Wide Angle

Heard but Not Seen

Black music in white spaces.

Black man sitting in a cafe surrounded by white people, seen upside down, as music plays through the space.
Jamiel Law

Away from home, I walk into unfamiliar spaces with my shoulders hunched and tight. Instinctively, I scan my surroundings, stretching every sense around the corners of the room until it feels safe. What the eye see? What the ears hear? What the nose smell?

It’s Sunday afternoon and Toups South, a restaurant serving “regional southern cuisine” in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, is mostly empty. A handful of patrons sit at the bar and at a smattering of tables. Everyone’s white: the patrons, the hostess, the bartenders. In the open kitchen I see the only other Black person there, a brother working over the stove. But I’m hot and hungry and the restaurant smells like what I’ve selfishly been looking for; I’m down South and I want to eat Southern food.

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My shoulders relax as I skim the menu; then I hear Q-Tip’s familiar voice over the speakers, rapping “but you stuck here nigga.” And just like that my shoulders rise right back up again, bound by a familiar string of tension. I order a drink and try to relax again, try those familiar incantations that get you to release that energy, but it’s too late—I’m taken out.

The song is “The Space Program,” from A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 album, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, which spans Trump, gentrification, immigration, and the loss of Phife Dawg. As I drink my fancy Old-Fashioned and order a fried chicken sandwich, Tribe drips right into more songs I know by Outkast, Jay-Z, and Frank Ocean. A track from Beyonce’s Lemonade is followed by Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” songs born out of mainstream Black artists’ return to conscious conversations about the Black American experience. But here it still feels unconscious, disconnected, and I too feel disconnected, a part of me seeing everyone in here experiencing the music: patrons occasionally singing along with little snatches of lyrics, the bartenders’ heads bopping as they mix drinks, the chefs in the center island chopping to the beat. And here I am, Black and alone in the restaurant, watching it all with a mix of horror and fascination.

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This morning on my Lyft ride into the city, as we rolled past the Superdome and the sites of projects demolished after the storm, Pat, my driver, schooled me on the artists who made the city’s hip-hop scene: the names he knew that I’d know—Lil Wayne, Mystikal, 504 Boyz, Cash Money Millionaires—and then the names no one knew enough of now, now that so much has been wiped away, artists like Soulja Slim and C-Murder. We talked about how much of the music scene here was self-made in cars and homes, on blocks and corners. The low-budget album covers and big beats and boasts all felt living-room-made, as if they’d been recorded and immediately brought to listeners now, with no intervening processing and focus-grouping for wider audiences.

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“But the culture’s gone now,” Pat said, and I get it as I sit at the restaurant bar, like I really get it; there’s so much about Black people that’s literally and figuratively gone in this city. On the restaurant’s and its chef’s Instagram profiles, the words they use to describe this buttermilk chicken sandwich and the other food on the menu—reimagined, innovative, based in tradition—now strike a funny chord in a city of self-made Black artists whose communities don’t have much of a chance to reimagine or innovate in this newer New Orleans. It’s notable that this playlist doesn’t feature those New Orleans artists Pat discussed with me, or even—if you want to talk about recycling and innovation—Mos Def’s “Katrina Clap,” which samples Juvenile’s “Nolia Clap,” or the Legendary K.O.’s “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” leaning on Kanye’s “Gold Digger.” Instead it’s a playlist filled with people like Biggie and Jay-Z, with a sprinkle of Wu. I think a track or two from the Internet make an appearance. All of it feels familiar and fine; I mean, they’re artists on about 1,000 playlists that I’ve made myself. But it’s jarring to hear them here in the middle of this restaurant. It’s not just their presence as Black artists; they’re not even local ones, or ones with deep connections to NOLA. I get the “cool” the restaurant’s going for; it’s the type that infiltrates sneaker shops and some trendy fashion stores. Yet in those spaces, the aesthetics and the culture are in concert with one another. Here it feels like costume—or maybe, I guess, an apron. The foregrounding of this playlist and its absence of NOLA artists feels messy—best to wipe your hands of it all.

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I don’t have to travel to New Orleans to experience hip-hop as a soundtrack to gentrification and displacement. On a corner in my Philadelphia neighborhood, Graduate Hospital, a once-Black-owned all-hours neighborhood bar was bought out and eventually replaced by a white-owned taqueria. On any given night you can hear Black music playing in the restaurant, almost as if they were phantoms of the old owners and clientele. You’ve undoubtedly heard Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” while shopping at a fancy boutique in the heart of a city, Blood Orange’s “Charcoal Baby” in a chic coffee shop adorned with hip baristas in knit caps. Now that hip-hop is no longer seen as a threat, the way it was when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s become the default ambiance in the kinds of high-end spaces that include few Black people.

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When I enter one of these spaces I understand, in my bones, the weight of that displacement. I start looking around Philadelphia and seeing a city that’s gradually cordoning off the Black community with bars with coded dress requirements and expensive homes that few can afford. Not long after some new homes were built near Broad and South streets, new neighbors started complaining about the live reggae music that’s long been featured in the backyard of the Jamaican Jerk Hut, a city staple. Not long after, summer beer gardens started popping up around the city, with one of the first built flush against the Jerk Hut. On summer nights you can now hear hip-hop with your craft beer, as suddenly loud music’s no longer an inconvenience and Center City continues to hollow itself out.

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At a Flywheel gym in Center City, the Saturday class theme is “Lizzo,” and so for 45 minutes we drive our bodies into grime to a playlist of Lizzo songs. It’s me and a coterie of largely young white women, clad in workout Lycra, hair tightly wound, lips pressed or teeth gnashed, hunched over a squadron of bikes. All around me the cyclists are rapturously singing along to this Black woman who has become the latest familiar avatar for white women, with her unbridled confidence, her beauty, and her liberated sound. Near the front of the semicircle arena, where we stationary stormtroopers attempt to bike in unison, one woman is so passionately engaged she looks more like she’s at church than at the gym. And as I pedal, I am watching her and her athleisure-wearing counterparts whip their bodies to songs by this large Black woman.

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It took me out. How inviting are these spaces for Black women? How often do these companies’ Instagram feeds highlight Black women’s stories—of beauty, of power, of confidence, of independence, of camaraderie? And how has the music of Black women become a kind of sonic drill sergeant for a mostly white group of cyclists who turn these Black women into their avatars, costuming themselves in their personas and music in a way that cheapens and flattens them? Flywheel itself is more like a macabre megachurch; as the miked instructor bellows to the flock, you’re asked to give your body up to something bigger, and the music is meant to fuel this transformation each week. These hip-hop songs become hymnals to the body temple, tools to assist with punishing and improving the body, making it better, able to endure more and more.

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A white friend said that Black culture is American culture, and that the two are, as a result, linked. True. And yet that’s what makes it all the more painful to find myself in mostly white spaces with their Black soundtracks, doing something intimate like eating with a friend, doing something public like shopping or working out—always in a place that’s using that music not only to create a vibe but a communal experience for their customers. The music’s been recycled for consumption, with little care for the context of this consumption. Embracing Black music is not the same as embracing Black people, after all, no matter how often our music is created with a specific gaze toward our experience. How many times, while our music plays, have one of us been dismissed, followed, or harassed in these spaces? What was playing when those two brothers were being kicked out of a Philadelphia Starbucks? On the loudspeakers and PA systems in stadiums, as hip-hop music blasts to keep the crowd hyped, and celebrate big plays, Black men and women tie on aprons and stand behind concession stands, walk the rows and aisles, sweep the floors—even as a nation denounces players’ rights to kneel in protest. It’s as if the music gets to stand in for us. Increasingly we’re in the background as our music is pushed to the fore.

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My nana, Alice, and her best friend Ms. Sarah were two Black women among many who worked the assembly line at a General Motors factory back in Trenton, New Jersey. They wore their bodies down making cars that it would take them years to afford themselves, and I imagine them singing Tina, Aretha, the Supremes to get through hourslong shifts. How those anthems of Black homes, Black marriage, Black communities, Black love, Black sex, Black strength fell in lockstep with their lives! Now that’s all been replaced; the factories and homes and communities have gone away, often literally replaced by boutiques and upscale restaurants and Flywheels. Yet the music remains. As Tina, Aretha, and the Supremes have been replaced by Rihanna, Cardi, and Beyonce, so have the bodies. I once spent a summer as a high schooler working alongside Nana; now I’m an adult in the city, a Black man pedaling in the dark, alone with these rows of white bodies and Lizzo’s joyous, lonely voice.

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