Alternative music's complex history with uplifting Black art is creating a space where only the few can thrive
Yasmine Summan
18:59 16th February 2021

‘Emo Rap’ and ‘Trap Metal’ have become rock and heavy music's buzzwords...and it’s never been easier to rile up online trolls by saying your favourite rock artist is Juice Wrld. 

Gaining legitimacy and respect from music critics has been an uphill battle: some would rather relegate these intricate genre-blends to nothing short of “mumble rapping” or “screaming over a trap beat”, completely ignoring the chart-topping, global successes of artists like Lil Uzi, Juice Wrld, Lil Peep, Scarlxrd, and Ghostemane, all artists who have helped the commercialisation of rock and metal music...and created new genres themselves. 

Though slow-coming, the embrace of emo rap and trap metal is arriving – just not as we expect it. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and in the true nature of this scene, when we peel back the layers of criticisms and eyeball the mentality of gatekeepers, we’re left with an underbelly of racism that discredits Black artists for sounding “too urban”, but uplifting white artists who fit the alternative look: one that’s perpetuated in whiteness.

This harks back a long way. In an interview Ike Turner had with Holger Peterson on the success of his song 'Rocket 88' and the subsequent rise of Elvis Presley, he said: “so that's when Sam Phillips got the idea, 'Well, man, if I get me a white boy to sound like a black boy, then I got me a gold mine', which is the truth. So, that's when he got Elvis and he got Jerry Lee Lewis and a bunch of other guys and so they named it rock and roll rather than R&B.” 

Racism isn’t always the barbaric screaming and violence you see online: it’s the quiet but violent aggressions of crossing the street only when you see a Black man or only liking Black art when it’s commercialised by white artists. You could argue that this is a subconscious result of systematic racism that’s trickled into the nooks and crannies of our very existence and thought: the first step is becoming aware of it. Take for example, artists like Juice Wrld or Kamiyada+, who are first and foremost considered rap or trap: it’s less common to hear them on alternative radio stations, or seen in alternative magazines, music categories, or playlists. But both have cited inspirations of well-known rock and metal bands like Escape the Fate, Panic! At the Disco, Killswitch Engage, or Nirvana, Slipknot, and Tool. Their aesthetics and lyrics encompass the depressing notes of emo, while the raucous, distorted beats emulate grating metal guitars. So why aren’t they the messiahs of new-wave alternative music when they’ve clearly got the commercial success and notoriety to back it up?

Tyronne Hill, known by his stage name Kid Bookie, who’s released tracks with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Kamiyada+, and Tech N9ne, explained to us his experience being embraced by the rock world when he first dropped ‘Stuck In My Ways Ft Corey Taylor.’ “Slipknot is such a big name in just the world of music” he says “I think instantly perceptions created that I’m a mumble rapper. I've heard this so many times. What does that mean? Because then again, it creates the stigma in your mind. You just thought I was some ignorant Black kid, you know?”

He delves into the relationship between rap and alternative music, and how it’s more complicated than needs be: “I've lost count of the number of times I've seen ‘I hate rap music, but you are my favourite rapper in the world.' I don't want to be the subject of my skin colour all the time. There's also a bunch of people that have never heard me that get one perspective with a premeditated notion of hate. Music is symbiotic with anything: I could put flute and rap to it. As long as there's a metronome and the timing...because first and foremost it's just art man.”

Online critics and trolls will cry “that’s not real music: rap isn’t real music.” In fact, controversial commentator Ben Shapiro made this exact argument on his show The Ben Shapiro Sunday Special, Ep 68. What a pandoras box of problematic ideas to address! First and foremost, the idea that rap isn’t music. “It’s just an ignorant” says Jason from Behind the Speakers in his video for ‘Hip Hop Isn’t Real Music?’ “It’s just wrong. We all kinda do this, when I was a kid I was a big fan of rock music and there was a time in my music journey where I just wrote off hip-hop. It took me YEARS how much my own ignorance had cost me.”

Even more concerning is that rock & metal music and rap & hip-hop have gone hand in hand countless times in the past, but each time it’s the same thing: a white artist who fits the look, replicating Black talents, techniques, and music reaching commercial success – and it works. We sat down with Mixing Engineer & Producer Amil D’mor, who’s dipped his toes into both waters, having worked with Polo G and Blackbear but also lent himself to his post-hardcore band Indighxst, for his knowledge. “If you look at it from the perspective of rock fans, many of whom are white, perhaps they see other genres such as rap as more easily digestible when an artist in the genre/subculture they’re already familiar with incorporates a diluted version of another genre into their own music” he explains. “I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with that so long as it’s done with proper respect and homage to the genre being interpolated.”

This isn’t an unfamiliar trend in the music industry either. Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ struggled to reach the legitimacy of a country song, infamously being removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Chart despite the fact that the song’s lyrical content is the essence of old country. “I have an issue with as it pertains to music is urban” D’mor states. “It’s been historically used to categorise Black artists, Black music, and it derivatives away from their white counterparts, white media and white consumers. I never liked how record labels had departments for “urban” and for “pop” because all that really translates to is ‘Black music’ and ‘white music.”

To look back even further: rock 'n’ roll history books routinely uplift white rockstars and yet also fail to mention its origins: rhythm and blues. There would be no Elvis Presley without Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Ike Jack Hamilton articulated for Slate Magazine’s ‘How Rock And Roll Became White’: there is a tendency toward stories of individual rock ‘genius’ that foreclose discussions of race by celebrating individual artistry and intellect. While many black performers of the 1960s have been relegated to book-length histories of black music generally, white artists like Bob Dylan or the Beatles receive increasingly lavish biographies and isolated critical treatments of musical output.”   

Stepping back to look at the climate of racism in emo and metal, just in 2020 and 2021, there’s an evident problem.  

If we just glance over the immeasurable backlash alternative music publications received for their Blackout Tuesday posts, paired with all the artists and industry creatives who spoke up about this, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t an ingrained level of racism in our community that routinely uplifts and benefits white artists. 

This spans into an even wider discussion of how alternative aesthetics such as emo, goth and punk are favourable to white people. In particular, when we look at the aesthetics of subcultures like emo, many of the baseline factors to “being a true emo” rely on white, Eurocentric features. Jenessa Williams tackles this for Gal-dem in ‘My Chemical Relaxer: what it’s like to grow up black and emo’ when she writes that “the realisation that you don’t fit into a subculture designed to offer solace to those who don’t fit in elsewhere may seem ironic now, but at the time it was crushing.”

Tyronne rehashes his relationship with music and his race growing up, “oh man, heavy music was my first love, it’s crazy,” he gushes. “I was really shown that I’m a fucking anomaly when I started showing that I like Slipknot. I had like this identity crisis of like; do I have to join the gangs now? Because my friendship group has changed. I'm hanging around different people. I've been hanging around with the white kids that like make fun of my hair and shit and my teeth. And then I've got Black friends like “brother, you're listening to mad music and you’re a Devil worshipper.”

If alternative music has made one thing clear it’s this: we like Black music, we just don’t like Black faces or Black artists. We want your talents. But we don’t want you.

Photo: Press