Race and Music

Tenor Saxophone

Image via Matt Clark via Flickr/Creative Commons

Being a southern, African-American saxophonist with a big, ‘nappy’ afro has placed me in a box that I am constantly trying to claw myself out of. I am unable to count the times that I have been stereotyped at competitions, gigs, and even my own school on the basis how I look and the instrument in my hand. Being natural in a Euro-centric society, I understand the message my hair sends to the musical world. When they see a black female with hair twice the size of her head, they think she’s this jazzy hot momma who sings like Etta James and scats like Ella Fitzgerald. They don’t know that she enjoys playing and listening to the melodramatic rhythms of Beethoven, crisp technical passages of Mozart, and romantic pieces of Debussy.

I do not disown my heritage. I know my roots—I know that jazz was conceived by the hymns sung in cotton fields, and I continue to sing those hymns at church, soaking in the rich bass and minor chords. Though these experiences are sweet, growing up in a musical world has also taught me the chime of unintentional racism—the song of stereotypes. In the third grade, my choir teacher wanted us to sing “Go Tell It On The Mountain” for our Black History Month program. Going to a predominantly white elementary school, my teachersand the majority of the students were white. As we began to sing, my teacher stopped me.

“I would like for you to sing it more ‘black,’ Patrice.”

 As a nine year old, I was confused about what singing ‘black’ meant.

Now I know exactly what she meant. What she meant to say was,

“Patrice, since you are one of the only black students in the class, sing with a little raspiness in your voice to make the outcome of the choir sound ‘gospel-like’ for Black History Month.”

I recently took a stroll in a local park and enjoyed the scenery until a woman stopped me.

“I need a jazz singer for my sister’s wedding. How much do you charge?”

I told her that I wasn’t a singer.

“You’re not? I just assumed you were this great jazzy singer.”

She said this as she gestured towards my hair.

The song of stereotypes can be sung for many. Kenny G, one of the greatest modern-day jazz saxophonists, is white. I remember when I bought his Christmas album, I was about to leave the store when a middle-aged, black woman said,

“He know he is soulful to be white.”

I was thoroughly disappointed.

 

Another fine example is Amy Winehouse, a woman who died as one of the greatest modern-day jazz vocalists. But even to this day, I hear friends who say that, “For her to be a white woman, she sure can sing.”

So, I guess according to society there is a “black” way of singing and “white” way of singing.

 

But are these distinctions necessary? It’s insulting to the musician—hurts them—but I believe that if we stopped assuming, we would stop hurting. I can only write about my own experiences, but I do realize that racism is a curse in every culture, religion, ethnicity, country, and way of life. Racism doesn’t discriminate when it comes to age, either. I have been placed in many boxes despite my age.

Patrice Talley About Patrice Talley

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