It was the first ever music device and I held my IPod nano proudly. It was 2007, I was 15 and I had just immigrated to the UK, the year was 2001.
I was heading home and I can distinctly remember blaring out Bryan Adams and his soft rock music (the song I cannot remember).
In this moment one of my friends on the bus turned around and enquired as to what I was listening to. In a hesitant manner I handed my headphones over to him, his instant reaction was to blurt out the quotation above. I was instantly embarrassed, social suicide and I saw it coming!
Later that day I was more perplexed than anything. The thing is I just found this form of music to have the similar kind of sounds I grew up listening to in Pakistan during my childhood. Nevertheless I knew this reaction was coming, I just didn’t expect to be caught red-handed! Little did I realise that this cultural tendency in the UK of equating rock music exclusively as a ‘white people thing’ by all people of color was one I was to experience constantly in the coming years.
Surely me listening to the rock genre is not me attempting to be white? (Note that the ‘louder’the rock music gets the ‘whiter’its association becomes)
Research into the history of south-Asia and its contributions to music, whilst giving much thought to the genre’s practiced by break-through Pakistani artist and I was able to realise this myth is pretty nonsensical.
The issue began the moment rock music and its trajectory started to ignore non-western influences while the dilemma only further intensified when the westernisation and appropriation of rock music as a purely ‘white thing’ led to the strengthening of internalised racist assumptions by people of colour. For me they both play hand-in-hand.
Nevertheless for this initial piece it would be satisfactory to focus on the root problem, to challenge this notion and then attend to possible solutions. So let’s begin with the history.
The History of stringed instrument,
The earliest example of a stringed instrument originates from the Egyptian period where the first plucked string instrument to be found was a bow shaped harp. In years to follow a necked instrument was developed with precise marked frets (those raised lines on the neck of the guitar).
It was here that many of the features and characteristics developed in these instruments that were to the precursor of not only the modern day guitar but also but of all necked stringed instruments.
For instance the oldest guitar-styled instrument to be found is 3500 years old and belonged an Egyptian singer by the name of Har-Mose and not descended upon the hands of Elvis by God magically during the 50’s.
The term ‘Guitar’,
Specific to South-Asia the name ‘Guitar’ itself derives from ancient Sanskrit for ‘strings’ which translates into ‘tar’. Sanskrit being the ancient language that originates from India and is considered one of the oldest languages in the world. To this day many stringed folk instruments are in use in central Asia without many significant changes being made to them. The indian sitar, was itself an innovation for its time as it was developed comprehensively by Indians due to the inspiration they took from the Persian culture and their setar. Many instruments that have the name that end in “tar”, is a prefix that signifies how many strings it has: dotar has two, setar has three, chartar with four, panchtar with five, and so on.
Some narratives I came across online totally ignore the contributions made by South-Asian and African cultures towards these stringed instruments. Often times most of these source credit the Spanish for the modern day guitar. I do not question their contribution, however I do feel it is slightly ignorant to undermine all else.
Everything detailed above illustrates that rock music is quite universal at its most fundamental level. So someone remind me why is rock music considered ‘white’ when its origins are firmly engrained in cultures that are not located within the western hemisphere?
The modern day-dilemma,
The issue begins with the whitening and westernisation of rock music by mainstream outlets. The genre has been appropriated systemically. Rock’s western origins begin with black artist such as Ike Turner with Rocket 88 in 1951 to Little Richard and Jimmy Preston with ‘Hucklebuck Daddy’ in 1949. But if you are not an avid rock historian little will you know of these figures.
The modern-day transitional ‘whitening’ and westernisation of the genre is evident today in a variety of forms. An example of this is ‘The Top’lists on a variety of online music and rock platforms. On Planet Rock ‘where rock lives’their greatest ever rock song’list consist firstly only of western rock bands or artist. The only person of colour to be found within the list is Jimi Hendrix with no attention being given to international rock artist such as Junoon or Carlos Santana.
The implicit consequence of this is that the plastering of white figures such as The Beattles, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin for rock music creates a culture mutually synonymous with white culture. A culture which then is also specific to a certain social class.
A culture which then presented to a person of colour seems alien to their experiences. Rock music is now perceived as a manifestation for one specific group rather than a universal manifestation. As any form of music should rightly be so.This is problematic in every sense of the word.
The fact that a specific group within the population is made synonymous with a genre of music means preconceptions are further emboldened while the inability to question why things are such a way is strengthened, ultimately leading to ignorance. Racism in the musical field is internalised into white people as they feel it is ‘their’ music and no one else’s. Moreover the damage that this union enforces onto people of colour is that their racist internalised assumptions are further emboldened.
It can be questioned that a variety of other issues present more hazardous forms of racism then just the issue over rock music and its white affiliation, this is not the case as was illustrated in a study undertaken in 2012.
In a study undertaken at Ohio State University, 148 white undergraduate students were asked to fund student groups on their campus using tuition funds. While waiting for the study to begin students were placed in waiting rooms where music played in the background. During all this period they were not allowed any access to any other forms of media (phones, I-pods and even books). Thereafter mainstream rock consisting of Bruce Springsteen and White Stripes was played for 7 minutes while the students waited. The findings illustrated that those who listened to rock music in the waiting area allocated 35% of their funds to white-American students. The findings were so apparent that the lead of the study went onto further state that,
“Rock music is generally associated with white Americans, so we believe it cues white listeners to think about their positive association with their own in-group,”
While I agree with the conclusion for the study I tend to interpret it specific to my own experiences. For if understood in a broader context such an analysis of rock music underlines that while superficially it may seem not much can be derived from this area, it becomes apparent from an analysis that this cultural union of rock music with whiteness not only enforces racist attitudes but keeps it them in place not only in music but in society, for both white students and people of colour.
How to change it?
The question that is presented after this analysis is how to tackle this western perception of rock music as a means of expression with for a singular group rather than a universal expression.
To this end I have no concrete answer. Perhaps the tides may change and opinions may alter if one coloured rock artist makes it ‘big’. I personally do not wish to rely on another or wait that long.
Maybe a mass education platform would do the trick, who knows it has been tried out. The avenues are endless and I merely hope to be able to start dialogue over this ever-present issue through my own personal experiences.
For me the issue lies primarily in the lack of questioning of cultures that we practice or adopt and also socialisation. While we are not conscious creators of every culture that we partake and are affected by, I merely hope that you the reader is now able recognise that culture was imposed upon us at birth. I was born into a culture and in most instances I did not have the courage to question some of the practices of my culture. Neither was I courageous enough to question the socialisation I partook when immigrating to the UK. Only when I questioned the culture before me did I realise that such attitudes perpetuated internal racist beliefs and assumptions which merely bracketed my own opportunities in life. So I urge you my dear reader to question, question all that is placed before you for you may find it to your benefit.
Brown people can rock,
In further attention my own experiences (now comes the fun part) the earliest and most outstanding practice of this genre to my ears was by Junoon. Designated by New York Times as the ‘U2 of Pakistan’ Junoon rocked harder than anyone I ever saw and it was their music that inspired me to do this piece, so here is an video of them performing in Central Park, New York.
(Please add following youtube link:
Now after watching that remind me who told you brown people can’t rock too? It’s part of who we are…