Racism and the alternative genre

Olivia Fletcher 29 October 2015

My first gig was one which featured all the nerves of a first gig. I am a perpetual worrier by nature, and the idea of seeing one of my favourite bands – in the flesh – was a thought which both thrilled and terrified me. There was the prospect of being eaten alive in a mosh pit or being noticed by the lead singer, and the wonder of exactly what I was going to wear; all of which kept me awake for many hours the day before it all be happened, for real. The latter point, wondering what I was going to wear, was something simple yet complex. I knew what I was going to wear. I simply had to accessorize my ultimate accessory: my headscarf. Usually, I didn't think twice about wrapping this fabric around my head, but the idea of going to a gig and being around fans who liked the same thing as me but, were afforded certain privileges out of my reach, suddenly had me second-guessing my entire existence.

As a woman of colour and someone who is visibly Muslim, my existence is one which is inherently, and which always will be, political. The racial climate, alongside the repercussions of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the demonization of the Islamic faith within the media has left me, and countless other Muslims around the world, with a few burdens to carry. Whether it's micro-aggressions in social settings – everyone subconsciously turning to you when anything related to Islam comes up in a supervision, the large-scale damage of the Prevent strategy, or simply feeling like you can't like a band or be into films, or even the alternative genre, as authentically as our white counter-parts – our struggle is multi-faceted. It is one which, at its core, causes distress and anxiety and the desperate plea to be recognized as a person with person-like qualities just like everyone else.

But fan-spaces aren't necessarily the safest of spaces. Scrolling through any corner of the Internet, when it comes to Indie bands, is to come face-to-face with whiteness. This isn't to blame the fans of this genre, nor to stress that people of colour diversify their music tastes so that other people of colour do not feel alone. It is a fact that I've been forced to accept. The ratio of white to non-white fans was disappointing. Of course, there is also a subconscious level of racism as bands sing about stereotypically white female names, crafting lyrics to praise elements of (non-exclusively) the white body, and cast only white actors in their music videos. Paired with the progressive liberal ideologies these bands usually align themselves with, the disconnect is huge and disheartening. Essentially, it breeds fans who are unable to sympathize with a fan who may not look like them, but who may be equally enthusiastic.

I was incredibly excited when I spotted a hijabi a few years back in My Chemical Romance's #SINGItForJapan, on screen, fleetingly, in her tribute to the victims of the Japan earthquake in 2011. It was a bread-crumb, a bread-crumb which felt so significant because to me, it felt like a validation. Whilst there are intelligent representatives of the alternative genre, from Alex Caplow (Magic Man)'s anti-#alllivesmatter tweets, to The Front Bottoms' ‘Handcuffs’ providing a commentary on police brutality, these are only a mere drop in the ocean. They are small victories for the marginalised, not for every fan. There is also the inherent casual racism of fan-bases who may accept the politics of their bands, but who remain stuck on surrounding themselves with white faces, refusing to question the safety of whiteness and issues which remain the same in a non-diverse circle. They may speak on social issues, but the spotlight is safely on the ally rather than the oppressed. Worse, there is also the coded racism of fan-bases who deem themselves superior for listening to said bands rather than say, hip-hop or rap because any byproduct of black culture is uncouth. 

The unifying nature of music is one which should mean that any concert is a welcoming place. But social spaces are only as good as the people within them. When fans are singing along to a song, it is an affirmation and one can approve of so many things. Whether it is the nostalgia of a lost love or the sadness of a late night, these themes are subjective enough to hit home with most people. Listening to synths or acoustic guitars is not an exclusively white practice. The trope of the tortured artist doesn't exist simply with skinny white boys with floppy hair and bruised circles under their eyes. I think pretentiousness is something we can all afford to be, and yet the social pressure of white fan-spaces is so intimidating that one is assumed to be less involved, less knowledgable, less authentic as the rest. The alternative genre, in this sense, divorces the, arguably most alternative population, from true participation in what should be easy: the partaking of listening to music and, to some extent, the crafting of identity.