This is a re-post of a previous blog entry from 2006.
As I sit listening to pop-rock group Of Montreal, glancing around at posters and photograph collages of Green Day, The Cardigans, The Hives and my Jackson 5 album covers, I smile. The jangly guitars and heart-wrought vocals dance through my ears and fingers typing away. It’s second nature to have music accompany my writing, and nothing does me better than a guitarist, bassist and drummer riding shotgun.
10 years ago, I would have never admitted to liking rock music—let alone realizing it would be the force that would change me. Being a black male in the Chicago suburbs, admitting to liking rock was the equivalent of Jamie Kennedy’s Malibu’s Most Wanted: a subject of ridicule–if even acknowledged.
I had always loved music. As a kid, I grew up influenced by my parents’ diverse record collections. Everything from early Motown to album-oriented rock, blues, early rap and pop wafted though the house most hours of the day.
The group that first captured my heart was the Jackson 5. My parents were fans, and I had access to their 45s and LPs. I remember nights begging my dad to play their songs one more time, loving each play more than the last. That love exploded when my dad first took me to Rose Records at the age of eight. Browsing the album stacks, I found several Jackson 5 re-releases and took them home, beaming proudly.
But that affection soon changed. As kids talked about Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, I felt out of the loop with my J5 fervor. When asked what music I liked, I would mumble, “I like Dr. Dre.” It wasn’t a lie: I liked the G-Funk samples and comical videos, but like dating on the rebound, they didn’t compare to that quintessential love.
In an effort to get hip, I started watching MTV, BET and The Box, absorbing whatever was played. Some of it was good, some was bad, and some was not even worth mentioning…
In the sea of discovery, I made one connection, and it frightened me: rock. The soul-tinged howls of Chris Cornell, the wall of guitars and monstrous drumming of Stone Temple Pilots, and the wailing solos of Pearl Jam; I could not understand why I lit up when I heard them.
But nothing hit harder than Green Day. Maybe it was the teenage angst I was wrestling with, but it struck a chord that still resonates: the faux-British bleating vocals, the simple yet powerful three-chord guitars, the melodic bass in step, and the breakneck drumming of Mr. Tre Cool. I wanted to jump up and air guitar/air drum whenever their videos came on.
But the peer pressure! I was so afraid of what people would say to me, a black suburbanite, liking the very music they did. My biggest fear was of what my family would think. My brother Steve and my cousin Corey especially wouldn’t understand how I could prefer guitars to sampled beats and rhymes.
As my love for rock grew, I knew I couldn’t hide it much longer. And one day in 1996, out it came. Sitting in my grandparents’ basement, Steve, Corey and I were watching The Box when Green Day’s “Brain Stew/Jaded” video came on. As Steve normally did when Green Day came on, he imitated Billie Joe’s nasally whine (“Waooww!”) jokingly. As the second half, “Jaded,” came on, I was anxious beyond belief; I wanted nothing more than to jump up and imitate the intense guitar work. And Steve had worked my last nerve.
I told him to cut it out.
Surprised, he and Corey wondered where my outburst came from. Cornered, I admitted, finally, that I liked Green Day. All of the effort to contain my secret escaped in that moment. I braced myself for the teasing and laughing I expected to follow.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, there was surprise, apologies for making fun, and best of all, acceptance. That day, the Indiana Jones-like boulder on my shoulders crumbled. (In an interesting twist, Steve was with me at my first Green Day concert in 2004 and loved it.)
From then on, I strutted proudly in my musical likes. Unfortunately, others weren’t as liberated in their beliefs. When asked what groups I liked, I received puzzled looks when naming rock acts. “I thought you would like rap,” was a common response. More and more, I became similarly puzzled why they didn’t understand that I didn’t have to be pigeonholed because of my skin color.
As I accepted my rock fandom, I opened myself up to different sub-genres—Britpop, Swedish rock (The Cardigans), electronica, acid-jazz (Jamiroquai)—and also revisited the early influences, listening to more rap (sadly, my first CD was Crucial Conflict), R&B, pop and soul. I began going to concerts (Steve and Corey came with me to my first concert, The Cardigans), collecting posters and other merchandise, and becoming a student of past and current music. I even rekindled my love for the Jackson 5.
Becoming more open-minded to music opened me up to try different things and encounter new challenges I previously feared. It was also a great icebreaker, meeting some of my best college friends and adult friendships while connecting over our likes and dislikes. The foundation was laid by growing up in a musically inspired household, but it was forging my own path that led me to find myself.