OPINION: How White Boys Came To Play Funky Music
Statistics from Spotify show that I listen to mostly jazz and hip-hop, which is no surprise. What surprised me is that, given my taste in music, the musicians I listen to are mostly white. If I had listened to mostly pop or rock, I wouldn’t even question it, but this sighting left me with a weird feeling and even more questions.
My most listened to artist, according to the app, was Snarky Puppy. In reality, it is best described as a series of 25 members that switch depending on the song they are playing. The group is a contemporary jazz fusion group led by Michael League, a white man who studied jazz at the University of North Texas where the group began.
There’s an obvious reason I listen to them: the music they make is good. Very good. Good enough to listen to more than any other artist in my rotation, apparently. But watching one of their performances online, a comment that underneath the video has stuck with me since I saw it years ago: “You’ve never heard gentrification sound so good.”
I laughed because there was some truth to the statement, but it is now etched in my mind and I remember it every time I listen to them. It is important to note that while Snarky Puppy is made up of a very diverse group of people, it is always led by a white male playing jazz. I listen to them more than other contemporary jazz artists, even the artist I consider my favorite – Kamasi Washington, a black saxophonist. He wasn’t even ranked second, he was third.
In second place was another band adjacent to jazz, BadBadNotGood. This group is made up exclusively of white guys and a significant part of their discography consists of covers of popular hip-hop songs made by black artists. Along with that, these men have collaborated with some of the biggest names in modern hip-hop such as Ghostface Killah, Denzel Curry and Tyler, the creator.
I shut down Spotify and decided to watch a video instead and the first thing that was recommended to me was something from hip-hop producer Kenny Beats. Kenny Beats is also white and has collaborated with Zack Fox, Rico Nasty, Gucci Mane and Vince Staples and is, in my opinion, one of the best producers yet in music. He has participated in the making of many of the most popular rap albums in recent years.
From what I can see, I can explain the popularity of each of these artists individually. Snarky Puppy has a fan base of mostly music students who love the theory behind their songs and BadBadNotGood went viral after Tyler, the creator, showcased his talents. Kenny Beats has a successful YouTube series in which he brings rappers into his studio to make quick little songs, with videos regularly reaching over a million views. What I don’t understand is the schematic in play here.
Whites in black music have always been there. One of the biggest names in jazz of all time was Benny Goodman. He was known to be one of the first to have a diverse group of whites and blacks, caring only about the quality of the musician. But how did he come to decide that his ear knew what was best in a genre that he had no part in creating?
The jazz scene in the 20th century saw white conductors, such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey, have tons of success, not necessarily at the expense of black conductors. But, some kind of bias had to be there given the time. While textbooks would tell you that the greatest advancements in the genre were the result of black artists, white artists were the ones who achieved financial and critical success – a kind of success that has never been found for artists. black jazz bands.
Is it different from what we see now? How many times is Post Malone or Eminem cited as a successful hip-hop artist at the implicit expense of a black rapper? They surely worked hard to perfect their craft, just like Benny Goodman, but could it be said that they worked as hard as black contemporaries? Or did they see that there was a space that was not for them and still decided to go in?
Even today, in my relative niche of modern jazz, white musicians still infiltrate. They are not barred from entry or even supposed to avoid this space, but it is expressly not their space. They don’t own this space, it wasn’t built for them. It looks like a stranger in the house, a house built to protect and feed our own. This stranger would be at home everywhere else, but they’re still knocking on our door.