobar every other week for a party or show; hitting up Fells Point or Federal Hill—white neighborhoods with residents such as Michael Phelps or Jenna Bush—to bar hop. I never once considered any of these parts of town racist, culturally dismissive, or just vultures of appropriation.
As a producer of things? I have encountered the programming and attendance issues, accusations of mistreatment, discrimination, and a litany of other cries from black artists, journalists, and consumers like the ones I quoted above. The flipside is that I've never personally had any of these issues as a DJ. I have performed in almost every venue in the city to a wide array of lifestyles and party formats. I have never said I'm not going to that part of town, or there's no black people there. I try to bring them with me. I try to bring white people to black neighborhoods too. Because that's Dr. King's dream, right?
However, I'm not a fool. We still have a lot of work to do. There are wide discrepancies between what we, as young black entertainment entrepreneurs, are allowed to do in contrast to our white counterparts. There are no black-owned venues on par with the professional stages that exist such as Rams Head or Baltimore Soundstage. We don't even have spaces such as The Crown or the recently closed Club K, spaces which are extremely diverse in terms of their programming but are owned by Koreans.
Sadly, it seems like as long as someone is making money from black people, that's fine and dandy, but if we attempt to operate on the same level, then it appears to be an issue.
From my experience and perspective, racial inequality is definitely real in the music scene in a lot of places. Not just for artists but even for people who attend shows and just want have a good time. As an artist, I've been denied booking shows at certain venues because it seemed too "urban" to them many times. I've had money up-front for them and they still deny me. That's a bad look business-wise and that affects the scene because artists like me, of color that throw shows, barely have any dope venues that hold a bunch of people to let the new wave of artists shine.
In my early days of DJing at nightclubs, I played at spots where I would have the crowd dancing heavy to versatile music, and the people who worked at the spots would tell me that I "couldn't play that type of music" as soon as a hip-hop song came on. I feel that if it's the owners' objective for people to have a good time at a club, why pull something like that, and make it seem racial? That's weak.
Aside from booking shows, producing, and DJing, I like to attend shows. Usually, I don't have any problems, but recently I was a victim of racial profiling at the entrance of a concert out of town. I had on a backpack with only a binder, phone chargers, and my camera grip in it. To make a long story short, multiple security guards sweated me heavy about it. They brought their dog, then lied about it detecting drugs on me, when the dog wasn't paying me any mind when they brought it over. They kept saying they weren't going to let me in with my bag. I had to get rid of my backpack, but there were other people inside with backpacks that were white.
How can you enjoy yourself when you're a victim of racial profiling at a show? How can we as artists be successful in a scene where our opportunities are limited because of our skin tone and because of the people in power? From my experience, music is universal; it transcends racial boundaries. Therefore, let our (the club owners, DJs, musicians, performers, partygoers, etc. . . . ) objective be to have fun and get this money!
Eva Moolchan of Sneaks
My first performance in Baltimore was held in my home.
I was honestly not thrilled about hosting my big debut in my living room, but it was an idea that had rapidly come to fruition, so I decided to go with it even though it seemed completely ridiculous.
I was ambitious and obsessive, so I invited everyone and was constantly trying to imagine how our little fiesta would turn out. For that evening, our house was named Pizza Hut and was in no way fit to contain more than a handful of individuals. That night, our living room was packed. Due to the noise we generated, the police attempted to shut it down but we swiftly carried on to the next performance. My roommate Dj QIERA played a slick set, as did Baltimore noise group Fogo De Chão. We were all fired up and the night seemed full of possibilities.
As musician who is a woman of color, your exposure can be limited so it is crucial not to limit yourself. As the artist Babe Field put it, "You have to be twice as good to have half as much." I realized that you have to build a platform for yourself when you are not handed one.
Within the same month, I attended my first show at the Bell Foundry. I distinctly remember walking in and just being overwhelmed by the general camaraderie coming from everyone. These creative individuals were far more open and accepting than I ever anticipated. It felt like a huge family. All the bands on the bill were different, varying from "lightning synth rock" to "speedy hip-hop." Nonetheless, they complemented each other's unique voice. Most of my favorite Baltimore acts go unpublicized and, while that holds a cult value, it does not serve us to be hidden.
For the greater good of the Baltimore music scene, we will have to learn to integrate more varying performances. Those will be the best shows when you are exposed to something special!
Spike Arreaga of Natural Velvet
Something I've noticed in the arts and music community in Baltimore is that whenever a black-centric event happens in my neighborhood (Station North) it feels like it's always coddled by at least some extension of the white community, and that there's a clear, almost darkly comical separation of events even if they're happening next door to each other: I play a show, I go home where I can sleep, I've felt very little friction at this very safe and comfortable show; I wake up and a black trans prostitute has been murdered two blocks from the venue I just played. It's surreal and it's tragic.
As a Latino in such a racially diverse yet heavily abrasive environment I feel the desire as well as pressure to perform as an artist to meet certain expectations, like there's a gap I need to fill for the community as much as for myself. I rarely see Latin@ performers around Baltimore, and have never experienced any events in my neighborhood, Station North, as well as anywhere else in Baltimore, that were Latin-centric. Coming from San Antonio, where I grew up most of my life, Mexican culture has permeated many areas as well as families, Mexican or not. So obviously it felt disruptive to my previous mindset when I moved here, not that I expected to find anything similar easily. The gap I find between myself and who I think I could be, or who I think others want me to be, is a crevasse that I want to constantly be filling with what I deem as "good work," i.e., speaking out for other people of color, especially Latin@s, that should be able to be noticed and have a hand in the makeup of the arts community here. If I want people to know that, yeah, sometimes I get called a racial slur on the street that doesn't pertain to my actual race and it feels weird and I go home and it feels even weirder and then I wake up feeling even more weird, I think I should be able to express that and have contemporaries that can understand that feeling. But I don't always find them in the venues I perform in, and at the end of the day I start telling myself, "you are fine, get over it." It scares me that even I won't always give myself the space to speak.
Essentially, I'd like any person to be allowed to leave a footprint behind of the work done before and after I exist. I don't feel like I've been active enough to fill that crevasse mentioned earlier, and sometimes I do feel guilty. But should I feel guilty for not meeting a quota for an audience that doesn't even care that I'm here? This weight can be exhausting on me and some of my contemporaries—the feeling that no matter what you are performing, if there's no dialogue with your audience and no conversation being desired by one or both parties (my own included) then there's already a gruesome disconnect that'll only lead to dissatisfaction and a struggle. Sometimes that struggle is what you need to move and keep working, but then the work becomes the struggle itself and you lose sight of the source—the thing you meant to say at the very beginning of your work. Like all organic human things, art thrives off the friction its environment creates, and I do appreciate that I have a constant flux of energy, whether it be dark or bright, to edge me on, but it's at a cost of my and other people with similar struggles' well-being, comfort, and, at times, friendship.
In July 2014 I attended Ratscape at Hour Haus. I had seen it being promoted for a while by a lot of Llamadon's members/supporters. Llamadon throws a lot of shows and gives many local musicians a platform to showcase themselves that they may have not had otherwise, and I respect that. Maybe a month or two before this I had a brief convo with the leader of Llamadon, Dylijens. The main topic was how he wanted to merge Baltimore's rap and punk-rock music scenes because they are so much alike but are divided. It seemed like a big deal and I support the cause so I didn't want to miss out. I told some of my friends about it and they met me there. When I walked up on the venue at about 11 p.m. there were loads of people standing outside. I thought I may have missed the show even though I knew it didn't end until 2 or 3 a.m. I walked through the crowd, entered the building which immediately greets you with a flight of stairs, and paid the admission at the top.
I finally got inside and I noticed there were more people standing outside than in the venue. There was a band playing their hearts out to about 15-20 people when there should've been way more. It was also hot as hell in there so I thought maybe that may have been the case. I too eventually went outside to get some air and sit with some homies. We all went back in 20 minutes later and realized a trend. When the rappers played, a lot of the black patrons watched and the white patrons went outside and when the bands played, whites were inside and the blacks were outside. Of course this wasn't 100 percent accurate, there were exceptions, I'm talking majority here. That was kind of disheartening, thinking back to the whole point of the show in the first place.
I don't have a lot of experience dealing with Baltimore promoters who throw shows so I couldn't tell you how much harder it is for black artists to get spots. What I can tell you is that my experience at Hour Haus and many other experiences I've had in my life show that we separate ourselves a lot even in situations where we can intermingle and better learn about each other. Be it enjoying each other's music at a show, or eating with each other at lunch, or sitting together on the bus. We don't know each other and really don't care to want to know. I feel once people realize how alike we are, connect, and accept, a lot of bullshit would cease to exist. Unfortunately I think it's so simple, it's rocket science: Bottom line is we're comfortable. Get uncomfortable.
Flashback to 2004. The Baltimore City hip-hop scene was beginning to see the rise of its first real local stars in Bossman and MullyMan. Paula Campbell ran 92Q, and every rapper from Park Heights to Brooklyn wanted a Rod Lee beat. The underground rap scene, though not fully developed, had managed to begin to prove useful in developing talent by throwing several series' of battles and performance tournaments. The hip-hop scene was mostly African-American with the exception of a few heads from South Baltimore and Dundalk. We really didn't dabble in the alt-rock or DIY scene. Shit, I couldn't tell you who was hot at that time. Things were just segregated like that, not necessarily due to prejudice, but because Baltimore is a "mind your business" kind of town. I did my time in the battle circuit for a few years, ran with a few crews, even built a little name, but I still wasn't considered top tier. My relationship with the hip-hop community became strained when I did that battle at Red Maple against A-Class in 2010. It's something I go from loving to regretting almost every day. The black artists in the hip-hop community all but shunned me after I came out. I got bottles thrown at me in clubs and even had a few dudes in vehicles ride up on me.
It wasn't until I met Adam Schwarz, a Jewish kid from Missouri who moved to Baltimore, that I fell back in love with performing. He started getting me shows in what's now called the DIY scene. At that time I was probably the only African-American act booking in that scene. The audiences were mostly white, but more importantly they were supportive and they PAID for a good show. As a battle rapper from 21215, it was a culture shock at first, but those MICA kids and hipsters became my core base and eventually some of my best friends. It was in that scene I developed true stage technique and learned how to control crowds. For the most part I never encountered animosity in the venues in Station North. Sure, it's certain people that rub me the wrong way, but I attribute that to personality clashes more than race. Over time I've mended fences with the older guard in the hip-hop scene, while seeing several artists of color become major names in the DIY circuit. In my time as an artist in Baltimore, from beefs to battles, I've found that the biggest challenge most artists face here is communication. The young feel like they've created a scene that existed before them, while the vets face a constant fear of being forgotten.
Sienna Cureton-Mahoney of Wet Brain
Wet Brain has been one of the best outlets I've had for pent-up aggression in years. As an 18-year-old black lady who loved punk music, I was really excited to be moving away from Connecticut, where I grew up drinking 40s in the woods and listening to riot grrrl bands, mostly by myself, to a city with such a crazy art and music scene. I've been living here for eight years now and the fact that I'm able to sing and play bass in a band of women that unapologetically makes music based on our experiences combating gender biases and talking publicly about our sexuality is one of the best and most empowering parts of me having moved.
The past eight years have also opened my eyes to the amount of segregation that takes place within the music scene. I still go to punk shows where I am one of the few, if not only, black women in an entire crowd. Especially when I first moved I noticed that people would ask me at shows who I was "there with" or where I was coming from all the time, as if I had been unknowingly escorted to the venue. I got these kinds of questions all the time, while my white male friends' identity connections to the scene were never questioned merely because of how they looked. It was uncomfortable but I liked the music and refused to have anyone make me feel as though I shouldn't or couldn't be a part of something I like. I wanted to be in a band because I needed a platform to be abrasive about my dissatisfaction with social injustice, but also because I want to support and be associated with all of the other people of color who refuse to be pigeonholed into making more "mainstreamed" music for the masses. I've felt a strong connection with the feminist punk movement that is going on that embraces and shows more respect for women with recent shows and festivals, and have grown to know a lot of incredibly forward-thinking people that I'm proud to be surrounded by. However, because I am part of a music scene that is wildly segregated even in shows that are predominately lady-fronted, I am often still having conversations and playing shows with white men and women at venues with majority-white audiences.
The dialogue that prevails that I'm confronted with in these instances are singularly from a white person's perspective and I'm asked questions about race as if I'm the authority on being black and female literally because sometimes there's not a lot of or any other black women around. I think that in order to create a more progressive musical movement, diversifying and not tokenizing people of color in the scene (which can mean having shows that are not all singularly one genre of music or one group of people at almost EVERY SINGLE show) could help us all to broaden our idea of what punk is and who should be making it.
Last week, we finished up the yard sale. Butch Dawson, :3lON, and I leave for Los Angeles in three days. I think we made close to $100 combined. It isn't much, but added to show and hustle money from the past couple of weeks. I think we should have enough bread to rent a van when we're out there.
It's been a long time coming for us to band together our little bits of income to make this tour happen. There's a lot of nervous mixed with excited. However, the uncertainty of our music careers is an uneasy feeling we're starting to become accustomed to.
We see our careers as a risk. When it comes to artists of color, all the people in power are looking at us as a liability. You have to prove that you're not going to be what they expect—a disaster. You're working two times harder and it's going to benefit you two times less than the next artist.
"We don't do hip-hop, but if you pay us, we'll consider."
"His music is too street for this show."
"Can you play less black music?"
"You can play EDM. Not rap. We don't want people to think it's that kind of party."
These are all things I have heard from organizers when booking or DJing in the past few years around Baltimore. This shit is discouraging. As frustrating as it is, I'm still working to find my voice in all of this.
I would say the Baltimore hip-hop scene has developed a DIY approach to organizing strictly out of necessity. The resources aren't there. We do everything ourselves. Many of these white folks that hold major booking power at venues in the city fail to acknowledge that the Baltimore rap scene runs off literally no funding. I can't remember the last time we had a sponsored event. Everyone is always coming out of pocket. It's difficult to find anyone who wants to sponsor an event with young black artists involved.
I feel that this struggle has brought us closer together as musicians. But tensions are high. You can't hold people down forever. It's easy to feel like you're running on a treadmill. I watch bands like Future Islands, Sun Club, and Lower Dens play stages that a black artist in Baltimore is only allowed to dream about.
White-dominated indie music in Baltimore already has a platform for talented young artists in the art scene to be lead onto a national level. The movement of young black artists in this city is working so hard to build that infrastructure from scratch right now. We don't know what the future holds. It feels like we're attempting the impossible. I wouldn't wanna work towards that with any other community.
I don't know the answers. But if I've learned one thing from Llamadon, it's better if we work together.
Afia Lydia of DaikonDaikon
On May 30 I went to a punk show in Philly. It was there that I witnessed an assault on one of the only other persons of color in attendance. He had been repeatedly punched in the face by a small girl who "felt threatened" by his presence. She bloodied his nose and went on her way, first refusing to acknowledge that her actions were unfounded, and then denying the attack ever happened. The bloodied boy was the roommate of one of the performers on stage, a staple in his community and fellow musician. He looked to his peers for outrage, solidarity, something—but his gaze fell upon dead eyes. Instead they looked on, embarrassed, or oblivious to what happened. No one seemed to mind that their haven had been breached. Safe space, made conditional. After a few minutes he gathered himself and slinked away. That scene stays with me, and it's not necessarily the assault that lingers. To be marginalized in such a way by the community you hold dear can be devastating.
Part of me really wants to say that would never happen in Baltimore. That we live in a place that prides itself on safe spaces and inclusivity. And more often than not, we do. With institutions like Ratscape, Kahlon, and the ever-growing expanse of DIY spaces, venues, and cooperatives it's hard not to see that the cultural nuance that once divided our city and scene is now the very thing striving to bring us together. But even knowing that, I find, as a black woman pursuing a career in a field dominated by white men with inherently more resources, Baltimore can be a place in which I sometimes feel like an unintentional intruder. A dinner guest invited on a whim, entertained for a moment, and expected to show themselves out once the novelty fades.
Al Rogers Jr.
I can't quite speak on whether or not my race is the reason I am not as known as an act like Future Islands. The divide hasn't affected me like it may have my peers, not yet at least. Although I know it does exist. I have a personal bond built with my supporters in Baltimore so I try not to let the outside agenda affect what I've built. The Swooz is strong and I stand by my word when I say it is color-blind. As a black man I see discrimination every day and I'm no stranger to speaking on topics of injustice in my music so if I am ever faced with the racial separation I'll be ready and I'll know how to deal with it accordingly. I guess what I'm trying to say is good music is good music whether it's made from black, white, red, brown, or yellow hands, so it will be heard—no force but God can stop that.