Your intense African-ness is overbearing. Basically, your identity is overbearing.
I wonder if she’s said this to a white person – “You have this intensity to prove your sort of European-ness. And I think that sometimes it’s overbearing.”? Probably not. Cultural identity markers for black people are ‘overbearing’. Overbearing is a synonym for ‘intolerable’ in this case, but saying intolerable is passé.
The attitude exhibited by this woman is common, and many of the gatekeepers and power brokers of institutions share it.
I’ll give you one example. Most people probably don’t know who Jeff Levenson is. Mr. Levenson is a label exec (has worked with Sony, Warner Bros, Half Note and others). He is the head honcho of the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He also produces an event called The Thelonious Monk competition, which is a big deal in the jazz world. (Rather, they make it a big deal.)
Back in 1999, Orrin Evans placed 2nd in the piano portion of the competition. This is what Mr. Levenson had to say about why Evan’s success in the competition did not translate to more recording credits. I will directly quote him from the NY Times. ”Orrin Evans wore very African garb when he performed at the Monk competition,” Mr. Levenson recalled. ”He dressed very Afro-centrically in a way that one could only interpret as a political statement. I’m quite certain that was off-putting for some people.”
A black man wearing African clothes is off-putting. Just think about that for a minute. What kind of person is put-off by the sight of a black person wearing African clothes? Furthermore, why are these people held in such high esteem that they get to decide the trajectory of a person’s career? Instead of catering to them, why isn’t the answer to these people, “fuck off”?
Levenson then went on to elaborate on why white jazz musicians like Peter Cincotti and Jane Monheit were being heavily pushed. Direct quotes again below from the NY Times.
“I believe that for a large number of listeners, this kind of white jazz that Cincotti and Monheit represent is just less threatening. Not solely in terms of some perceived danger. Jazz seems intimidating to many people on many different levels, starting with the simple cerebral component of serious listening. Performers like Peter Cincotti offer a kind of warm, fuzzy, feel-good approach to jazz. It’s not terribly challenging. It’s just nice. It could also be that Cincotti and his music offer an alternative. He is the antithesis of a rapper, he’s freshly scrubbed, he’s cheery, he ain’t dark, and he ain’t a gangster.”
These are the people calling the shots. I see these scenarios play out all the time. Even in circles that one would assume are safe spaces i.e. African media companies where most of the editors, bosses, managers and shot callers are white. Even in the black arts, black people are still often subservient on matters and industries pertaining to them.
We seem to be always at the mercy of the white gaze, even when you’re wearing your own clothes. Ironically enough though, “hip” white folks are now wearing African prints. The amount of white people in Brooklyn rocking kente cloth and dashikis is reaching epidemic levels. The recent New York Fashion Week was something else. I think I saw more white people wearing African prints than actual African people on the street wearing them. African things are cool, unless you’re African or something. Waiting for Lady Gaga or somebody to do their next video wearing a gele. You know it’s coming.