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Let's Talk About Diversity
Posted June 17, 2016 by Nicole O'Neal
WRITTEN BY
Nicole O'Neal
ON
June 17, 2016
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I’m inviting you to join me on a topic that is uncomfortable for some, but important and necessary as we proceed forward as human beings. I’ve been having these sorts of conversations a lot more these days, which is a positive sign to me that you are all ready for this. We’re going to talk about racial diversity in the rock music community… or the often lack thereof.

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying a night of music in Fountain Square and a friend and I got into a discussion on diversity in the scene. He mentioned a popular venue, noted that he thought they always seemed to do a good job of drawing a diverse crowd, and asked if I agreed. My instant response was “NO.” Although there are the few exceptions, typically my concert-going experience has been extremely lacking in audience diversity. I’ll tell you how I know this: most of the time when I go to concerts, particularly those of rock and related genres, I’m the only person of color in the room. At best, there might be three to five of us in a given show, but for the most part I’m on my own in the sea of concertgoers. Even worse, I can probably count on my hands the number of times I’ve witnessed people of color on STAGE in these genres. And that is a serious problem.

For a little background, I grew up in a household where music was a constant companion. My parents weren’t musicians themselves, but they had a huge appreciation for it. My father’s huge record collection had everything from Motown to Madonna, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five to Fleetwood Mac. My mom is such a Garth Brooks fan that she even bought (and loved) that Garth Brooks in… the Life of Chris Gaines album. What I’m saying is, I grew up loving all kinds of music, and it never seemed abnormal. But as I grew up, I found that my classmates didn’t think that was normal. I’d often join in on conversations about music and be told, “Oh you wouldn’t like that,” or “You wouldn’t know the band,” as my peers assumed that pop and rock oriented music would be foreign to me. However, they loved to bring up the latest rap albums and ask me if I knew all the words. When my high school friends were starting bands, no one ever asked me to join, even though it was no secret that I played bass. In fact, after my first year of college, those same people would comment on how they heard I was “into music now” or that they were surprised to see me at concerts they were at. I was involved in jazz band, concert band, marching band, and pep band in high school, so why would it seem out of the ordinary for me to be into music?

College opened a huge door for me in terms of being able to get involved in a music community. I went to Indiana University in Bloomington, which is a mecca of music and creativity. I was excited to attend shows, find other people who loved music as much as I did, and get involved with blogging, promoting shows, and even managing bands. Despite my immersion in the scene, I still noticed that the bands were mostly four to five white guys, and the audiences were not much different. I couldn’t help but wonder why so few people of color were active in the scene. There had to be more people like me who liked all kinds of music, so why weren’t more of us at the shows or playing in the bands?

There's an article I love to reference when this topic comes up. It's from one my favorite online satires called The Hard Times, which is essentially The Onion drenched in punk rock culture. The headline reads "'This Is an All-Inclusive Space,' Says All-White, All-Male Audience," and it couldn't describe my experience any clearer. It's not that I've ever been explicitly told that I wasn't welcome in a music scene, but there have always been subtle reminders that I'm not... expected to be there. It’s like when I attended a John Hiatt concert and the couple beside me asked me why I was there (they didn’t ask anyone else in our row). Or when people have expressed shock that I know who The Doors or Loretta Lynn are. Or when I hear a band talk about the importance of equality to a crowd with less than five people of color there. Or being told that I like “white people music”… I’m pretty sure Chuck Berry would back me up that I’m allowed at the rock ‘n’ roll party.

Now I’m not saying there are never diverse crowds or bands in the scene. I recently had the pleasure of seeing Sweet Poison Victim at The Hi-Fi, John Stamps & Sirius Blvck at The Mousetrap, and Clint Breeze & the Groove at State Street Pub. Each show attracted a mixed crowd that made me proud not only of the diverse audiences, but also the support of local diverse musical acts. I wish that same spirit would roll over into the rock genres. The truth is, regardless of the genre, those bands attract a diverse audience because it’s reflected in their music and their musicians. These bands perform music that nods to all kinds of genres and influences. They are also all bands full of talented musicians and performers. And believe me, there are so many more acts like this in our community that deserve credit and a spotlight.

I want to wrap this up with a challenge to you as a reader, as a music fan, and as a musician. To really be able to have an inclusive and diverse scene, it’s up to us all to create it. We have to seek diversity and support it. I’m not asking for special preference or affirmative action for people of color in music. I’m asking you to open your minds and erase the assumptions that certain types of music are only for certain types of people. I’m asking you to make sure that people of color are included in the picture, and if they aren’t, ask why. We all need to expect to have things in common and not be surprised by it. And a special note to people of color: we have to show up, show the world what we’re made of, and that we belong. Above all, we all need to encourage diversity in our everyday lives.

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