I’ve heard from my friends — an alarming number of times — that if they’re ever in need of a good laugh, they go and look at my Spotify account. It’s not even the names of the playlists, they say — it’s what’s in them.
I’ve always been known to have an eclectic taste in music, to say the least. The sight of an Indian-American kid from the Bay Area with an amateur beard listening to Jagged Edge must be jarring for anyone, but it’s apparently provided ample comedic fodder for my friends. Prompted to answer the question, “What kind of music do you listen to?” I always accompany my response with an, “It’s kind of weird, but…” or “Actually, I don’t like EDM, but instead…” It’s not a fun addition to a conversation, but one I feel is necessary to prevent an early departure from the other camp.
I watched “Straight Outta Compton” this summer. The scene in which a crowd full of white kids reciting violent, racially charged lyrics word-for-word made me think. For Black people, this music was revolutionary. For white kids, this music was just hella cool. I began to wonder if I was guilty of the same appropriation.
I love listening to R. Kelly and Chris Brown (questionable people, unquestionably great music). I can quote lyrics off the dome from Boyz II Men’s II (“On Bended Knee” is probably the best track). And I also know the unfortunate fact that Keith Sweat hosts a festival called SweatFest (dates for 2016 haven’t been announced yet). R&B, however, is just as rooted in African-American culture as is hip-hop, just as important to Black identity as is gangsta rap, but with a different intent.
Nineties R&B is more sensual than modern music, more interested in vocal range and ability than dance-friendly beats. Jazz, funk, and blues are the backbone of the style. The lyrics are often full of cheesy, on-the-nose wordplay about genitals instead of the profundity that is “I wanna be like Kanye.” It’s also very awkward when I play this kind of stuff aloud in my apartment. Is it wrong for me to like this? Am I allowed to?
There’s an inherent weirdness, I know, to the concept of an Indian kid playing Marvin Gaye aloud in his dorm room. Race and music have always been inextricably linked, and the conversation is still ongoing. But most of this conversation is about those creating the music, and not the ones listening to it.
After watching Dr. Dre say, “Aftermath” to Suge Knight’s face, and while I was staring at the credits rolling, questioning my entire Spotify profile, I tried to placate myself by saying, At least I don’t use the n-word. But that’s superficial. I realize it’s more than that — it’s recognizing and respecting what this aspect of a long-suppressed culture means, what its history is, what I’m really listening to when I listen to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. I think, at least, that I can like it. And I do.
And Mariah Carey is the best recording artist of all time.