So, why is indie music so white?

January 20, 2011

This is a response to Wendy Fonarow’s column for the Guardian Music Blog, “Ask The Indie Professor: Why Are There So Many White Indie Bands?” Briefly, in the article, Dr. Fonarow posits that indie bands reflect the makeup of their audience, which is predominantly white (which, while it’s true for the UK as a whole, is probably not true for many urban areas). She then goes on to argue that non-white people are not drawn to the aesthetics of indie music. You can read the full article here.

I’ve been a devoted indie music fan my entire life. I am the daughter of South Asian immigrants. And while I might not be an anthropologist, I am a professor of engineering and a researcher of the engineering student experience, particularly around gender and ethnicity. And much of what I’ve studied about engineering students, particularly woman and minorities, is also applicable to the issue of non-whites and indie music.

At its core, Fonarow’s argument is that there are few non-white people in indie music because they don’t want to be there. But any argument for underrepresentation of this form is suspect, because it fails to consider the effect of the environment on the individual. At a Belle and Sebastian show in Boston a few months ago, there were so few non-white faces in the large theatre that my companion and I played ‘spot the person of colour!’ At smaller venues, I’m quite often the only non-white person at the gig—and bear in mind that Boston is a fairly multicultural city, with a large student population. So while it’s possible that Belle and Sebastian and other indie bands have nothing to say to people who are not of Northern European descent, which is essentially what Fonarow is arguing, it’s far more likely that non-white music fans receive subtle but unmistakable messages of non-belonging. In my own field, women engineering students face a very different academic experience than their male counterparts in a host of ways, many of them subtle, but with a profound cumulative impact. There’s a large body of literature in psychology and educational research that addresses the effect of the cultural environment, and it’s just as applicable to clubs as classrooms.

Second, Fonarow argues that as “being part of a music community is sharing similar sentiments, it should be no surprise that people raised in the same culture would have a similar ethos…”. She also states that “this may not be appealing to immigrant or marginalised groups who have already experienced poverty and experience genuine outsiderness as a social class.” Whoa, seriously? It’s astonishing that Fonarow lumps together all non-whites, whether in the US, the UK, or elsewhere, in this way. To pick just a few examples, this suggests that a Somali refugee, the middle-class, university-bound children of educated immigrants (which is what I was—hardly an experience of poverty or ‘genuine outsiderness’), a fourth-generation Japanese-American, and the child of Latino migrant workers are all one category. Never mind the fact that the children of non-white immigrants, especially in wildly diverse cities like London or New York City, are being ‘raised in the same culture’ (note to Fonarow: it’s actually quite offensive to be told that your skin colour trumps your upbringing). And this cultural-essentialist approach does just as much of a disservice to white people; it fails to explain, as a friend of mine points out, why one of her children is into indie pop and another loves death metal, despite their identical cultural backgrounds.

As an indie music fan, I read and appreciated Fonarow’s book, Empire of Dirt, largely because of how deeply rooted it is in careful observational research. So why is indie music so white? I don’t know the whole answer, but rather than just cavalierly saying, “So indie bands are generally white in the US or UK, but so what?”, I would really have preferred Fonarow to use her ethnographic skills to talk with the people who care about these questions, not just blithely talking about them.

Image: Atari Teenage Riot @ the Sonar…, used here under its Creative Commons license.


  1. That picture… is from an Atari Teenage Riot show. 2 of the 3 band members are not white [unless you count half-Asian, then it’s only 1] 🙂

    • Ahahaha – perfect!

      I was just looking for CC-licensed pictures of audiences at indie rock shows (really hard to find – people don’t take photos of audiences, go figure)

      Ironically, in her article, Fonarow wrote:

      People often do not count ethnically diverse indie bands, unless the singer is non-white. I’m not going to list them because it forces you to think of artists according to their ethnic backgrounds, which is not how they choose to define themselves.

      which is really compounding the problem — since when is remarking on diversity on bands “defining” them? And ostentatiously refusing to notice non-white musicians really does help make them invisible, which is not the same thing as unremarkable.

  2. The fun thing about indie music as a category is that to me, whiteness seems almost implied. I’m having the hardest time remembering the specifics, but a few years ago there was some outrage among indie fans that a certain artist of color had been labeled “hip hop” JUST because he or she was black. So it seems like: white person doing crazy non-mainstream stuff = indie, people of color doing crazy non-mainstream stuff = “alternative hip-hop”.


  3. Very insightful. I enjoyed reading your response to Fonarow’s piece in the UK Guardian. I would like to add something to the great points you’ve made, drawing from my fieldwork on the Asian American musicians’ experiences of indie rock scene.

    In my research, many informants have been shocked by the fact that I am interested in them: their music and stories. For the most part, they have played and have been socialized in a colorblind environment within the scenes. They have been trained to think that they are no different from their peers, white, college-educated, from upper-middle families… But they constantly feel like a sore thumb, sticking out, in terms of their worldviews, the food they may enjoy eating, the kinds of things that their parents say to them. Because of the colorblind ecology of the scene, they find that there is simply no space for them to express these experiences and perspectives when they are on tour, in the practice room, in studio, or on stage.

    Sometimes my informants complain that only certain aspects of their heritage can be expressed in either musical or social context. This is a manifestation of multiculturalism, but with double-standards. For instance, the recent fad on wearing of a keffiyeh yielded a different set of effects on musicians of South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim heritage. They feel like a piece of their heritage is being consumed by white kids. But at the same time, they find ways to reclaim these pieces of culture in their own way.

    The crux of the problem is not that the scene is predominately comprised of white individuals. Beyond demographics, it goes deeper than that. Indie musicians have a way of living, talking, prescribing values to what they do, just like other social groups. The problem is that its norms and values are set by the majority — who have been historically (roots of rock and indie rock music) white. But because of that, racial and ethnic ideologies such as colorblindness and multiculturalism (described in second paragraph) prevail in the practices and discourses of indie rock music. Minority participants come into a scene already weighed down by its social and historical baggage. The problem is that not many people acknowledged this as baggage, and instead want to see it as a fact, norm, or a “natural” state of being.

    So I would reshape Fonarow’s question [So indie bands are generally white in the UK and US, but so what?] as the following:

    So indie bands are generally white in the UK and US, but why is that? And how does it affect the non-white individuals within the scenes?

    • > the majority — who have been historically (roots of rock and indie rock music) white

      Just to pick nits, and raise more questions… but aren’t the roots of rock music pretty multicultural? I mean, Presley was white, but Chuck Barry, Little Richard, and most of the other founding rock and roll artists were black. While “having some black people in” does not a multicultural music scene make, the idea that the history of rock is white — which I think most people have — seems like it just isn’t true. How does a genre become so whitewashed that we forget it ever wasn’t? Why are we (or indie as a scene) hanging on to the white-person baggage, and ignoring the rest of it?

  4. Hi you guys,

    I see you are bringing up some important issues I’d hoped I had addressed effectively. Additionally, you raise some different yet equally important points. The easiest is one can be clarified by specifying an alteration by the subeditors. I had written that people in bands “may or may not” wish to be defined by their ethnicity. I think that is a person’s choice if they want to be presented by their ethnic background and I don’t think it is fair or even appropriate to go around and decide how an individual should be classified by anyone other than him or herself. Perhaps an artist identifies more with being from Manchester, or a particular social class, or sexuality, or even happen to consider their musical preference to be their ethnicity. As I just re-read Debcha comment of offence. I took particular care to specify that I do not think people’s physical attributes trump upbringing. I think it is a human right to be capable to define yourself. Unfortunately, this human right is still not available to all. I have no idea how she read that into my piece. Perhaps because I’m willing to discuss the topic of ethnicity? I won’t go through the discussion regarding the fact that race does not exist as a scientific category, but racism still does. See 100 years of anthropological literature following on Boas, through Lewontin for data on human biological diversity.

    Wendy raises an important point regarding the willful colorblindness of the indie community. As a particularly liberal ideological community often active in the UK with promoting social equality (the US perhaps less so, although strong discourse around environmental preservation) the desire to render ethnicity as irrelevant is strong. This can be thought of as laudable, but at the same time it makes the experience of people from the wide range of cultural backgrounds mute. If people don’t want to talk about ethnic differences because they want human equality, then the people who experience prejudice and marginalization in society are prevented from talking about their very different issues within the community. This is why, the question of “how does it affect the non-white individuals within the scenes?” is so important. Obviously, the number of people who are shocked by Wendy’s interest in their experiences demonstrates that participants feel that this element of their identities is not one other people encourage discussion of.

    A second major issue would be while a person may chose to define themselves by their music choices, the broader society places constant pressure to have individual’s conform to the stereotyped artistic preferences of their various ethnic groups. I recommend Dev Hynes blog for so many insightful and personal tales of exactly this. It is here you find the constant subtle and not at all subtle messages of where you belong. I find Debcha’s basic premise of the dynamic of subtle discouragement very accurate for science and engineering. As a woman who did maths throughout the majority of her academic career, I can tell the exact moment when I was told that “some people are good at science and other people are good at writing.” It was clear this elementary school teacher was referring to the capabilities of girls and boys. I spent years watching my female counterparts in maths and science slowly opt out while I remained to show that it could be done by a woman until I arrived at UCSD in an undergraduate class in Applied Math with 400 students and only four women. I noted so many ways this gender inequity was accomplished and knew my own personal motivation was to defy this gender circumscription. However, the fact that this is the effective explanatory paradigm for mechanical sciences and other scholars have found the same in education and psychology does not make it the only explanatory paradigm disproportional participation. To say that if there is not more participation from other ethnic groups in any domain of society, it must be down to subtle discouragement is just hugely problematic. Often, indie fans are discussed as being evangelical in trying to convert others to listening to “our” music, but honestly many people just think it’s lame. Kandia Crazy Horse has spent years trying to figure out why the American black community has apparently left the roots rock she loves behind amongst her many other fascinating interrogations. This ends up being a question of needing to ask the people who are not there, why there are not. I suggest asking and seeing what you hear. It’s really edifying.

    The main point that I felt needed to be made more directly is that you can not treat the majority culture as if it is not a culture or ethnicity. I can’t tell you how many times students have claimed that they do not have a culture when they come from an Anglo-American background. It’s similar to thinking that gender is a female thing and not a human thing. The comment “So what” is meant to specifically acknowledge that there is no group that can be taken as acultural and that we should not be surprised that there is a form of art that expresses that group’s tacitly assumed values. However, if that statement is conceived of “is it a good thing,” a moral question than the answer would very different.

    Debcha suggests I’m lumping all diversity into a single category and quite frankly that is the opposite of my intention. There is a reason why I said that colonial oppression or a history of slavery are different. Those are just two of the groups that you find in large numbers in both UK and US. The experience of the children of Laos immigrant refugees in the US is not going to be the same as the child of South East Asian immigrants in Leeds or an African American in the US or indeed a first generation Jamaican being brought up in South London. All have issues regarding disparate power, prejudice, social class and additionally the challenge of being brought up between at least two worlds. The fact that indie’s melancholic discourse of pathos may not be appealing to these communities does not mean it cannot be. Personally, I see the lyrical content of not belonging and feeling like a misfit as potentially quite appealing for people are between multiple cultures. I’d be really interested in what Wendy is finding out in her research on various people’s connection to indie.

    On a final point for right now as I don’t think I’ve even come close to fully engaging all the relevant points. It think to say rock music is devoid of its West African roots is bizarre. The idea that the music itself is historically denuded of its West African heritage is much closer to SFJ’s argument. Popular music is the legitimate multi-multi-cultural heir of an illegitimate history of kidnapping, international exploitation and forced cultural assimilation; changing tastes will not change the hybridic cultural contributions that brought our modern music into being.

    From London,
    Wendy F

  5. Wendy F, first of all, thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I really appreciate your participation.

    I just want to respond to two specific points that you raise: the first is that I certainly don’t think that ‘subtle discouragement’ is the whole answer to why there are so few non-white people in indie music, any more than it answers why there are so few women in engineering. Hence the final paragraph of my post, and why I’m so excited to hear from Wendy Hsu, who is actively researching this field.

    The second is the idea of whether you belong to a culture or not. I’m quite sure that you have a more nuanced view of cultures, but what came across in the Guardian post was very much the idea that a culture is something you either belong to or you don’t. In contrast, I see culture as much more closely tied to identity, with a range of expressions. In my own case, a short list of elements of my identity would include: of South Asian descent, Canadian, a US resident, an engineer, a professor, a woman, an indie music fan, and a techno/electronica fan (sorry!). I participate in all of these cultures. The reason why I was nonplussed by your comment about “people raised in the same culture” was because, in conjunction with the rest of the article, it suggested that non-white people were not and could not be part of majority or indie music culture, rather than part of these cultures and also part of other cultures. And certainly, different cultures affirm or deny differing elements of one’s identities, like female engineering students learning quickly not to wear skirts to class or Wendy H’s point about how indie music’s nominal ‘colourblindness’ leaves no room to talk about other cultural backgrounds or experiences.

    This is an incredibly complex and fascinating issue. Wendy F, thanks for raising the issue in the Guardian and sparking this conversation, and thanks to everyone else for participating.

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